April 22, 2018
Throughout the world’s cultures, the Ravens reputation as a trickster is celebrated and well deserved, yet they remain deliberately shy and secretive around us. (That may very well be the best evidence of their intelligence.) The anthropomorphizing of the bright Corvid, whether as a friend to humanity or an evil force, has gone on for eons. I’ve done it myself with great delight. The truth is ravens don’t need an extra dose of drama to live highly intelligent lives within a context that could be described as a civilization of their own.
Ravens express not just individuality but a range of emotions, they play, deceive each other, and will stack objects in a pile to carry them easier. They actively, altruistically, share food sources by yelling, “Hey, here’s dinner!” No, not in English. Ravens, here and at other western parks, open backpack zippers and turn on water fountains when thirsty. They recognize you, remember that you’re the visitor who dropped the ice cream cone yesterday.
Bernd Heinrich in his 1999 book Ravens in Winter: “It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that ravens have, for birds, unusual awareness of both the consequences of their own actions and the anticipated actions of partners and competitors.” Before you suggest that my anthropomorphism remains off the rails, let me make it clear I’m not suggesting they are as intelligent as humans, simply that what they and other animals can do in the field of cognition is significant. Research going on for decades has now, through popular books, become common knowledge, and it appears that like everything else in nature, animal brainpower is on a continuum. Finally, we’re thinking there may be no divide, no deep canyon, between our brains and those of others.
Can I get away with saying “Cognition is a mystery”? Man has always assumed himself to be at the top without understanding how intellect works in other creatures. We ‘determine’ that signs of intelligence in other species have to do with dominance, aggression, sexual selection, and other biological behaviors, not pure intellectual ability. But we are unreliable observers. How many of our own thoughts are merely excuses for emotional, perhaps irrational, behavior? How much of our own communication takes place below conscious thought, through body language and pheromones? And what are we now doing to our own brains with the digital world? A short blog post is not the place to exhibit whatever scholarship this old guy may have retained (not much); thus it behooves me to repeat that my hope here with an unscientific essay is merely to encourage your own thoughtfulness and enthusiasm for the world. Call it my contribution to Earth Day.
The brightest animals exhibit memory. They use tools. They convey information among each other with no advantage to themselves. They have vocabularies of 100 ‘words’ or more and use those calls to communicate. Some (Humpback Whales) sing. Birds and whales learn their songs from others, thus they have a sort of ‘culture’ going back thousands of years. They play games among themselves, or with us, which illustrate their understanding of purposeful interaction. In short, they reason.
Animals have disorders, go insane when imprisoned. Animals play jokes, cheat each other, co-operate, suffer, feel joy or despair. Individual freedom of choice (in sexual selection) matters to them. They become disappointed, they dream. Bower birds and others create art, thus exhibit a concept of beauty. Like us, some birds sunbathe to relax. Pharmacological medicine for our use works on the similar serotonin receptors of other creatures. Dolphins and elephants catch a buzz, manipulate their own consciousness on purpose. This of course is unproven (we cannot see into their minds) but anecdotal evidence has piled up for a long time that dolphins pass pufferfish around ingesting their toxins, and then stare at their own reflections. Far out, dude. Elephants purposefully eat fermented fruit.
For my last post here Grand Canyon creatures were unapologetically anthropomorphized. Why do we do this? Why do we LIKE this? Something within our own consciousness reaches out across the boundaries between species; we are born with the desire for this connection. Everybody has a bond with their pet dog or cat. There is a clear connection between intellect and communication for the purpose of an emotional bond, on both sides. Sometimes it stays within species, sometimes it extends to us or other life. Human history is replete with terrible bloody efforts to discount the feeling, from early western religious practice to Descartes. We told ourselves the Devil was out there in the animal world, when if anywhere, he was always within us. “I think, therefore I am” actually told us very little about Homo sapiens.
Take a stroll through some literature with me: In his 2015 book Beyond Words, Carl Safina refers to an experienced conservationist who believes elephants exhibit telepathy, (they may instead be hearing their deep voices through the ground at long distances) and that Orcas, too, demonstrate psychic ability. He also, not surprisingly, calls humans the most irrational of species. Argue with that at your peril. Who else defiles their own nest so consistently? Mozart’s Starling (Lyanda Haupt 2017) describes a starling with much the same behavior characteristics as Heinrich does ravens. In Soul of an Octopus, (also published 2015) Sy Montgomery celebrates her friendship with the octopuses of the New England Aquarium, who perhaps show even more brainpower and empathy than elephants and great apes (despite lacking a skeleton!), and despite perhaps having some of that intellect in their arms instead of their heads.
Walk among the Ponderosas and Junipers of the South Rim while reading The Hidden Life of Trees and/or The Secret Life of Trees. These two books explain the ways in which the forest itself shares information, warnings, and energy among its varied life forms via both airborne chemicals and the fungi and the root systems which intersect and interact.
Try one more step, sapiens. Explore the HUMAN mind – with an open mind, please. There is a Brazilian tribe, the Piraha, who have confounded the best linguists (up to and including Noam Chomsky) by using no subordinate clauses. This happens because they have no concept of time – they live in the present. No hopes, no regrets. No dreams, no schedules. They also have no concept of numbers; they don’t count other than to express “few” or “many”. Contrast this with the mind of the late Steven Hawking, who was able to create, remember, and organize astonishingly complex concepts of physics using only his brain. No need for pen and paper. Can you solve an easy crossword puzzle in your head? Not me, folks. And what does it mean that the Aboriginal people of Australia have such difficulty becoming 21st century ‘western’ humans? When in geographic isolation, the brain evolved, just like the rest of our characteristics, in ways so different that it may not even be able to grasp those differences. There’s a bunch of subordinate clauses for you.
In light of all this, what IS cognition and what does it have to do with communication? Like I said, I’m not smart enough to have the answers. Ask those Grand Canyon Ravens; maybe they can tell you something. Given our inability to understand and accept each other and our propensity for greed and violence we have a lot to learn. But I see that we’re all part of a continuum of earthly consciousness, from dirt to sky, and the farther we get from recognizing it the worse off we are.
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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource.
These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2018
Last updated: April 22, 2018