Skip to content

Birds & bones on PBS

Two nova documentaries, reviewed.


1.bird brains.

MODERN THOUGHT HAS tended to minimize differences between the mentality of humans and that of species regarded historically as belonging to the “lower” creation. This may have been in some measure a consequence of all-men-are-created-equal, democratic thinking spilling over into the study of species.

The explicit purpose of a NOVA program, “Inside Animal Minds: Bird Genius,” wasn’t to suggest that there are birds who think a lot like us, but the comparison was implicit throughout.

We are practical problem-solvers; so were the raven and a cockatoo…in the experiments the program described.

We are practical problem-solvers; so were the raven and a cockatoo who were the  featured performers in the experiments the program described. In these experiments, the birds had to perform actions requiring cause-and-effect thinking before the doors of boxes containing little bits of food would open. In one experiment, a raven had mastered a problem with eight distinct stages. In some instances, the birds also made intelligent use of sticks as tools. Here, the comparison with human ingenuity became explicit when images of carpentry equipment appeared on the screen.

Bird brains are not very large compared, say, with those of dogs. However, the application of the term “bird brain” to dimwits is clearly a misnomer. Bird brains are quite large in proportion to body mass. Such proportionality is evidently significant throughout Nature where smarts are concerned. The cleverness of small-brained rats and squirrels would undoubtedly illustrate the point.

The experiments depicted by the program were undeniably interesting, but my wife’s response was mine: “Why go to all that bother to demonstrate that birds can think?” For the birds, the experiments had some practical significance—the acquisition of food—but, considered in and of themselves, they had none for the persons who designed them. (Of course, scientists who develop such projects hoping to secure grants do bear a certain resemblance to crows poking with sticks in holes to extract worms, but that’s another story.)

If the celebration of bird intelligence was an instance of the modern tendency to elevate the mentality of critters vis-à-vis ours, by implicitly equating intelligence with practical problem-solving, it lowered the estimate of human intelligence. We do, in fact, solve countless practical problems day in and day out by applying intelligence to them. But to see significant differences between critters’ minds and ours requires attention, rather, to our attraction to impractical uses of the mind, one example being the development of experiments to demonstrate birds are smart.

Ravens, cockatoos, rats and squirrels do very clever things to get nibbles of food, but they could not be interested in experiments that merely satisfy curiosity. While they may respond on a gut level to the music we create, perform, and enjoy—for no practical reason—they cannot themselves produce it, and what we call their “singing” and “dancing,” by analogy with ours, has a far more definite relation to propagation than ours.

Animals and birds cannot be interested in our symbolic systems of writing and mathematics. They do not care what their places in zoological classifications might be, or what is to be found on the surface of Mars, or where Homer’s Troy may have been. It is one thing for us to have evolved from the apes and another to be interested in evolutionary theory. Watching the NOVA program reminded me of a remark by a Victorian Englishman (whose name I forget) for whom the reality of evolution was less surprising than the evolution of a creature like Darwin capable of understanding it.

One cannot eat the understanding of evolution, any more than one can nourish oneself with the knowledge that the world goes around the sun, rather than sun around the earth, or that there are black holes out there in the universe gobbling up matter industriously hour after hour. Birds and animals are sensible enough to realize that concern with such matters would be a terrible waste of intelligence and effort.

2. hominid bones.

RENAISSANCE HUMANIST ERASMUS noted in his Praise of Folly (1509) that human beings alone among creatures make themselves miserable by trying to exceed their natural limits—e.g. in the torturous intellectual exercises of late-medieval Scholastic philosophy. Apropos, the Renaissance Neoplatonist Giordano Bruno, in his De gli eroici furori (On the Heroic Frenzies) quotes King Solomon: “Who increases wisdom increases sorrow.”

Not all knowledge-quest results in “wisdom” or requires anything like “heroic frenzy.” In fact, its pursuit can be jolly good fun.

Happily, though, not all knowledge-quest results in “wisdom” or requires anything like “heroic frenzy.” In fact, experience suggests that if one conceives knowledge modestly enough, its pursuit can be jolly good fun. Developing experiments to demonstrate that crows think would be a case in point; so would rambling around South Africa looking for bones of hominids (primates, including the great apes and early humans) in hopes of illuminating our evolutionary ancestry, the subject of a NOVA documentary bearing the portentous title “Dawn of Humanity.”

University of Witwatersrand paleo-anthropologist Lee Berger speculates in the program that there were probably more people looking for hominid bones in South Africa than bones to be found. Berger, a plump, open-faced fellow, had himself been tramping around countryside for years, cheerfully enough apparently, without finding much of interest before getting lucky in 2013. That year, he and his team discovered deep in the Rising Star cave northwest of Johannesburg thousands of bone fragments of primates millions of years old.

The first identifiable object spelunkers in his team brought from the cave—a hominid mandible with teeth intact—would no doubt have brought a “huh!” or a “wow!” from just about anyone, though Berger’s characterization of it as a “miracle” seemed a little over the top. But the mandible was just the beginning. Eventually enough hominid bones were brought out of Rising Star to permit reconstruction of a complete skeleton which had the general skeletal characteristics of the great apes, but hands like those of humans.

What the narrator of the documentary meant in declaring solemnly that these bones “bring our past into focus,” and “clarify what it is to be human,” is hard to say, though, the  value of a reassembled hominid for understanding our present lives is about on par with family genealogical charts worked up by maiden aunts or by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his “Finding Your Roots” team at PBS.

The happiest humans, Erasmus declared, are “that generation of men we commonly call fools, idiots, lack-wits, and dolts”: people who live from moment to moment, undisturbed by “the thousand cares to which this life is subject.” One might not want to classify university-trained paleo-anthropologists with this crowd, but they do obviously find hunting for old bones diverting, even if the knowledge they acquire would strike a raven or a rat as an absurd waste of time and brain power.

James Gallant, an independent scholar, is the Fortnightly Review’s “Verisimilitudes” columnist, and author of Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations, published recently in our Odd Volumes series. His La Leona and Other Guitar Stories, which won the Schaffner Press award for music-in-literature in 2019, is available currently, along with his earlier works of fiction, from booksellers online and off-.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x