Crows Can Reason About Cause and Effect

Nikita/CC BY 2.0

Yet another brick pulled out of the wall separating humans from other animals: BBC Nature reports on some new research demonstrating that New Caledonian crows (not the type above, by the way) can think about cause and effect, and act based on that.

In their experiment eight wild crows used tools to remove food from a box. Inside the enclosure there was a stick and the crows were tested in two separate series of events that both involved the stick moving. In one instance a human entered the hide and the stick moved. In the other, the stick still moved but no human entered. On the occasions when no human was observed entering the hide, the crows abandoned their efforts to probe for food using a tool more frequently than they did when a human had been observed. According to the scientists, the study proved that crows attributed the stick's movement to human presence.

Beyond the research itself, the thing that really sticks out to me in this is the theoretical background of it all.

We Need to Reverse Our Assumptions About Other Animals
In the BBC Nature headline the word reason is in quotes, so as to ensure that it's known that it is the scientists are saying it, that it's not a conclusion by the author of the news piece—all standard are decent practice. But it is also there because it signifies in an assumptive way that most people wouldn't think that crows could think about cause and effect, or, really, even think at all, based on human ideas of thought and relation to the world.

This is a massive shortcoming of human understanding of existence, a sign of species prejudice and human delusion. We continually want to ascribed uniqueness to humanity in a way that places us outside of nature, outside of the way of animals, the way of ecology.

Though there are differences of degree involved between humans and non-human animals, the assumption (unstated but implied in the BBC headline, and exemplified in countless daily in our treatment of our fellow humans and animals) is that humans are at the top of some biological pyramid.

The fact of the matter, known intuitively it seems to many pre-scientific societies and indigenous peoples to this day, is that whatever our differences, humans and animals are far more alike than different. We all feel pain, we all are capable of suffering, we think, we act, we emote—all to the highest possible degree for our particular circumstances and species.

Rather than assuming animals don't behave this way until proven otherwise, we ought to reverse the reasoning: Until proven that a species can't feel pain, can't suffer, can't think, can't emote, we ought to operate on the assumption that they do. Even if we're wrong, operating on this assumption errs on the side of compassion.

Tags: Animals

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