More evidence today that humans are not the only species with the intelligence and cognitive abilities to make and use tools.
We now know that several other species have the cognitive ability to make tools and at least one, the Caledonian Crow, goes one step further and not only makes simple modifications like stripping leaves from a twig but actually shapes the tool precisely, designing a tool fit for purpose.
We have known since 2002 that captive Caledonian crows such as the famous 'Betty' will bend wire into a hook to retrieve food. Wire is of course not a natural substance yet these crows appear to understand not only the shape and dimensions of the hook they need, but they also understand the tensile and maleability qualities of the wire they use. Because they were captive crows however it was always a possibility that there had been an element of training involved, even inadvertently.
Now, however, wild Caledonian crows have been observed bending twigs, so it seems the wire-bending technique was already within the crows' cognitive repertoire. The results were reported today in Royal Society Open Science by a team from University of St Andrews led by Dr Christian Rutz:
‘Betty’ the New Caledonian crow astonished the world when she ‘spontaneously’ bent straight pieces of garden wire into hooked foraging tools. Recent field experiments have revealed that tool bending is part of the species' natural behavioural repertoire, providing important context for interpreting Betty's iconic wire-bending feat. More generally, this discovery provides a compelling illustration of how natural history observations can inform laboratory-based research into the cognitive capacities of non-human animals.
Christian Rutz, Shoko Sugasawa, Jessica E. M. van der Wal, Barbara C. Klump, James J. H. St Clair
Tool bending in New Caledonian crows
R. Soc. open sci. 2016 3 160439; DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160439. Published 10 August 2016
© 2016 The Authors. Open access. Reprinted under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence (CC-BY 4.0)
As the press release by the University of St Andrews explains:
...recent field experiments by a team of St Andrews biologists have now revealed that tool bending is part of New Caledonian crows’ natural behavioural repertoire, casting doubt on Betty’s problem-solving prowess. Project leader Dr Christian Rutz explains: “We had provided wild-caught crows with juicy treats hidden in wooden logs, as well as with their preferred plant material for tool manufacture. We were absolutely over the moon when the birds started making and using tools in our field aviaries.”
But then something completely unexpected happened: some of the crows vigorously bent their twig tools during processing, in exactly the same manner as Betty had bent wire in the famous Oxford experiment – even though this time, bent tools were not required to solve the task. “We couldn’t believe our eyes,” Dr Rutz recounts. “Most birds trapped sticks underfoot before bending the tool shaft by bill, but one also pushed tools against the logs to flex them, and another wedged them upright into holes before pulling the shaft sideways, just as Betty had done. It turns out, the twigs that wild crows select for making their tools are pliable!
Tool making was once widely accepted by creationists as evidence that humans were a special species; a creation set apart from other animals. This was supposedly evidence of the validity of the creation story in Genesis and evidence that there was some God-given right to have dominion over Earth and its flora and fauna. It is now becoming increasingly evident that Genesis is merely an erroneous attempt to explain something that was wrongly believe to be true by people who knew no better, just as they were wrong about the sun and moon being suspended from the underside of a dome over the earth.
Our study is a powerful reminder of the importance of basic natural history research. When my Oxford colleagues studied Betty’s cognitive abilities almost 15 years ago very little was known about how these birds make and use tools in their natural tropical habitat. Our discovery of tool bending in wild New Caledonian crows has come as a complete surprise, and was the result of patient field research.Like so many other old beliefs and superstitions the belief that intelligence and tool-making are evidence of a special place for humans in 'creation' - the basis of the idea that we were specially created or rather that the Universe was specially created for us to live in by a god - is nothing more than anthropocentric arrogance. It was never more than a distorted view of reality filtered through confirmatory bias by people who wanted to feel more important than they were already.
Dr Christian Rutz, project leader.
But, like so many of the primitive and plainly wrong ideas in the Bible, this one isn't just a harmless myth. It has been immensely damaging and now threatens the survival of not just humans but maybe life on Earth itself. It has conditioned Western attitudes to nature and our relationship to it. Instead of accepting the reality that we are part of nature and need to be as integrated as possible with it, it has made us feel above it all and separated from it.
We have had no qualms about hunting species to extinction; no qualms about turning forests into deserts; no qualms about turning prairie grasslands into monoculture wheat deserts with the soil structure destroyed and plants and animals exterminated with herbicides and pesticides. And we have had no qualms about pumping our toxic waste into the air and water we all depend on for our existence.
Humans are not the special creation of a magic sky fairy; humans are a species evolved along with, and sharing a common ancestor with, all other life. Science has shown us this and we have known about it for 150 years! We really DO need to start accepting it.
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