Organism of the week #19 – Bird-brained humans

Most people who want to attract birds to their gardens put out bird-seed, or – if they’re really adventurous – mealworms. However, on the East London dockside where I lived until recently, one of the residents strewed the quayside with livers in December last year. Was this was a deliberate ploy to attract carrion crows for bird-on-variety-meat action? I don’t know, but whether or not this was the intention, it was certainly the result.

Corvus corone [CC-BY-SA-3.0 Steve Cook]

Corvus corone, the carrion crow, pecking at a liver

Crows have a reputation as being very intelligent. I wouldn’t argue against this, but it’s interesting that intelligence is something humans tend to see in any animal that behaves somewhat similarly to them. As humans are highly social apes, most of the important things in their environment are other humans; and much of their brain-work is therefore directed at predicting (and outwitting) other humans.

Above all else, humans consider their mental talents the sine qua non of human-ness: any old sparrow can walk on two legs, and even a bloody rat can carry off the last-chicken-in-the-shop look, but solving crossword puzzles and finding new ways of fucking over your conspecifics – now that’s what being human really means.

So perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that the animals humans see as intelligent – dolphins, chimps, dogs, crows, ‘even’ bees – are those that live in complex social groups, where knowing how to interpret and predict the bahaviour of others is an important survival skill. Their communication, prediction, and manipulation remind humans of their own dubious talents. Humans delight in the familiarity they see in the activities of other intelligent animals, whilst smugly assuming that their human world is an tapestry by which the scanty threads of bird-brains pall.

But it’s all survival, adaptation, drift. Species eke out a living in the niche in which their find themselves. The human niche is different from that of a liver-pecking crow, and the talents they require are different. But it takes a human to reinterpret ‘different’ as ‘better’. The real sine qua non of human-ness is self-aggrandisement, and compared to soaring on wings of midnight, that’s not a terribly edifying talent.

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