Bird Flew By: Thoughts on Consciousness

Nick Drake was an acoustic guitar player who made his music in the late 1960s and early 70s. He lived a short life, and relatively few people discovered his music while he was alive (considerably more have discovered him since his death). In this song, which is one of my favorites by him, he seems to suggest that birds are creatures that think, and not only think, but think deeply (and experience consciousness):

 

Here are the words that I am referring to, in regard to avian philosophizing:

Bird flew by
And wondered, wondered why
She was wise enough to stay up in the sky
From there she could wonder
For the reason
What’s the point of a year
Or a season

‘Wisdom’ is attributed to this bird that is flying in the sky, and she even has existential thoughts. As someone who has spent years studying birds, and ‘wondering why’ about many things, I’ll admit that I doubt that any bird wonders ‘what is the point of a year or a season?’ But maybe they will someday… The lyrics in this song seem to ‘anthropomorphize,’ which is to attribute uniquely human characteristics to non-human animals. I feel fairly sure that Nick Drake didn’t think that birds actually wonder like the bird in the song does, as art does not need to represent reality. However, the song stimulated some thoughts in me that I’ll share with you.

No human can know for sure what a bird does or does not think, though for anyone who pays close attention to birds and other animals, it is obvious, based upon their behaviors, that at least some species do in fact think (imagine your dog or cat). Take a look at this short video showing a bird who modifies a tool that did not originally work, in order to gain access to a food item:

 

That bird, in my opinion, was obviously thinking, and possibly in a way that I could relate to—I think that the bird knows that it is something (and is therefore a self-aware something) that wants food.

It has long been assumed by many animal behaviorists that animals (including human beings) are, as Thomas Huxley coined, ‘automata,’ which is a machine that is driven exclusively by forces (genetics, past and current environmental conditions) that it cannot control. This assumption appears to be true, so far as I can see, except that I do not understand how consciousness (the ability to be self-aware) fits into the equation, an uncertainty which could undermine the validity of the assumption. In fact, consciousness is in my opinion the most inspiring, dependable (if I’m thinking, it’s there), and greatest mystery that I have encountered. I will be thinking about it for as long as I am conscious. Consciousness could be (and some people say definitely is) just another natural process that we have no control over. However, it is fascinating to me that self-awareness does not seem to be necessary, and yet it does exist. By ‘not necessary,’ I mean from an evolutionary perspective, as it does seem entirely possible that molecular machines which we call organisms could be assembled which reproduce and survive based entirely on stereotyped responses (a stereotyped response is a reaction that requires no thought, and happens automatically in response to a certain stimulus). Such a thoughtless creature is the sort of identity-less, stereotyped machine that many people, it seems to me, assume that non-human animals (which aren’t their pets) are. But I don’t think that that is, in many cases, true! I believe that it feels a certain way to be, say, a moose, or a bat. I also think that at least some vertebrates (animals with a backbone), including mammals and birds, experience some kind of consciousness, as it seems extraordinarily narrow-minded to assume that human beings are the only conscious animal on planet Earth. I find this thought of consciousness in other animals to be liberating!

Why liberating? Well, I occasionally find myself falling into a Dustin-centric trap. That is, I find myself assuming that the way I see things is simply the way it is. By thinking so, inescapable doom and gloom, for example, can become the definition in my mind of our universe on a given day when that is, in fact, ridiculous. It helps to remind myself that thousands of other organisms (there are at least 40,000 other organisms on Earth that are so similar to us that they also have a backbone) are experiencing (to some degree) the same Earth in an entirely different way than I am, in a way that I could not even comprehend. It is a relief to know that the universe isn’t about me. Colors, scents, fields (like magnetic), and other external stimuli that I cannot detect shape the lives, and probably thoughts, of the other animals that we as humans share this planet with. How different would it be to be a conscious dolphin than a conscious human? I cannot imagine!

Some animals, apparently, think because an animal that can think is often better off from an evolutionary perspective than an animal that cannot think (except, for example, when climate-changing technology, including nuclear weapons, are developed in conjunction with selfish, ignorant users). One passes on more genes with the aid of intelligence, and intelligence (the ability to use information) has apparently led to consciousness in some animals. Birds in the family Corvidae (crows, ravens, magpies, and jays) have been compared to primates (humans are primates) in regard to their advanced intelligence.1 It seems hard to believe that Corvids possess the intelligence that they do without also having some level of consciousness, and harder to believe that chimpanzees, which share about 99.7% of their expressed DNA with human beings, are not conscious.

When a bird flies by, it is nice to remind myself that my thoughts cannot be definitely known by it, just as its thoughts cannot be definitely known by me. It is estimated that there are 100 billion stars in our average-sized galaxy, and near each might be the potential for thinking organisms, possibly similar to us. Further, there are an estimated 10 trillion galaxies in our universe, and maybe an infinite number of other universes, all of which could be brimming with conscious beings. About 95% of the matter/energy in our universe is, at the moment, entirely indescribable to the scientists who have tried to study it. In other words, it is a mystery. I cannot help but wondering how this so-called ‘dark’ matter/energy relates to consciousness, and how it might affect the ‘automata-like’ nature of living organisms, possibly providing a sort of ‘freedom’ that many brain scientists insist, I think prematurely, is an illusion. Further, the matter that we consist of, at a very small level (quantum-scale, i.e. atoms, electrons, etc.), interacts in a way that scientists can somewhat describe, but don’t understand, which may impede our ultimate understanding of how consciousness works, given that matter apparently creates ‘mind’ and we are unsure why matter interacts as it does. Maybe someone in our galaxy has already figured out the answers to these questions…

IDL TIFF file
Thousands of galaxies in a tiny fragment of our sky, picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Speaking of thinking-things in other places (planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, etc.), they would probably be able to understand my thoughts far less than the bird that flies by can. Actually, I think, I wouldn’t even be recognized as a thinking thing by such distantly-related thinkers, somewhat like most people assume that plants have no level of intelligence (a notion which some scientists are currently challenging). If the ‘multi-verse’ (infinite universes) that some scientists think exist combines to create, say, a brain of an organism that thinks, that organism would probably understand its thoughts about as much as I do my own (and might appreciate the mystery). This is an important reminder, for me at least, to appreciate the awesomeness of reality, which can be enriched if one considers the many different ways of seeing the same world by co-inhabitants. Such knowledge helps me to remember to interact kindly with other people who believe slightly different things than I do (that’s the most difference that there can really be between human beliefs, in the ‘big picture’). It also reminds me how similar we humans are, and how we need to come together, embrace our unity, expand our consciousness, and do our best to avoid destroying our chance at life. Such destruction, I think, will happen sooner rather than later if we pretend that the universe is as we want it to be rather than as it is, if we choose ignorance rather than knowledge. The ability to be conscious is an incredible opportunity that we have, and I think that we should all ‘look’ while we can, so that others here can see, too.

Ultimately, I think, a bird flying by has approximately as much of a chance of really understanding consciousness, or whether or not there is more than one universe, as I do. But it sure is fun to think while being conscious, and I feel comfort knowing that I am not alone in doing that.

jungle-crow-in-flight

 

Literature Cited

  1. Emery, N. J. The Mentality of Crows: Convergent Evolution of Intelligence in Corvids and Apes. Science 306, 1903–1907 (2004).

To Live is to Fly

After finishing what may have been my last (and most rigorous) academic semester, I feel relieved. My thesis is written, all courses (to teach and take) are completed, and I have left the university (!!) with a graduate degree.

Two years of my life were dedicated to decoding the language of Blue Jays. Yes, Blue Jays – the bird that is probably in your back yard if you live in the United States, a species which may annoy you. What I did seems (to many people) like something that a parent would incredulously describe their child as having once done when young, rather than something an adult would do. “Do you remember when Josie spent the entire summer following those birds, and naming their calls?” The ultimate reason that this hypothetical child and I would devote effort to listening to the calls of birds is the same: fascination with the natural world. Children are natural scientists, hard-wired to ask questions and wonder why. As we age, there are many pressures (including genetics) to become more pragmatic, and to therefore ask less questions that have been deemed useless in providing benefits to humanity. There are many questions, though, which are not ‘useless’ to ask in this regard. Maintaining the ability and desire to ask questions (both questions which could benefit humanity and those that probably won’t), I believe, makes life much more interesting, and could even transform the ‘annoying’ Blue Jay into a fascinating subject of study, even for an adult. And yes, I think that better understanding birds can benefit humanity. I will explain why.

Blue Jays are in the family Corvidae, which includes the crows, ravens, magpies, and jays.  All of these birds are smart. Here is a cool documentary about crows!:

In addition to being smart, most Corvids are also noisy. Some have described Corvids as having ape-like intelligence (humans are, according to those who classify the relatedness of living things, apes). To say that ‘a bird is a bird and that all are the same’ is as incorrect as saying that a ‘mammal is a mammal and all are the same.’ We are better problem-solvers than cottontails, for example, and Blue Jays are better problem-solvers than Mallards. For us to understand how another smart and noisy species can communicate vocally is important for understanding how advanced vocalization systems develop. For example, identifying factors that make it advantageous to have large vocal repertoires, by studying species like Blue Jays, may allow us to understand a little bit about why we are the way we are (specifically, why do we humans use thousands of distinct vocal signals to communicate when many other species can get by with only a few?). Certain factors have been identified. For example, the FOX-P2 gene (one of about 20,000 genes that together make us human) has been linked with our advanced ability to communicate vocally. Social complexity has been linked with large vocal repertoire sizes in some species (like Blue Jays), which is to say that species which interact more often with other individuals have a greater need to be able to make many different distinct sounds to communicate. A solitary species has little need to have a large vocal repertoire, as there is no need to communicate most of the time, while a super-social species like human beings may create a dictionary with 170,000+ words in it for just one, of many, languages.

After recording for more than 30 hours, and recording 7,213 calls, I identified 42 distinct Blue Jay vocalizations, which is considerably more than the average bird uses (5-14 vocalizations is typical). I used spectrograms (visual representations of sound) to identify the different call types. Here is an example of a spectrogram from my study:

HDJ.Final.Color

This large repertoire size is likely due to the ability of Blue Jays to learn new vocalizations. Most species can utter only sounds that are encoded in their genes. Human beings and songbirds (which include Blue Jays) are among the few species which can learn a new sound based on experience. For example, Blue Jays in my study area that lived near Bald Eagles imitated Bald Eagles, and those that lived near Red-shouldered Hawks imitated Red-shouldered Hawks. Further, jays appeared to understand the meaning of the calls that they uttered. Only predator calls were imitated by Blue Jays (non-dangerous species weren’t), and these calls were often uttered in situations of danger for the vocalizing bird. So, rather than saying ‘look out, it might be coming to kill you!’ jays often utter a very convincing imitated predator call (for example, a Red-tailed Hawk call) to indicate the presence of danger (they sometimes use these calls when there is no apparent danger, too). This would be like us imitating a gunshot to say that a dangerous person is coming, which would be a very efficient way to transmit important information.

Interestingly, different groups of Blue Jays may have, to some degree, different languages. Different calls are learned at different locations, and those calls may be transmitted from generation to generation (culturally). Further, the same call at different locations may be used differently, which I learned by associating contexts (like predator-related, food-related, etc.) with the use of certain call types. Essentially, Blue Jays located at different places may have as hard of a time communicating with each other as a monolingual, native-speaking Eskimo would have trying to communicate with a monolingual, native-speaking Australian Aborigine. It seems that in this way, too, jays are not much different than us. Maybe understanding how amazing, and sometimes similar to us, other species are may encourage human beings to protect and respect them, and to therefore improve the situation here on planet Earth? I hope so.

Now I am travelling across the Great Plains conducting bird surveys, to help better understand how bird populations are doing in this part of the world (I will keep you posted!). Studies such as my Blue Jay project, I think, show how important it is to protect and pay attention to other species, because there is a lot that we can learn from them. Not only can we learn from other species, but we depend on them to maintain the conditions which sustain all life (more on that in another post). I will admit, it feels good to be done with the Blue Jay project (mainly because of all of the difficult steps that are required to complete a Master’s thesis), but I am glad that I took the time to observe and better understand another living creature, especially one as fascinating and misunderstood as the Blue Jay. Often when I watch birds, I’m reminded of the Townes Van Zandt song, To Live is To Fly, which I have found to be beautiful and inspiring:

And in a way, now, I do feel like I’m flying, with the wind of the natural world beneath my wings. The weight of graduate school has been cut loose, and I’m ready to soar, so that I can see, understand, and hopefully protect the wind that holds me up.