By now, most readers will have read about the jaw-dropping problem-solving feats of a New Caledonian crow named 007. In the course of just three minutes, 007 managed to solve a complex eight-stage puzzle in order to get some food, in an experiment devised by Dr. Alex Taylor (home page here), a lecturer in evolutionary psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Here’s what 007 had to do, as described by journalist Sarah Griffiths in an article in Daily Mail online (11 February 2014) which also includes a video of 007’s performance:
First the crow pulls a string attached to the branch it is perched on towards itself to reach a short stick dangling below. The crow picks up the short stick in its mouth and stage one is complete.
007 then immediately makes its way to a narrow container containing a meaty treat and tries to use the stick to reach it – but it is too short.
The bird keeps hold of the stick and makes its way to the first of three boxes, which each contain a stone unreachable without the stick behind wooden bars.
007 then uses its stick to drag a stone from the first box and picks it up in its beak to complete stage two. But then it drops the stone, seemingly temporarily stumped as what to do with it.
However, the persistent creature picks up the stick again and retrieves a stone from the second of the boxes and then seemingly has a brainwave to place it in a separate perspex container.
007 picks up the stone it has already retrieved and posts it into the clear container too, before retrieving the final stone from the final box.
When it posts the last of the stones into the perspex box, their weight pushes down a compartment, which allows the crow to access a long stick and complete stage eight.
Armed with the long stick, the crow immediately uses it to poke inside a narrow box treat containing a treat and drag the morsel towards itself.
The clever bird is rewarded for its hard work and mental agility in completing the series of eight challenges.
Griffiths helpfully explains the background to the experiment:
Amazingly the problem-solving creature performed the series of tasks without seeing the fiendishly difficult set up of the course beforehand.
The wild crow learned to use individual props during its three months of captivity but had to work out the order in which to use them to complete the challenge and get an inaccessible treat. The animal was later released.
So should we conclude from this experiment that crows are rational, after all, and that the traditional definition of man as a rational animal is simply wrong? Not so fast.
As I see it, there are two critical questions about Dr. Taylor’s experiment that need to be answered.
First, did the crow know in advance that putting three stones in the perspex box would release the longer stick which it could see inside the box? If it didn’t, then that’s quite an intuitive leap that the crow made. I don’t know whether I’d necessarily call it reasoning as such – maybe it was just experimenting on a hunch – but it’s still pretty impressive.
Second (by the way, I owe this question to Denyse O’Leary), did the crow know in advance that putting any stones in the box would release the stick? If the crow knew this, then he would not need to be able to count; all he would need to do is keep adding stones until he obtained the desired effect.
I attempted to contact Dr. Alex Taylor online one week ago, in a message in which I posed the above two queries to him, after explaining that my Ph.D. in philosophy was on the subject of animal minds. However, I received no reply. Thinking that Dr. Taylor may have mislaid or forgotten about my email, I sent him another short message, containing just the two queries. I have still not received any reply. I have to say I find that a little odd. Perhaps Dr. Taylor is extraordinarily busy, planning and/or revising his course curricula for the coming academic year. (Orientation Week has just started at the University of Auckland.) At any rate, while we are lacking these vital details about the experiment, any conclusions about 007’s ability to reason strike me as a rush to judgement.
I have done some more research, and here’s what else I’ve come up with: apparently some crows are a lot smarter than others, and the New Caledonian crow is in a class of its own. It spends a relatively long time [two years] parenting its offspring (see here), and its 8 cubic centimeter brain is also much larger, in relative terms, than that of other crows – especially in the associative areas (see here), supporting the hypothesis that “the evolution of innovative or complex behavior requires a brain composition that increases the ability to associate and memorize diverse stimuli in order to execute complex motor output.” Although the nuclear structure of the associative areas of crows’ brains is quite different from the laminar structure found in the brains of mammals, it seems that it’s the overall volume of these areas of the brain that counts (as well as the number of neural connections). I should add that a homologue of the mammalian neocortex has been located in birds’ brains.
I have also found that there are certain puzzles that New Caledonian crows and Eurasian jays (which are also very clever birds) appear to be incapable of solving, as MUSE editor Elizabeth Preston reveals in an online article titled, It Takes an 8-Year-Old to Outsmart a Crow (July 26, 2012), but it turns out that they’re the sorts of puzzles that most human children up to the age of eight can’t solve either:
The final task was one that the jays in an earlier study had never mastered. Subjects saw three clear tubes. The prize was in the center tube, but only the outer two tubes were wide enough to drop stones into. Invisible to the kids or birds, one of those outer tubes was connected in a U shape to the center one. So dropping stones into this tube would make the water in the middle rise too. It’s simple enough to get the prize out, as long as you don’t get hung up thinking that what you’re seeing is impossible.
The youngest children were, like the birds, at a loss. But 7-year-olds could learn to solve the puzzle, and kids 8 or older mastered it quickly. When the researchers asked them afterward how the puzzle worked, some of the kids had it all figured out: “The purple one has a connecting pipe,” said one 8-year-old. Others had learned the trick without guessing the mechanism: “One tube makes it go higher, the other doesn’t, dunno why,” offered a 7-year-old.
The researchers who gave Eurasian jays this task — and watched them fail — guessed that the birds couldn’t get past the counterintuitive relationship they were seeing.
What these puzzles required was the cognitive ability to perceive a cause-and effect relationship between two events, even when there was no physical connection between the two which is apparent to the senses. This may be the mental Rubicon that crows and other birds are incapable of crossing. Perhaps crows have an enormous reservoir of accumulated know-how about how they can manipulate objects with their beaks, and they draw on this when solving problems. However, relying on experience in order to solve problems is not the same as reasoning. Reasoning is more than mere association; it requires the ability to grasp why something happens, when it happens.
Finally, I have also found an online TED talk by a research student who claimed to have designed a vending machine for crows that would exchange coins they had collected and sorted, for peanuts. The New York Times also ran a short notice about the speaker’s research. Funnily enough, the very experts who assisted the TED speaker in his study were highly critical of the conclusions he reached. Their devastating takedown is available online, as is the speaker’s response (but see here for a counter-response) and the correction that was published in the New York Times.
Take-home message: claims about the cognitive feats of crows and other animals should always be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism until they are independently replicated.
Anyway, what do readers think of 007? Is he a rational agent or not?