Saturday, 25 August 2012

Birds and Brains

I recently read the results of a scientific study led by Dr. Christian Schloegl from the University of Vienna and published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B : Biological Sciences which found that African grey parrots were cleverer than two-year-olds in a test of intelligent reasoning.  During a series of experiments the parrots were asked to choose between two closed boxes, one of which held a piece of walnut and rattled when shaken.  The other container was empty and could be shaken without making a noise.  Not only did  these clever parrots know how to detect hidden food rattling in a shaken box they also deduced that if a box made no noise when shaken then the piece of walnut was in the other box.  Clever little boys, eh?
The article maintains that human children achieve this standard by the age of three.  I wonder if these eminent scientists ever tried to hide the TV remote before a visit from a two-year-old?  I suspect not. It never fails to amaze me how quickly a toddler can find all the things you thought you'd hidden safely away. I'm pretty sure that most of the two-year-olds I know would have found that piece of walnut pretty quickly - they would most likely have discovered the grown-ups putting it in the box.  Such are the acute sensitivities of toddlers, in my experience.
That being said, I checked into the website to see what other gems they have available and found entries on such diverse subjects as the influence brain parasites have on human cultures (ugh!), first-ever observations of a live giant squid and an even more intriguing subject Cooperation and the Evolution of Intelligence. Admittedly I didn't read any of those reports, I just couldn't get enthusiastic about brain parasites or giant squids. I have enough trouble understanding the weather forecast.
To me the most fascinating thing about the research is that it was carried out at all.  It is certainly very interesting if you are a fan of African grey parrots - or of two-year-olds - and I daresay the world of biology is richer for knowing the results. Does it mean that when boasting to other mums you excuse your toddler's inadequacies by saying "Well of course little Timmy isn't quite as clever as Polly the Parrot."?

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