Never More?

Not this Raven you idiot!
I’ve written before about how some of our simian cousins have entered the Stone Age. Simply put they are using stone tools and planning for events that haven’t happened. Those are definable signs of sapience. I have also noted that octopuses, those yummy tasty octopuses laden in garlic and butter, are also developing along the same lines. Before they meet the garlic and butter, natch. The point is that life is not some stagnant thing. It wasn’t plopped here to never grow. On the one hand life adapts to its surroundings. People who live in the mountainous regions of Peru have larger lungs than the rest of us simply due to the thin air. No large lungs equals no breathing. At least not easily. Polar bears have different furs than grizzlies simply due to environment. I could go on, and on and on and on …., but you get the idea.

On the other hand, life develops intelligence if it’s faced with obstacles that basic cunning can’t overcome. For humans that was finding food in the veld. They had to learn to hunt and cook if they were to survive. Other proto-humans learned those skills as well. Then our ancestors hunted, and killed, them. They may have eaten them too. Either way, they eliminated the competition.

That last sentence is the one you need to remember.

Sarah Chodosh, over at Popular Science, notes that ravens are joining the party and moving up the evolutionary ladder.

Ravens can solve puzzles, trick other animals into helping them out, and communicate with each other at a level even apes can’t match. And now we know they can hatch plans. These aren’t dastardly plans to overthrow humans in a battle for control of the Earth (we hope)—they’re plans to get better food for themselves. It’s like the marshmallow test—more on that in a minute—but for birds that have more self control than most children.

This latest revelation comes courtesy of two cognitive scientists at Lund University in Sweden who literally put ravens to test. They published their findings on Friday in the journal Science. Up until now, we knew that ravens had some ability to plan ahead for their own food needs because they hide caches of food to dig up later. Then again, squirrels store food in the ground for later and they’re, well, not the smartest. They forget about 75 percent of their nuts, planting millions of trees in the process. They’re accidental environmentalists. And if moronic squirrels can be biologically programmed to cache food for later, maybe ravens aren’t as smart as we thought.

Except obviously they are.

Ravens, as it turns out, will often choose to forgo a tasty morsel now in favor of getting access to a better treat later. Faced with a food tidbit and a tool that they know can open a box containing more tempting food, they will generally choose the tool—even if they don’t have the box yet. They’ve learned that when researchers present them with the box in 15 minute’s time, they can use that tool to unlock their prize. That’s forethought right there. Even small children often choose to eat one marshmallow immediately rather than wait a few minutes for more marshmallows, and all that experiment makes the participants do is sit there being cute.

This shouldn’t come as such a shock. Ravens also steal from each other by watching competitors hide food, noting the location, and returning later to dig up their spoils. And because they get stolen from, some ravens will actually pretend to hide food to throw thieves off the scent. What’s more, they can tell other ravens where to find a juicy, rotting carcass and team up to scare off their competitors. That ability—to communicate information about a distant location—is shared only by ants, bees, and humans. Note that great apes and monkeys are not on that list. Plus, ravens can apparently deceive one another if it means keeping a food source a secret. They can also call wolves over to a carcass that hasn’t broken down enough yet so that the canines can rip it apart, leaving more convenient scraps for the birds to scarf down.

If all that doesn’t make you love and embrace our raven overlords, nothing will. These birds are geniuses in their own right—so what if their look is a little goth? Their intelligence isn’t to be feared, it’s to be revered. Ravens for President 2020.

Okay, so super smart birds that can plan, like some horror movie creatures shambling into your home in the dark, may not make you happy. But, as I noted above, it’s only when faced with direct competition that one species wipes out another.

Humans, ravens, and octopuses, have very few areas where they need the same resources. They could, much like the creatures in David Brin’s Uplift series, be brought up the evolutionary ladder to be our partners. To be a boon rather than a bane. In other words, the exact opposite of what happens when I write about it.

The simians, however, might be a different issue. They are similar enough to us that they may, at some point, want what we have. And history has shown us that rarely goes well for someone.

All that said, none of this is a concern for today. In fact it may all be moot. according to David Wallace-Wells global warming could make Earth uninhabitable in before 2100 AD. In other words, if he’s right, your teenage kids will live just long enough to see the end of the world.

There’s your happy thought for today.


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