I’ve got an article in yesterday’s Boston Globe on the acute intelligence of birds, which is a by-product of their sociality:
There is a growing scientific recognition of the genius of birds. Scientists are now studying various birds to explore everything from spatial memory to the grammatical structure of human language. This research is helping to reveal the secrets of the human brain. But it is also overturning the conventional evolutionary story of intelligence, in which all paths lead to the creation of the human cortex. The tree of life, scientists are discovering, has numerous branches of brilliance.
“It used to be that people would only talk about intelligence in terms of primates,” says Nicola Clayton, a professor of comparative psychology at the University of Cambridge. “But now I think that birds have achieved a sort of honorary ape status, just with a few feathers attached.”
The intelligence of birds, which sit far from man on the evolutionary tree, has also forced a reappraisal of where intelligence comes from. Scientists once assumed that intelligence evolved out of physical need – animals got smart in order to exploit natural resources. But the brainpower of birds suggests that intelligence is actually a byproduct of complex social interactions. Living in a group requires an animal to juggle lots of information about its peers. So it’s not a coincidence that the smartest creatures are also the most social.
I think birds are providing strong evidence for the “intelligence is driven by complex animal societies” hypothesis, which was first advocated by Nick Humphrey in the early 1970′s.
And here is a picture of me and June, my African Grey, as she pleads for a little head rub: