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Are birds aesthetes?

Yep, it’s true. Some species of birds can actually distinguish between Monet, Picasso and other painters. They can even distinguish between art styles painted by unknowns. Can your dog do that?

Maybe that performance beats 90% or more of humans given the same task?

So if you want to get the skinny, and confirm that I didn’t make it up check out

The Genius of Birds” by Jennifer Ackerman, a well-known, highly-published ornithologist, who discusses her path-breaking research and also sums up the research by others which shows birds to be really, amazingly smart.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve picked on this factoid for a blog post. I guess it’s partly because we think birds are bird-brained, and now we find out there really not. Does it change our view of the world, nature and animals if we realize that some animals, in this case lowly birds, can outperform humans on some aesthetic tasks?

BTW birds can do even more than this. (“Meet the New Zealand parrot whose "laughter" is contagious”). So they have a sense of humor. Another apparent human strength over animals goes up in smoke.

And it’s not even birds. The author also cites some research that shows some bees can do the same trick, albeit not quite as well as birds. But how small is their brain anyway. Who could even have thought it?

What other animals have such aesthetic capabilities? Octopuses? Fish? Moles?

What other capabilities do animals have that until now we haven’t even suspected? Telepathy perhaps?

Does that mean that brain size is really not so important after all? That it’s not the number of neurons you have, but how they are organized? Is there some other component like glial cells, that really give them their intelligence, since they have so few neurons to do these amazing things?

And if a pea-sized brain can exhibit aesthetic capabilities, how soon before AI will be able to do it? Shazam for art recognition? (We’re almost there but still behind the birds with a new app called Smartify which recognizes specific art works but doesn’t distinguish yet between art styles).Could you endow a self-driving car with the ability to avoid harming Picassos in an auto accident but breeze through graffiti?

When we find ET on one of these new-found exoplanets, could she be nano-sized but much smarter than us? Have we got this intelligence thing all wrong? It’s not quantity and size but structure and quality that counts. Have we fundamentally misjudged the nature of intelligence and how it is produced?

The thing that niggles me is - how does this change our view of us and animals. Does it raise animals or lower humans? Hmm, tricky….

But maybe this apparent aesthetic capability in birds is nothing to do with art appreciation. Maybe it’s an ability to distinguish between different environments in very fine-grained and sophisticated ways, to recognize where predators might be hanging out, and whether there’s food hiding there. In other words, self-survival.

Is that what aesthetic ability is in humans too? Self-survival? Aesthetes are really advanced survival machines? Who would do great on “Naked and Afraid”?

Watch out, Oscar Wilde!

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Friday, 28 April 2017
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