“We don’t know whether the crows have cumulative technological culture, and one of the reasons is that we don’t know how they learn,” said Logan. “There’s a hypothesis that says in order for cumulative technological culture to occur you need to copy the actions of another individual. And we don’t know whether the crows are paying attention to the actions of others when they learn from someone else.”
Logan and colleagues found that the crows don’t imitate or copy actions at all. “So there goes that theory,” she said. “Assuming how they learn in a non-tool context carries over to a tool context, they wouldn’t copy the actions of individuals they see cutting up Pandanus leaves to make tools.”
But Logan and her team did strong evidence of social learning: If one crow sees a companion interacting with a particular area of the apparatus, reaching its bill through a door and pulling out a piece of boiled egg — the treat — the former is far more likely to try that particular door on either apparatus before choosing the other access options.
“It’s called stimulus enhancement,” she explained. “That’s the social learning mechanism they’re using. But there’s another interesting aspect: Once they see another bird interact with the door, they go to that door and then begin to solve the problem on their own. And now they completely ignore social information and they just use trial and error learning to open the door and extract the food.”
Even if one crow is at an apparatus and tries unsuccessfully to open the door, if he or she sees another crow on the second apparatus actually solving the problem correctly, the first crow doesn’t use that information. “The social learning attracts them to a particular object and then they solve it through trial and error learning after that,” Logan said. More.
After this, the thesis devolves into perhapses.
It may take a long time before we understand smart crows.
Curiously, the article is titled, “New Caledonian crows show strong evidence of social learning.” Which is apparently what they don’t do, assuming that “social learning” means learning specific information (including actions to copy) from other crows. The study does show the ability to identify a promising opportunity by observing other crows. That is probably because the birds don’t (really and truly) have a language by which they can convey abstract information.
Meanwhile, what becomes of the poor old chimp who has allegedly “entered the Stone Age”? Are the feathered geniuses studied above entering the Stick Age as well?
Note: The actual good news for the chimp is that numbers are likely much higher in Uganda than formerly supposed. Now, if Uganda prospers as we must hope, the chimps will probably enter the Dumpster Age. Meaning that the next big fundraiser crisis will be the problems of dangerously obese chimps/desperate need for birth control pills for she-chimps. That’s when you know things are working out about as well as they can in the real world.
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Note: The crow can do this, but it doesn’t seem that other crows will necessarily copy him when they see it: