Friday, May 19


As always, there's the caveat that scientists have to present their study findings with the "sexiest" possible angle, so it's not surprising to have constant "breakthroughs" in our understanding of animal intelligence. But still.

"Apes and birds may use mental abilities previously attributed only to humans when they gather and store food," reports Bloomberg news, citing two studies from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Cambridge, respectively. "Researchers found that orangutans and bonobos were able to choose the correct tool to retrieve grapes or juice and hang on to it for as long as 14 hours. A separate study by British scientists found that Western scrub-jays seemed to recall which birds were watching them when storing food, and sometimes chose a new spot if they saw a familiar face."

So what does all this imply? Well, Josep Call, an author on the ape study, helpfully points out that "the ability to plan for the future was supposed to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom," and the reporter re-quotes him on it immediately in paraphrase: "Scientists had believed the ability to plan ahead was a major difference distinguishing humans from apes, which shared a common ancestor millions of years ago, said Call."

There's a potentially more interesting quote from one of the scientists behind the bird study: "Whilst the ability of non-human animals to reason about another's mind continues to elude definitive study, our study provides evidence to suggest that a non-human animal might discriminate between individuals with different knowledge states." In English, this seems to be saying that the birds have some rudimentary awareness of the consciousness of other birds, that other animals may have their own, different, motivations, hopes, and views of the world. What's remarkable, and ironic, is that this very awareness of other animals as conscious subjects still seems to be largely missing in most humans.

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