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Birds Are More Conscious Than Humans
December 11, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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"Little imagination is required to fancy that so light and delicate a body must be tenanted by some wandering fairy spirit." — Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

Note: This is a polemic. It argues that birds are more conscious than humans in order to illuminate questions about the physical nature of consciousness.

"What is consciousness?" is an ancient philosophical question. Few people would deny that humans are conscious, though solipsists deny not just the consciousness of, but the independent existence of other people. Even Buddhist philosophy, which deduces that everything is Illusion, needs consciousness to be aware of all the illusions that the less enlightened call Reality, or Nature.

Animals of many species have been assumed to be conscious by various human cultures over time. Scientific skeptics, notably Behavioralists, went to the other extreme in the 20th century, denying all consciousness in animals, except perhaps our cousins the Great Apes. In the current era it is not uncommon for humans, professional scientists or not, to be wary of projecting human traits, in particular consciousness, onto animal behavior. Avoiding anthropomorphism is the rule.

Upon careful consideration, I believe that birds (Aves), or at least some bird species, may be more conscious than Homo sapiens.


I base my argument, in part, on the works of Nobel-prize winner Gerald Edelman [1929-2014] and other neuroscientists who have studied the relationship between brain functions and consciousness. However, my position on bird consciousness is not directly based on Edelman, who traced the biological evolution of consciousness up to humans, leaving birds on an undiscussed side branch of the tree of life. In this essay I do not assume readers are familiar with Edelman's work or anything except that consciousness is deeply connected to the activity of the brain.

The general problem is using comparison words like "more" and "less" with regard to consciousness. In Philosophy of Mind consciousness is often treated in simple propositions, either as existing or not. In ordinary language we might say something like Mary is more conscious than John, but that usually is not a comparison of consciousness overall, but about a specific subject, as in: Mary is more conscious of people's motivations than John. There is intersection with concepts like intelligence, knowledge, mind, and awareness. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" seems a clever display of mind-body or soul-body duality, but does not tell us if a creature needs a language to think or to be aware of its thinking or its surroundings. Most of us have observed others in conscious states, gray areas, between zero (death) and one (wide awake). For instance, we know about dream states, groggy waking states, and intoxication. Claims of super-consciousness (cosmic consciousness) have also been made by individuals. Certainly stimulants like crystal meth can give the impression of a consciousness beyond the ordinary.

In regard to a comparison with birds we need to keep in mind that consciousness is complex, with a variety of scales that might be used to measure it. For instance, the ability to discern color could be a measure of consciousness. If that were the only scale used, one might find that some species of shrimp are more conscious than either humans or birds.

Edelman follows a consensus of scientists and modern philosophers in allowing for two general degrees of consciousness. Edelman call them primary and higher order consciousness. I will call them animal consciousness and human consciousness, though humans have both primary and higher order consciousness. Animal consciousness is the capability of being aware of the environment. Human consciousness adds self-awareness, which Edelman generally associates with the use of language. Antonio Damasio, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of emotions and feelings in the construction of consciousness. If true, that would provide a clearer bridge between animal and human consciousness.

Apes usually are the transitional form considered by those looking at how human consciousness evolved beyond animal consciousness. Evolution theory tells us there must be transitional forms that are now extinct. Scientists simply do not know when true language was added to the homo, or perhaps even proto-homo, mix. Some speculate it dates back to or even precedes the earliest use of tools or fire, well over 2 million years ago. Others maintain it is a quite recent phenomena, certainly not predating Homo sapiens, and perhaps not present in a meaningful way until the Mesolithic, about 10,000 years ago. Spoken words do not fossilize well.

In arguing for bird consciousness I am arguing against Edelman's statement "Therefore, the model must be examined rather carefully for traps and pitfalls, particularly because animals having only primary consciousness can yield no direct report and because observation of that function must therefore always be indirect and by induction. Moreover, as we shall see when we consider high-order consciousness, it is not possible for creatures possessing it (like us) reliably to intuit what it is like to possess only primary consciousness." [Edelman, Remembered Present, p. 168]

In contrast, I believe one of the pitfalls is assuming animals can possess only primary, or animal, consciousness and that human language is necessary for human or any other higher-order consciousness.

Let us turn to anatomy. Brain size is one fact used by humans to dismiss the consciousness of birds, who have brains considerably smaller than those of humans. At the same time animals with brains larger than humans, like elephants and whales, are generally dismissed as having only animal consciousness. A fair judge, rather than noting these species possess no language the judge can understand, or pointing to brain size alone, in considering whether a bird (individual or species) might have higher-order consciousness, perhaps even higher order than humans, needs to determine a fair set of factors for making the judgment. Without putting a thumb on the scales in favor of Homo.

Consider the purpose of consciousness in the framework of evolution. Consciousness helps birds, humans, and other animals survive. Birds have been surviving a very long time, as have all living lines of animals. Birds, as distinguished from their lizard ancestors, were a distinct group at least 65 million years ago. Primates arose about the same era. There are less than 500 species of living primates, but about 10,000 bird species. Until man began to remake the world in the past few thousand years, birds were more successful at survival and evolution than primates.

Birds, excepting flightless birds, live in a higher-dimensional practical space than humans. Human space is essentially two dimensional, crawling on the ground. Bird space is essentially three dimensional, moving through the air. Being conscious in three dimensions requires much more brain-power than being conscious in two dimension. Bird brains evolved to have this higher-order consciousness, while remaining small, in order to facilitate flight.

Birds must also be quicker than human beings. Compared to the slow movements of human beings, the mental and physical apparatus of flight must be sped up. To slow-witted humans, bird movement and reactions appear to be nearly instantaneous. This would all be controlled by a brain, giving it the ability to support consciousness.

According to Edelman consciousness is most fully engaged in the construction and monitoring of scenes. Scenes are what make us feel we are immersed in reality, without having to worry about how sensory input is processed, or how the scenes are constructed. Scenes are the totality of conscious experience at a given time, dominated (usually) by visual input, but also including audio and other sensory input like awareness of body location or feelings, plus whatever is needed from longer-term memory to interpret the scene correctly. There is typically an extended scene as well, which is a mental construct of what lies beyond immediate sensory input, including in time. For instance, in addition to seeing my paper, pen hand, the tabletop and various aspects of my periphery, I expect my house and my neighborhood to exist as I already know them. The scene can be quickly amended, as by a noise from my dog downstairs, or a knock on the door, or a truck sound from a block away.

The question of bird versus human consciousness is not whether birds can think. Thinking is not the main or highest form or consciousness. Thinking tends to be over-rated (in relation to consciousness) by professional thinkers like philosophers, scientists, professors, and writers. Thinking often works best when other conscious activities are minimized. A person thinking while walking will often pay only minimal attention to surroundings, which can be a danger to survival.

The key to deciding whether birds or humans are more conscious is not whether birds can think in an oral, human-like language. What determines which creature is more conscious is how good the two species are at constructing scenes. Since birds construct scenes in full 3-D while flying, clearly that is an argument that they are more conscious than humans. Like humans, they sleep. Like humans, they have a social life. When they are not flying their conscious processes may sink to a human level.

Going back to Edelman, there are some neural mechanisms required for a brain to create a conscious scene. Perhaps the most important is reentry (re-entry; other neurologists use the term feedback). The biological basis for reentry is two-way nerves (neurons going in both directions) and more complex loops of nerves. Connections between many parts of the brain, for instance the two cerebral hemispheres, are characterized by reentry. This allows for a rapid exchange of information. Another example is the reentrant nerves connecting the regions that process input from the right or left eye. More extensive loops may pass through a third or fourth region before returning signals to their original center. This allows for coordination of diverse inputs, like sight and sound, or outputs, like signals to the muscles that can be quickly tempered by feedback from sensors in the bones or muscles. They also can help match up memories to new inputs.

Edelman and other scientists believe reentry loops and networks evolved to help animals rapidly respond to any changes in the outside world. A small animal that quickly responds to a food opportunity or to danger is more likely to survive than a slow responder. A quick predator is more likely to eat than one with a slow brain.

The construction of a scene, and conscious monitoring of the scene, allows for flexible, intelligent, and quick animal behavior. Given that birds monitor 3-D inputs and memories, perform the difficult trick of flying, and are typically faster responders than humans, it seems likely that they too construct conscious scenes. No other explanation for their capabilities seems plausible.

So there are at least two ways to get a factual answer to the question of which species are most conscious. One would be to observe how animals deal with their environment and then deduce which are more conscious. The other is to carefully characterize the reentrant nerve pathways in each species. At present the detailed neurological structure of the human brain is still being mapped. Much of it is poorly understood. With birds the science is even poorer, with what little work that has been done being with chickens, which, being bred for domestication, may not be among the more conscious of the bird species.

For now my vote is for the birds, based on their ability to fly. On the other hand perhaps it would be better to admit that consciousness is a complex matter, still poorly understood. It has many variable or components, and humans may not be the top scorers on all variables.

Further Reading: Crows could be the smartest animal other than primates [BBC, December 12, 2019]

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