281 – Fun and games with animals (without forgetting plants)

Posted on March 2, 2014 by

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Technology is precipitating a change in mentality towards animals. Being able to record animals’ antics undisturbed, we begin to understand how smart they are, and how they have fun – just like us. Gone are the days of Descartes, who opined that animals were instinct-driven automatons.

Here we have a crow snowboarding in Russia:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=n7hiuXjXJEw

Here is a crow passing a test I think would have stumped me:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=AVaITA7eBZE

If you think crows are special, our “headless,” dumb chickens are proving to be exceedingly smart, and cunning; they trick and treat each other, and show definite signs of what we call intelligence.[1] In order to grasp how intelligent they are, researchers had to invent video games the birds would deign to play, and find ways to record their every move and sound. The conclusion: “Chickens think before they act.” Chickens can distinguish numbers, and use geometry. They even seem to feel empathy, something one notes in higher mammals only – so far.

My favorite trick. Chickens call out when danger approaches. “The birds monitored the danger to themselves and their rivals and were more likely to call if they could both minimize their own risk and increase the rival’s. A male calls more often if he is safe under a bush and his rival is out in the open, at risk of being picked off by a swooping predator” being directed by the call.

I’m not raising animal rights issues at this point – except to note pragmatically that herding chickens by the thousand may be less smart that we think. There may be better ways to raise chickens than breeding them into hopeless monsters that become subject to heart disease, osteoporosis, and broken bones if we let them live past six weeks, and may need antibiotics to survive even to that age.

A mentality is changing, however, and changing fast. Technology is (finally) revealing how close we are to animals (and plants by the way, which have a signaling continuum of over 4’000 chemicals[2]). Maintaining mankind’s “uniqueness” may be a thing of the past, simply because the affinities are overwhelming. Which may good for mankind’s goal of self-domestication.


[1]           Carolynn L. SMITH – Sarah L. ZIELINSKI (2014): Brainy birds. Chickens are smart, and they understand the world. Scientific American, 310, 2.

[2]           See e.g. Michael POLLAN (2014) : The intelligent plant. Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora. The New Yorker, December 23,

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