Two bright birds mock our majesty

Duck Reasoning

We like to think we’re special because we can reason. At least as far back as the ancient Greeks, this has been our place of refuge, our comfort zone, our justification for treating all other living things as vassals to our egos, slaves to our desires.

But since last February, this place of refuge has pretty well become the last retreat for those who see life as a hierarchy of rights, with us on top.

 

To be specific, the day that so shrunk our sense of ourselves as divine monarchists was Feb. 12, the 192nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose theories of evolution revolutionized scientific thinking — and also the day when the results of the Human Genome Project were announced.

The project mapped the human DNA, and it found we possess far fewer genes than we thought — only 30,000 to 40,000. And that means we are much more the kissing cousin to other living things than we had thought.

The roundworm, for instance, one of the most elementary of life forms, has two-thirds the number of genes that we do. And we have only five times as many genes as a lowly yeast cell. So we’re not distinguished by an exceptional endowment of building blocks.

This, then, makes our ability to reason a more important bastion for those who want to assert a hierarchy of rights in nature.

But what if other species can reason too? What then happens to our divine monarchy?

We’ve long accepted that other animals can think. We explain this away by saying their skill extends only to memorizing and repeating, and not, as with humans, to analyzing.

If animals can analyze, if they can solve a problem by dissecting it into its component parts and determining their connections, can we continue denying that they reason?

They might not be able to reason at a higher level, such as to solve an algebraic equation, but there are a whole lot of people who can’t do that either.

All of which brings me to a smart raven and a determined Vancouver duck.

Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont designed an experiment to test the reasoning powers of ravens. He tied a piece of dried salami to a 75-centimetre string and hung it from a branch.

To get the salami, a raven would have to do six things in sequence: 1.) perch on the branch; 2.) reach down and grab the string in its beak; 3.) pull the string up and over the branch; 4.) step on the string; 5.) reach down and grab another section of string; 6.) repeat the process until it hauled the salami all the way up.

Most of the ravens in the experiment never figured out how to get the salami. But one, obviously the brightest, did it on the first try.

The Vancouver duck, on the other hand, was not involved in an experiment. She was faced with a personal crisis.

Canadian Press reported last month that she grabbed a Vancouver police employee by the pant leg near the downtown area. Then, having gained his attention, she waddled around him quacking, and finally moved to a sewer grate about 20 metres away and lay down.

When the man started to walk away, the duck chased after him, grabbed him by the pant leg again, quacked, and returned to the sewer grate.

By now curious, the man went to the grate and saw eight ducklings in the water below. He called the police, they called a tow truck to remove the grate, and then, one by one, they lifted the ducklings out with a vegetable strainer.

The mother duck watched patiently until the last duckling was safe, and then marched her brood down to a nearby creek and swam away.

So can we say that ravens and ducks — or at least one raven and one duck — are capable of reasoning?

I think we can. I think it also means we humans are not so special after all. We’re just different.

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