Caffeine: the most potent artificial intelligence drink!

Caffeine: the most potent artificial intelligence drink!
Deep in the Lair of the Perpetually Curious Fox

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Continuing on the Magpie theme ...

A proper British Magpie - eats his food with his pinkie talon up!

I haven't seen Bill and Ben, or the rest of Captain Ahab's crew today. I bet they are chilling out, playing in the snow, knowing that they don't have to forage for food for a couple of days or so with their jackpot yesterday.

And yes, I have witnessed the magpies playing in the snow on the garage rooftops; flying to the apex of the snow-covered roof, dive-bombing (Angry Birds seems to be their favourite game - do they also surf the internet?) with their legs tucked in and wings folded just so ... and toboggan their way down the slope to the edge of the roof before unfolding their wings to fly back up and repeat the game until you see multiple grooves of magpie trails in the snow.

I must remember to bring my camera out with bigger SD card (mine is a 2nd generation, 10 year old, 4 megapixel Nikon digital that takes nice photos, but takes Oh-So-Long to set up the fiddly bits) and try to get a video of the Tobogganning Angry Birds.

It's quite an oxymoron (I like this word, adding an 'acne medication' to an 'idiot' to make 'paradox') to call some birds "Bird Brain", as some avians do have more common sense than the average human. Just like some humans can be somewhat less enlightened than a chest thumping Silver Back gorilla stealing a melon from another group of gorillas (think of NFL football) or a bunch of chimps flinging faeces at zoo keepers (think of the London riots recently). I've always had a big problem, since childhood, of the majority of the people opined that animals are stupid and are not self aware.

I attended a lecture some years back, given by a professor of Evolutionary Biology, back when I was a starry-eyed, optimistic student in college, on the prevalence of a gene called the FOXP2 in certain animals which gives them a rudimentary ability to form and understand "language", and amongst the lucky animals that have this gene are corvids (crows, magpies, ravens, jays), cetaceans (whales, dolphins, dugongs, etc), apes (us, chimps, gorillas), psittacines (parrots, cockatiel), canids (dogs, wolves, foxes), pachyderms (elephants). Maybe even more, as genome sequencing for many animal specii are yet to be done.

One can argue that I am projecting anthropomorphic qualities to them critters, but why don't we view it the other way round: complexity of emotions/motivations/language (vocal and bodily signs) are the by-product of the development of a "processing system", and in some systems that have the advantageous mutation of FOXP2, the input/output of the processing system develops an even more complex exchange system. So we are talking, reading and writing because of a mutation, and it so happens that we've got another mutation that favours the development of opposable thumb, making tool making and handling even easier.

Consider this: Archaeologically speaking, some academics in the 70-80's consider the presence of funerary rite artifacts in buried with the dead as evidence of self-reflection and self-awareness of Neanderthals, never mind they never developed a written language..... or maybe they did, but I have a suspicion that neighbouring Homo sapiens went to a frenzy of destroying what they found, almost like a pre-cursor of the Burning of the Library of Alexandria by the Christians, or the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Taliban reigned lands, Sacking of Constantinople by Turks. I can go on, but that might place a target on my head by many a fundamentalist religionist (see, I'm not targetting just one!) 

Anyways, back to the Magpies, Prof Bekof has observed 4 magpies mourning a fallen wing-man (pun!) and I quote here:

Dr Bekoff said he studied four magpies alongside a magpie corpse and recorded their behaviour.
"One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcase of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing, " he said.
"Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off."
After publishing an account of the funeral he received emails from people who had seen the same ritual in magpies, ravens and crows.

"We can't know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there's no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend," he wrote in the journal Emotion, Space and Society.
We're not that unique, you and I. Maybe instead of projecting anthropomorphic feelings to animals, we should project some animalistic fairness into ourselves.

Wild animals never kill for sport. Man is the only one to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures is amusing in itself.
                                                                                                     - James Anthony Froude
Chimps in a Sanctuary in Cameroon displaying grief at the death of their Elder, Dorothy
Daily Telegraph

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