Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh

Posted by metaphorical on 18 June 2008

Okay, there’s no evidence (yet) that pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh or vice versa. But they can tell them apart. How much evidence of sentience is enough, before we start to rethink the way we treat our fellow sentient creatures?

Self-recognition is found in large primates such as chimpanzees, and recent findings show that dolphins and elephants also have such intelligence. Proving that pigeons also have this ability show that such high intelligence as self-recognition can be seen in various animals, and are not limited to primates and dolphins that have large brains.

UPI has the story on the wires (thank you, Claire, for the heads-up), but more details can be found at Science Daily.

Pigeons Show Superior Self-recognition Abilities To Three Year Old Humans

ScienceDaily (Jun. 14, 2008) — Keio University scientists have shown that pigeons are able to discriminate video images of themselves even with a 5-7 second delay, thus having self-cognitive abilities higher than 3-year-old children who have difficulty recognizing their self-image with only a 2 second delay.

Prof. Shigeru Watanabe of the Graduate School of Human Relations of Keio University and Tsukuba University graduate student Kohji Toda trained pigeons to discriminate real-time self-image using mirrors as well as videotaped self-image, and proved that pigeons can recognize video images that reflect their movements as self-image.

We can argue over the details of how to prove self-cognition, but the article has a detailed discussion of the methods and functional definitions that studies like this one have been using for almost 40 years now.

The wire and other reports of this study make much of the fact that, using these functional definitions, pigeons do better at self-recognition than 3-year-old humans. Personally, I find at least as interesting a fact in the UPI story not even mentioned in Science Daily, that the pigeons can distinguish Chagall paintings from those of Van Gogh.

People with cats and dogs routinely ascribe to them motives, beliefs, preferences, fears, desires, and other complex mental states. People on farms, who spend as much time with cows and pigs and horses as we do with dogs and cats, talk about them in the same way.

Leaving aside the question of eating them for food, how can we confine them, keep them perpetually pregnant, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cement kiln dust, testosterone, progesterone, anabolic steroids, and chicken manure…. how can we hang a 1500-lb animal upside down by its ankle when it’s still conscious?

How can we treat an animal with cognitive abilities that can, at least in some ways, be favorably compared to a 3-year-old with wanton disregard for its obvious suffering?

12 Responses to “Pigeons prefer Chagall to Van Gogh”

  1. ClaireDePlume said

    “…How can we treat an animal with cognitive abilities that can, at least in some ways, be favorably compared to a 3-year-old with wanton disregard for its obvious suffering?”

    How can we indeed.

    There are many questionable deeds we humans commit, possibly thoughtlessly and even more possibly, dispassionately. From intentional verbal slights (death by a thousand pin pricks) to serial killings (death by a thousand stabs), the list is long. Both suffering and inflicting pain may very well be an inherently human condition, no matter how bright or dull our three year old babies are.

    But then, does a lion mourn the wildebeest after the kill, seasoning the carcass of it’s dead prey with salty tears of remorse?

    Apparently, there are those of us who ponder the level and depth of human sentience and the essence of our supposed “humanity” and ultimately, the very purpose of existence. We too are simple animals, ironically complex in this shadowy realm of intellectual cognizance oddly coupled with a raw internal biological warfare. Once a lion draws first blood, the animal is momentarily quelled and a beast is stirred into consciousness. How can we suppose we are above this jungle culture?

    For all of our art, our writings, our music, are linguistic agility, we too must survive, and this requires that some other will be sacrificed and consumed to continue the ritual of life. Whether our prey is plant or animal, the reflex of killing and eating is inherently interwoven in our biological make-up. The intelligent and the dumb in our jungle will live off the life of something or another to stave off perishing.

    In the general scheme of things, there will always be man and monster, perhaps existing in one body, identifiable only by it’s tastes and it’s abilities to recognize feast or foe.

    I’ve long suspected that we are all angels and animals under the skin, and it’s possible that not even a Chagall or a Van Gogh can completely satisfy this hunger for identifiable answers.

  2. Just thinking... said

    You are correct about our duality. I guess the fact the we can ponder the essence of our complex natures puts us ever so slightly above it all.

  3. ClaireDePlume said


    Thinking on the essence of your comment…

    That notch is on a bar we have set not only for ourselves but for other life too. Perhaps it’s time to change the menu and find a unification theory that works for us, and spares our ever so slightly lower dinner guests?

    (And I must again ponder – are we ever so slightly above “all”? Or is there something hanging over *our* heads waiting for a chance to marvel at our endearing cognitive powers as we’re spiced with repentant tears and grilled to perfection? Will there be white or red wine with that?)

  4. You know that said

    following a vegan diet could lead to nutritional deficiencies in some people. Those deficiencies might cause some to abandon their pen and paper for more vegetables. Personally, I need to maintain a healthy blood-iron level to continue thinking. (I’ll take the red with my rib-eye!)
    I admire your ideas, I just do not think they,re possible for most of us.

  5. ClaireDePlume said

    Well, ya know You Know, that ‘veganism’ isn’t for everyone… just like white or red wine, and Chagall or Van Gogh.

    I think the queasiness over eating sentient beings isn’t for everyone also. How else would we humans have both our military and our manicurists and all else in between? And if pressed for an answer, I’d have to say our world couldn’t be the same any other way.

    Odd though, how revitalizing a “blood iron” truth for one may be a toxic untruth for another. This may lead to the conclusion that there is room for more than one truth.

    You Know That I’ll leave this carrot dangling for now.

  6. Thinking Again said

    Take care Claire. I think we could become good friends!

  7. ClaireDePlume said

    Cheers :D

  8. digglahhh said

    Give ’em high school diplomas!

    How many high school students even know who Marc Chagall is or could recognize his work? For that matter, how many could even recognize a Van Gogh?

    Oh word, Marc Chagall, I think he requested to be added to my MySpace…

  9. Thinking said

    Chagall was a poet besides being a great artist. His paintings can be considered poetry in colors and shapes.He painted angels, lovers, flying fish, roosters and may other things. He was religious and believed in miracles and in the infinite wisdom of the Creator. Van Gogh was more somber in his paintings perhaps because he was depressed during most of his life. He is the one who cut off his ear because he was not talking to one of his friends. I can understand why the pigeons would prefer one over the other. Can’t you?

  10. ClaireDePlume said

    Pigeons don’t score as well at their poetry reading, but any birds I’ve known like bright, playful colors. And perhaps they aren’t fans of starry nights; maybe we should ask the night hawks and owls if they prefer Van Gogh? If I were a pigeon, I’d peck… I mean pick, Monet.

  11. digglahhh said

    I’ve seen pigeons create numerous (what I interpret as) homages to Pollock…

  12. Thinking said

    You and I agree here. “Jack the Dripper” and pigeons could definetly get along!

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