Intelligent Design

The amazing feats of 007: something to crow about?

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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?

(Note: The illustration above is taken from The Aesop for Children, Rand McNally & Co., Chicago, 1919, illustrated by Milo Winter, page 34.)

6 Replies to “The amazing feats of 007: something to crow about?

  1. 1
    bw says:

    At a zoo once a group of us were being show how similar monkeys were humans. The monkey had a clear box with a treat in it. To extract the treat it had to pull out 3 sprung wooden slats. Top first, then the middle one and finally the bottom one. The clever monkey proceeded to yank the slats out in a chaotic fashion for a good while until after much ado it was finally rewarded.. I was disappointed. It clearly understood that pulling the slats out meant food was on the way but hadn’t grasped the notions of order, gravity or timing.
    While I am sure other species are capable of very sophisticated actions, the crow never ceases to impress.
    I feed birds regularly and the crows behave so differently to the pigeons and seaguls.
    They like to dunk hard bread crusts in little puddles to make it easier to swallow!

  2. 2
    bw says:

    Bonus video (winter Olympics having finished now):
    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2k1aoLAMRMc

  3. 3
    vjtorley says:

    Hi bw,

    Just had a look at your video of the crow using a plastic lid to slide down a roof, again and again. Fantastic! That crow definitely knows how to have fun. Thanks a lot.

  4. 4
    bornagain77 says:

    Well not so much to do with crows, but in regards to turning my preconceived notions upside-down in terms of human mental ability, I would have to say the following did that:

    Is Integer Arithmetic Fundamental to Mental Processing?: The mind’s secret arithmetic
    Excerpt: Because normal children struggle to learn multiplication and division, it is surprising that some savants perform integer arithmetic calculations mentally at “lightning” speeds (Treffert 1989, Myers 1903, Hill 1978, Smith 1983, Sacks 1985, Hermelin and O’Connor 1990, Welling 1994, Sullivan 1992). They do so unconsciously, without any apparent training, typically without being able to report on their methods, and often at an age when the normal child is struggling with elementary arithmetic concepts (O’Connor 1989). Examples include multiplying, factoring, dividing and identifying primes of six (and more) digits in a matter of seconds as well as specifying the number of objects (more than one hundred) at a glance. For example, one savant (Hill 1978) could give the cube root of a six figure number in 5 seconds and he could double 8,388,628 twenty four times to obtain 140,737,488,355,328 in several seconds. Joseph (Sullivan 1992), the inspiration for the film “Rain Man” about an autistic savant, could spontaneously answer “what number times what number gives 1234567890” by stating “9 times 137,174,210”. Sacks (1985) observed autistic twins who could exchange prime numbers in excess of eight figures, possibly even 20 figures, and who could “see” the number of many objects at a glance. When a box of 111 matches fell to the floor the twins cried out 111 and 37, 37, 37.
    http://www.centreforthemind.co.....hmetic.cfm

    Of somewhat related note, this following video is very touching. Though the girl in the video was written off as hopelessly retarded by everyone except her loving father, the video reveals that there is/was indeed a gentle intelligence, an “I”, within the girl that is/was trapped within her body. And that that gentle “I” is/was unable to express itself properly to others because of the disorder of her body.

    Severely Handicapped Girl Suddenly Expresses Intelligence At Age 11 – very moving video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZVV4Ciccg

    Verse and Music:
    1 Samuel 16:7
    ,,,For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

    Evanescence – My Heart Is Broken – music video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1QGnq9jUU0

    And to show how tricky things can be when dealing with the mind brain connection, this following man very unexpectedly received a savant ability after being mugged;

    Attack results in Savant Syndrome, Jason Padgett, Beautiful Mind, Fractals
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCvYKiNW4vQ

    As well Kim Peek’s (The ‘real’ Rain Man) ‘mega-savant’ ability was said to be enabled because the corpus callosum connecting the two brain hemispheres was missing
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Peek#Early_life

    Kim Peek – The Real Rain Man – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wjgMtNF3Ms

    In regards to birds, I do remember the Rupert Sheldrake did some type of test on them in which they, along with cats and dogs, demonstrated a ‘spooky’ prescience of their owners actions (reptile pets had no ability of this sort). I believe you can pick the study up here in this video or at Sheldrake’s website

    The Mind Is Not The Brain – Scientific Evidence – Rupert Sheldrake – (Referenced Notes) – video
    https://vimeo.com/33479544

  5. 5
    Robert Byers says:

    I welcome and love bird brains doing these things. Its very simple animal activity as must be the case in nature.
    its not reasoning but rathering employing memorized details into getting a desire.
    these birds are all about memory. They can talk because of memorizing sounds in sequence. not just parrots. its no big deal.
    The big error in intelligence researche is not realizing memory is most of what everyone employs for thinking. oNly humans do more actual thinking.
    Let even walking or driving is still 95% memory.

  6. 6
    bornagain77 says:

    semi OT: In the eye of a chicken, a new state of matter comes into view – February 24, 2014
    The unusual arrangement of cells in a chicken’s eye constitutes the first known biological occurrence of a potentially new state of matter known as “disordered hyperuniformity,,,
    Research in the past decade has shown that disordered hyperuniform materials have unique properties when it comes to transmitting and controlling light waves,,,
    States of disordered hyperuniformity behave like crystal and liquid states of matter, exhibiting order over large distances and disorder over small distances. Like crystals, these states greatly suppress variations in the density of particles — as in the individual granules of a substance — across large spatial distances so that the arrangement is highly uniform.,,,
    In many creatures’ eyes, visual cells are evenly distributed in an obvious pattern such as the familiar hexagonal compact eyes of insects. In many creatures, the different types of cones are laid out so that they are not near cones of the same type. At first glance, however, the chicken eye appears to have a scattershot of cones distributed in no particular order,,,
    Each type of cone’s pattern overlays the pattern of another cone so that the formations are intertwined in an organized but disordered way — a kind of uniform disarray.,,,
    “You also can think of each one of these five different visual cones as hyperuniform,” Torquato said. “If I gave you the avian system with these cones and removed the red, it’s still hyperuniform. Now, let’s remove the blue — what remains is still hyperuniform. That’s never been seen in any system, physical or biological. If you had asked me to recreate this arrangement before I saw this data I might have initially said that it would be very difficult to do.”,,,
    The ordered pattern of cells in most other animals’ eyes are thought to be the “optimal” arrangement, and anything less would result in impaired vision. Yet, birds with the arrangement studied here — including chickens — have impeccable vision, Corbo said.
    “These findings are significant because they suggest that the arrangement of photoreceptors in the bird, although not perfectly regular, are, in fact, as regular as they can be given the packing constraints in the epithelium,”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....124212.htm

    In the paper the Darwinists, of course, claimed that evolution found this ‘optimal’ solution for avian eyes, yet the fact of the matter is that natural selection ‘does not lead to optimization of any useful kind’,,,,

    “However, mathematical population geneticists mainly deny that natural selection leads to optimization of any useful kind. This fifty-year old schism is intellectually damaging in itself, and has prevented improvements in our concept of what fitness is.”
    – On a 2011 Job Description for a Mathematician, at Oxford, to ‘fix’ the persistent mathematical problems with neo-Darwinism within two years.
    Oxford University Admits Darwinism’s Shaky Math Foundation – May 2011
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....46351.html

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