Thursday, May 20, 2004


Rave, bad news. I just got an e-mail from Rifle with an article about ravens from…the Economist.

“Why is THAT bad news? THIS stuff is bad news.” Raven is playing with spaghetti he didn’t eat last night and which is now hardened threads of paste on his plate.

Well, perhaps you should decide for yourself. Want me to read you the article?

“Why not? Meanwhile, I’ll be thinking about ways to commit suicide.”

Okay. It’s called “Quoth the Raven”—from the Poe poem.

“That’s where all I say is ‘Nevermore’, right?”

Umm. Ready? “Now, it seems, even the bird-brained have theories of mind.”

“Offensive! What is this bird-brained horseshit?”

Rave, I am just reading you the article. Okay? “HUMANS like to regard themselves as exceptional. Other animals do not
have complex, syntactical languages. Nor do most of them appear to
enjoy the same level of consciousness that people do. And many
philosophers believe humans are the only species which understands that
others have their own personal thoughts. That understanding is known in
the trade as having a "theory of mind", and it is considered the
gateway to such cherished human qualities as empathy and deception.

Biologists have learned to treat such assertions with caution. In
particular, they have found evidence of theories of mind in a range of
mammals, from gorillas to goats. But two recent studies suggest that
even mammalian studies may be looking at the question too narrowly.
Birds, it seems, can have theories of mind, too.”

“I’ll give those bird brains theories of mind!” Raven is getting hot under the collar—er, feathers.

In the PROCEEDINGS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY, Bernd Heinrich and Thomas
Bugnyar of the University of Vermont, in Burlington, describe a series
of experiments they have carried out on ravens. They wanted to see how
these birds, which are known to be (at least by avian standards) both
clever and sociable, would respond to human gaze.

Response to gaze is reckoned to be a good measure of the development of
theory of mind in human children. By about 18 months of age most
children are able to follow the gaze of another person, and infer
things about the gazer from it. Failure to develop this trick is an
early symptom of autism, a syndrome whose main underlying feature is an
inability to understand that other people have minds, too.

To test whether ravens could follow gaze, Dr Heinrich and Dr Bugnyar
used six six-month-old hand-reared ravens, and one four-year-old. The
birds were sat, one at a time, on a perch on one side of a room divided
by a barrier. An experimenter sat about a metre in front of the
barrier. The experimenter moved his head and eyes in a particular
direction and gazed for 30 seconds before looking away. Sometimes he
gazed up, sometimes to the part of the room where the bird sat, and
sometimes to the part of the room hidden behind the barrier. The
experiment was videotaped.

Dr Heinrich and Dr Bugnyar found that all the birds were able to follow
the gaze of the experimenters, even beyond the barrier. In the latter
case, the curious birds either jumped down from the perch and walked
around the barrier to have a look or leapt on top of it and peered
over. There was never anything there, but they were determined to see
for themselves.

A suggestive result, but not, perhaps, a conclusive one. However, the
second study, carried out by Dr Bugnyar when he was working at the
University of Austria, and published last month in ANIMAL COGNITION,
suggests that ravens may have mastered the art of deception too.

In this case, the observation was serendipitous. Dr Bugnyar was
conducting an experiment designed to see what ravens learn from each
other while foraging. While doing so he noticed strange interactions
between two males, Hugin, a subordinate bird, and Munin, a dominant

The task was to work out which colour-coded film containers held some
bits of cheese, then prise the containers open and eat the contents.
The subordinate male was far better at this task than the dominant.
However, he never managed to gulp down more than a few pieces of the
reward before the dominant raven, Munin, was hustling him on his way.
Clearly (and not unexpectedly) ravens are able to learn about food
sources from one another. They are also able to bully each other to
gain access to that food.

But then something unexpected happened. Hugin, the subordinate, tried a
new strategy. As soon as Munin bullied him, he headed over to a set of
empty containers, prised the lids off them enthusiastically, and
pretended to eat. Munin followed, whereupon Hugin returned to the
loaded containers and ate his fill.

At first Dr Bugnyar could not believe what he was seeing. He was
anxious about sharing his observation, for fear that no one would
believe him. But Hugin, he is convinced, was clearly misleading Munin.

As it happened, Munin was no dummy either. He soon grew wise to the
tactic, and would not be led astray. He even stooped to trying to find
the food rewards on his own! This made Hugin furious. "He got very
angry", says Dr Bugnyar, "and started throwing things around." Perhaps
ravens have something else in common with people--a hatred of being
found out.” There you have it.

“Hey, I never said we were perfect. But at least we aren’t ringers.”

Would you care to explain that?

“Avec plaisir, madame. For example, John Kerry is not a real candidate. He’s a ringer.”


Haven’t you noticed that he and Georgie Porgie continue to be Tweedledee and Tweedledumb? First we find out they’re cousins several times removed. Then we see that they have the same anti-program: invade Cuba, send more troops to Iraq, invade Venezuela, send more troops to Iraq, invade Syria. Ad nauseum. It’s obvious that they came up with this guy—this cardboard cutout—so that the voters would not have a real choice. He’s a ringer!”

That sounds way beyond Maquiavellian, guy.

“So? Those neocons were writing their How to Take over the World manual more than 12 years ago. They cooked the ballot boxes in Florida to get Georgie into the Oval Office. But it was a close shave. And the Supreme Court his daddy packed had to bail them out. They’re not going to let it happen again. Now they have two candidates. And the voters can go to hell.”

I see. So when are you going to talk to Ralph Nader about this theory?

It’s not a theory of mind. It’s plain common sense. The one party system is here. The end of elections as we know them.

So that’s it for free choice, Rave?

“Right. Nevermore.”

He got me again….

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