My Raven is Smarter than your Toddler

We went to the zoo last weekend, and sat through a session where the zookeepers were “spring-training” some of the birds that fly in the summer shows. The training consisted of having them come out of their cages and fly to certain platforms for treats, while obeying whistles and gestures from the zoo staff.

The first bird was Socrates, a barn owl. (Get it? Socrates? Wise owl? Attaboy.) As the head birdologist explained, the problem with Socrates was that he was a bit … well, stupid.

True to form, Socrates went 0-for-3 in his attempt to fly across the field to eat the tasty morsel of chopped mouse that the zookeeper was temptingly wiggling. Not a crowd pleaser, that Socrates, and some have speculated that unless Socrates elevates his game, come opening day he could find himself warming the bench in the bus leagues.

Two days later, I read an amazing story in Der Spiegel, describing the intelligence of ravens:

ravens have now passed so many tests the researchers are wondering what purpose all this cleverness serves. Other birds get through life just fine with far less intelligence. A congenital program tells them how to build elaborate nests and sing cheerful songs. But intelligence is — from a biological view — laborious and costly. Those who think make mistakes. The question is: Why has evolution made ravens so smart?

I’ve often wondered what the purpose of intelligence was, too. In one of those flat-right-end-of-the-bell-curve IQ societies (probably one with a lot of decimals in it), I once read a quote that

None of these groups [Mensa, Intertel] is willing to acknowledge or come to terms with the fact that much of their membership belong to the psychological walking wounded. This alone is enough to explain the constant schisms that develop, the frequent vendettas, and the mediocre level of their publications.

I’ve read the Mensa Bulletin, which has some remarkably bad stuff in it. In the letters to the editor, more than one Mensan has said stuff to the effect of, “Usually I throw the Bulletin away without reading it because it always sucks, but that last issue wasn’t entirely putrescent.”

Yet and nonethelessandsuch,

Ravens … have a long evolutionary process of espionage and counter-espionage to build on, in the course of which they became masters of deceit and problem-solving. They got better and better at guessing the intentions of others and concealing their own. “Ravens are cognitively equal to a two-year-old child,” says Bugnyar.

So (because it’s late and I have nothing really profound to say to wrap this up), I’m tempted to theorize What We Can Learn from the Ravens: namely, the purpose of intelligence is not to produce another bickery, shitty newsletter, but to figure out what we can get away with, and how much fresh, dead meat we can steal from others.

Not a half-bad analogy, eh? Definite possibilities there. Look for Tasty Carrion for the Teenage Soul coming soon to a self-help remainder bin near you.
The hell with the bus leagues. I’m eatin’ steak tartare.


One thought on “My Raven is Smarter than your Toddler

  1. The Polish writer Lech Wilczek in his book ‘The story of a raven’ , who lived with a raven for years in a deep forest dwelling in north-eastern Poland, observed, described and photograhed not only just about everything this splendid article mentions. Wilczek also described an astounding deed: one day his raven developed craving for a cigarette lighter. The bird offered a trade: brought his greatest treasure, a chicken’s leg, laid it in front of the lighter’s owner and clearly demanded a swap. Now, if this is not intelligence supported by abstract thinking, I don’t know what is. And let’s stop wandering whether and why ravens have a “surplus of intelligence” – this “surplus” is our own arrogant judgment. If any species has a “surplus” – it’s us. And we make an evil use of it, wrecking everything around us.

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