Saturday, 17 April 2010

Intelligent life in the skies

ISAAC ASIMOV, the great science fiction writer, once wrote a story about a group of intrepid space explorers landing on a strange planet.
It was a very short story which came to an abrupt, rather sticky end.
The planet was Earth. The explorers and their craft were minute. And the moment they ventured outside they were idly splatted on a wall by a small boy who saw them only as nasty creepy-crawlies.
Which brings me to the point I never got to in my column last week about extra-terrestrial intelligence.
Even if it’s there, and even if it attempts to make contact, can we be sure we’ll recognise it?
We’ve not been terribly good so far at recognising the alien intelligence all around us on our own planet.
Take octopuses. Strange things; spineless; alien indeed to us. But not, as it turns out, stupid.
In fact, they’re clever enough to recognise TV pictures of other sea creatures, including other octopuses, and react to them as if they were real.
At least they do if they’re shown HD pictures on liquid crystal screens. Conventional TVs, which display images at a rate of 24 frames per second, are too slow to fool the octopus’s sophisticated eyes.
The researchers who made this discovery found that a creature which behaves aggressively towards the images one day might cower away shyly the next.
This inconsistency in behaviour is described as “a lack of personality”.
Which seems to me one of those curious cases of scientific jargon meaning the opposite of what it suggests.
In fact, I’d say it’s evidence that the octopus is a sentient and complex individual.
But you’d needn’t search under the sea to find creatures which give the lie to the ridiculous idea that humans are unique in having rational consciousness.
Octopuses have large brains. Birds don’t – yet some, such as parrots, are rather better at interpreting human language than we are at understanding theirs.
I wrote last month about the intelligence shown by some crows. And that prompted a few readers’ observations providing more evidence of corvine intellect.
Ralph Eldridge, a Canadian naturalist, told me about another revealing experiment.
He wrote: “Crows, without training or practice or observing others, were confronted with a food reward.
“To obtain the food the crows had to select, obtain and use a stick of a specific length. To obtain the correct stick, the crow had to select, obtain and use another stick of different but specific length.
“Success required multi-stage thinking and sequenced execution, not just straight cause-and-effect pseudo-tool use.
“Do I need to tell you that the crows ate well and quickly?”
It’s not so long since humans were said to be the only creatures to use tools. In fact, an enormous variety of species do.
Crows don’t just use what’s lying around – they invent and make their own tools. And they make use of their advantages over less skilled or intelligent species, too.
Crows are supposed to be carrion-eaters, not hunters or killers. But consider this observation by my brother, Clive, on the A10 in Cambridgeshire.
“I’ve seen it on three separate occasions in the same place,” he said. “Whether it’s the same two crows, or something all the crows round there have learned from each other, I don’t know.
“You know how crows swoop around in the bow-waves of big trucks? Pigeons can’t do it like crows can.
“Two crows, harassing a pigeon, drive it into the path of a big truck. Crows swoop out of the way, pigeon goes splat. Instant carrion. Crows have dinner.”
Clive adds that his chickens can count chicks or eggs up to nine. And he tells of a crow which played a counting game with him, after listening to him making animal noises for the children in an Indian village.
“When I cawed like a crow, it replied. So I cawed twice, to which the crow cawed three times – and so on, right up to 17, at which point my voice was giving out.
“The crow probably thinks humans are too stupid to count beyond 17. Except I think the crow is probably not stupid enough to think that.”
To that, let me just add one more observation – my own, this time – that demonstrates the ability of rooks to communicate with each other.
I was out walking in the fields near Marlesford when I noticed two rooks engaged in aerial battle with a sparrowhawk. (I’ve often seen other birds mobbing sparrowhawks, and no wonder.)
When a third rook arrived, it didn’t join in but quickly took stock of the situation and flew away, purposefully and straight towards a distant wood.
A minute or two later it was back (I presume) – with about 20 other rooks. At which point the hawk gave up and fled.
There’s intelligent life in the skies, all right. And well within sight, too, if we’re prepared to look.

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