Cognitive Ability in Birds & Others

Fascinating article, combining several Common Room interests:

Animals using tools:

In experiments by Alex Weir and his colleagues at Oxford University, a captive New Caledonian crow named Betty was frustrated when she couldn’t use a bit of straight wire — which she’d never seen before the start of the experiment — to snag food from a tiny bucket. Pausing for an instant after an unsuccessful try, she took the wire, bent it around the edge of the food tub, and then snagged the bucket handle with the hook she had fashioned herself.

(If you want the proof, a Quicktime movie of Betty in action is on the Web at:

Chimpanzees poke sticks into termite mounds for dinner, but none has ever been known to make even a simple tool — like straightening a bent piece of pipe in order to reach an apple through a hole — without being carefully coached by humans, Weir said. The lowly crow shows far more advanced “cognitive behavior” than chimps, the closest genetic relatives of humans, according to Weir and Jarvis’ colleagues.

Brain research:

Thus, it was assumed that only the brains of the “highest” animals like chimps and humans had the cognitive ability to think and learn. That ability was assumed to lie in specific layers of brain cells inside the cerebral cortex. Birds — having no similar cortex — were believed to act only through instinct, which is governed by cells in the brain’s basal ganglia.

Now, however, modern brain researchers have discovered that bird brains have large clusters of nerve cells occupying space in the brain called the pallium, and that these cell clusters are equally responsible for reasoning, learning and concentrating.


“We have to get rid of the idea that mammals — and humans in particular — are the pinnacle of evolution. We also have to understand that evolution is not linear, but an intricate branching process,” Jarvis says. “We can’t automatically expect to track a structure in the human brain back to other current vertebrate species.”


In their studies of the brain anatomy of birds and mammals, Jarvis and his colleagues have found many similarities that have long been unrecognized. In the cortex of the human brain, for example, there are six different layers of cells that control functions like speech, learning and concentration. And while songbirds have no such distinct layers, their brains do hold separate clusters of cells that perform “complex cognitive behavior.”

Pigeon brains, for example, are endowed with such cell clusters, and the birds are great learners, as a team of Japanese experimenters has found.

The Japanese psychologists found that they could teach pigeons to discriminate between the abstract paintings of Picasso and the impressionistic works of Monet. In several tests the pigeons learned to recognize the difference between the jazzy jumble of Picasso’s famed “Three Musicians” and Monet’s far more realistic painting “Lady With a Parasol.” They could even tell when an image of the Monet painting was shown to them upside-down — but it was all the same to them when they looked at an upside-down copy of Picasso’s work, the researchers noted.

Bonnet tip to Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost, who points out that

What is most striking about this discovery is that scientists had previously been basing their ideas of the inferiority of bird brains not on objective evidence (could a monkey do this?) but on data that had confirmed their assumptions. Philosophers of science, though, wouldn’t be all that surprised since this is a micro-level example of a macro-level feature of theories – the limited explanatory value of empirical data.

The DeputyHeadmistress has never subscribed to the view that tool making is what distinguishes humans from animals. One had ones doubts even in grade school when first introduced to this concept. Even then it seemed to one that tool-making as the defining act of being human was somewhat soulless. In fact, one presumes this was the point.

As mentioned here before, one of the Common Room children is severely disabled. She has brain damage probably due to oxygen deprivation at birth. She does not speak, though she does babble. She has a few signs to communicate her basic wants and needs- toilet, eat, drink, bath, more, Mama, Papa, drive/car, color, songbook/Bible/sing, church, banana, apple, please…

She does not speak, but she does hum little tunes of her own. She likes to color, scribbles, really, but she enjoys herself and she chooses her own colors, with an emphasis on vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. She likes to go to church, and she has cried and signed for Mama during the hymn singing at church when Mama wasn’t there. Mama sings rather loudly.

The DeputyHeadmistress had long suspected that less measurable qualities than tool making are more definitive of the essense of being a member of humanity. Among those qualities the Headmistress would place the ability to make or enjoy art, including music, and the impulse to worship. Joe Carter points out:

It is an empirical truth, for example, that crows and pigeons can have more functioning cognitive abilities than some mentally disabled humans. But such data conveys no moral knowledge. Empiricism can tell us about the brains of sparrows and humans but it cannot tell us their worth.

A final distinguishing characteristic the DeputyHeadmistress would note is that human beings are made in the image of God. That people like our young Cherub are human beings, fully entitled to the same respect and rights as any other human being is axiomatic- it is one of those truths we hold to be self-evident.

One would like to think that ruminations about this sort of thing are comfortble philosophic speculations without life or death ramifications. One would be indulging in irresponsible wishful thinking. After all, Terri Schiavo was dehydrated to death deliberately, by court order- and at least some people justify that execution because of claims that the human part of her had died, which they claim to know because of her lack of cognitive ability to perform at some level comfortable to those who preferred her dead.

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Lebanon Needs Support

Spirit of America reminds us that Lebanon needs continuted attention and support. Quotes from the website:

We have seen Muslims and Christians side by side praying together and working for free elections. This is extraordinary.

Syria is publicly acting like it is playing nice and withdrawing. Behind the scenes they are destabilizing the country, delaying the elections and intimidating the opposition. The good guys in Lebanon need our support.

We met one of the opposition leaders for lunch and asked him what, more than anything else, he wants the rest of the world to know. The most important thing, he said, is that the world must not forget about them. The democratic activists are beyond the point of no return. They will fight Syrian occupation and infiltration of their country all the way to the end no matter what happens, whether they are abandoned or not. But nothing will help them more than continued exposure and our continued support.

What else can we do to help? Click on the above link and keep reading.

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Who passed the memo on the Senate Floor?

Powerline is a must read this morning.

Answer: Yes– This is Powerline’s definitive reply to and accurate summing up of the Washington Times article “Was the Schiavo Memo a Fake?”

1. All 55 Republicans state they have never seen that Memo (Until the Post published it)

2. Each of them states plainly that he or she had nothing to do with composing or distributing the memo.

3. Of the 44 Democrats asked, only one claimed to have seen Republicans with it. That lone Democrat was Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, and he communicated this claim to the WT reporter via a spokesperson. All but two of the remaining 43 Democrats had to admit they’d never seen Republicans with it. Those two…. well, read on.

4. Those two refused to respond! How suspicious is that? They are Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. Harry Reid refused to respond, yet continued to accuse the Republicans. In fact, Reid claimed, through his spokeswoman, that “News outlets have investigated and authenticated the memo was real and came from Republican sources.”

5. The next question, logically, is to ask Reid for the names of those alleged news outlets, which the Times did. There was no reponse from Reid’s office.

6. Even the Reporters who originally ‘broke’ the story (i.e. performed their usual tricks on behalf of the Democrats) admit that they received the memo from the Democrats.

7. One of Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin’s spokesmen repeatedly told the press that Durbin had seen it- the WT reports this happened in several conversations over the course of three days.

“Asked independently, however, Mr. Durbin said he never saw it.”

The Deputy Headmistress is strongly reminded of the children’s game, “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” (Incidentally, if you click on that link, it just takes you to a site with a few children’s games, including the Cookie Jar game. You don’t need to download the Japanese characters to get to the site, so just click no and continue- if interested).

The Blogosphere asks: Who passed the memo on the Senate Floor?
The MSM insists: Republicans passed the memo on the Senate Floor.
Republicans: Who, we?
Democrats: Yes, you.
Republicans: Couldn’t be.
Blogosphere: Then who?
Republicans: Democrats passed the memo on the Senate Floor.
Democrats: Who, We?
Republicans and an increasingly suspicious blogosphere: Yes, you.

Greyhawk of the Mudville Gazette has more, and he points out that the only Democrat who claims to have seen Republicans with the memo has told some self serving lies before (language warning), and the media reported them without fact checking.
It is in fact, the media’s part in all this that bothers me most.

How long do you suppose this sort of thing has been going on? I am amazed at how blatant the media is. Just as with the forged documents used in the CBS case earlier this year, when first confronted with challenging questions about the claims the media was making here, the media’s response was basically, “Trust us. This is what we’ve told you, so this is what you ought to believe. What? Would we lie to you?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

It seems to me that this sort of blatant, sloppy, careless, bold carelessness with the truth has all the hallmarks of habitual behavior.

Years ago when I was a young mother, my next-door neighbor told me that children just naturally start telling fibs at a certain age. She shared this information with me because her own child constantly told us great whoppers of lies, and her mother would just listen to her, and then go on about her business. When her daughter wasn’t around, the mother told me about how dishonesty is just a natural stage children go through, so I shouldn’t worry about it when mine started. Sure enough, just a few months after she told me this, my own child started telling me fibs.

I ignored it at first, on the advice of that friend. I didn’t like it, but I expected my child to outgrow it. It got worse. Then I noticed that my friend’s child, two years older, was *still* telling lies. Because her parents never checked her stories and never corrected her when she lied, she had no reason, really, to stop. Her stories got bigger and bigger, and it was clear that this child now lied habitually, because she could and because she’d never been called on it. I could see that this is where we were headed with our child, who had gone from an occasional fib to telling us silly and obvious lies on a daily basis, and this was simply not an acceptable state of affairs.

We took corrective action, several months later than we should have, but we did take it. We quit taking her word for anything, explaining sadly that trust was built on honesty and a reputation for truth telling, which she no longer had. We checked her stories, all of them, even if we were inclined to believe her. If we didn’t have outside supporting evidence, we placed her stories in the ‘not proven’ category, explaining, again, that her own habits of dishonesty required this of us. When we caught her in a lie we called her on dishonesty every single time. Because we’d been letting her deceive us for many months, it took some time and total consistency to redirect her. She had developed a habit of dishonesty. Gradually, however, she grew to put off the habit of dishonesty and to put on the habit of accurate, careful, truth telling.

It appears to me that the media has been getting away with dishonesty and sloppy reporting for decades. It may take a long time to convince them that they can’t get away with it anymore. We are not taking their word for it anymore, because they have lost all credibility. To get it back, they need to put off the habit of dishonesty, sloppy reporting, careless acceptance of Democratic accusations, and put on the habit of careful, accurate truth telling and investigative reporting.

I am deeply grateful for the role of bloggers like Powerline, Malkin, Greyhawk and others in calling the media on their bad habits. Still, it’s rather dismaying that the blogosphere has to act the role of the parents to a number of reporters acting like recalcitrant and dishonest children. Children are at least cute.

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Dubious Doings in Dubai, or just Fantasy Islands?

In a previous post(Around the World), I linked to a an article about the massive building projects currently ongoing in Dubai.

Here’s more:
Boing Boing (The Headmistress is not pleased with the ads on this site) says

300 private islands shaped like world map, near Dubai
A developer near Dubai is building a supervillain lair straight out of the funnybooks — a collection of private islands arranged to look like a map of the world, with African game preserves, luxury hotels, McMansions, condos, etc etc etc. Also, a fleet of (heavily armed?) water-borne private coppers patrolling the islands for crooks, and, I’m guessing, hidden missile silos, or possibly a labroatory for breeding a race of superbeings.

Boing Boing has a photograph, a link to the offical page, and more, including a link to Ego Food, where we learn there is no Israel in Dubai’s fantasy world. Sez Ego Food:

“Political much? My, Dubai, That’s an interesting world you have there. Let’s see whom else you’ve removed from that map of yours. No Washington State or Oregon, but that’s okay, they’re all California to me, too.”

A Complete Waste of Time (“wasting time so you don’t have to”) also has the very impressive photograph and says that “Islands are expected to sell for prices beginning at US$ 6.85 million.”

Start saving your money now, as the project will be completed by the end of this year.

The Official Website is here, where you can even see video, listen to a midi file of the United Arab Emirates national anthem, see the lyrics in English and Arabian, look at photographs, get email postcards (one of them is really very odd), and much, much, more.

Equuschick, JennyAnyDots and Pipsqueak watched the video with me.

“I wouldn’t want to clean that” says JennyAnyDots, as we view a mansion dreamhome, all in white interiors.

“If you were that rich, you’d have an army of servants,” points out Equuschick. “How about I buy an island and you come be my servant?”

JennyAnyDots says, “You buy an island and I will gladly come live there and clean for you.”

“Choose your island. Choose your opportunity,” the video narrator encourages us.

“Horses?” asks Equuschick (of course). “Are there places to keep horses?”

The Deputy Headmistress supposes that since it is an Arabian country, there will be places for horses for those who want them. She privately wonders if that was stereotyping, but the video continues.

“I want the castle,” says Pipsqueak.

“Oooh, I want that” – in unison from all three girls as the African Game preserve island comes up.

“The only limit,” the narrator assures us, “Is the imagination.”

AND MONEY” the Common Room Chorus replies, on cue and in perfect harmony. Uncanny. It’s as though they rehearsed.

And to think, just yesterday I was listening to somebody tell me on the radio that Americans were the most materialistic people on earth.

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Us and Them

Best of the Web today:

Jack Nargundkar of Germantown, Md., is confused, as he made clear in a letter to the editor of the New York Times the other day (third letter):

The most critical conclusion to be drawn from the [Schiavo] case is that with the injection of religion into our politics and our governance, it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between the demands of “evangelism” in a Western democracy and “fundamentalism” in a Middle Eastern theocracy.

Jack, you’re in luck, for we know just how to distinguish them. If someone is demanding that a life be spared, he’s probably an evangelist in a Western democracy. If he’s demanding the infidels be murdered, chances are he’s a fundamentalist in a Middle Eastern theocracy.

Bonnet Tip: World Magazine’s Blog

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