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Birds Are More Conscious Than Humans [part 2]: Song Birds
June 24, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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Bird Songs Evolved Before Human Language

Note: This is a polemic. It should be read after Birds Are More Conscious Than Humans.

Bookstores reopened and I ventured out of my nest. I chose two books to buy, The Three Body Problem by Ken Liu and The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman. The second book gave me more ammunition for my thesis that birds are arguably more conscious than human beings. Here I will focus on relatively recent discoveries and speculation about bird (Aves) language and songs, as described by Ms. Ackerman.

The word consciousness has several related aspects. If a bird has been stunned, say by crashing into a window, but then gets up and hops or flies away, we say it has regained consciousness. This aspect is the ability of an organism to survey and respond appropriately to its environment. Self-awareness is another aspect of consciousness: a human or bird knows that it exists and what its place in its environment is. The trickiest to define is what my old dictionary calls "aware of oneself as a thinking being," which ends up using the term aware to define a stream of mental states. Humans, including scientists and philosophers, have tended to set themselves apart as a species that can use a language to talk and think about abstract ideas like consciousness, awareness, and ego. But there is no proof that self-awareness, a rich mental life, actually requires language, much less taking a course in philosophy of mind.

Humans certainly did not invent song or language. The earliest possible point in evolution where some version of human language emerged would be at the time we split from the other great apes, between 8 and 4 million years ago. We do not know if language developed slowly, over hundreds of thousands of years, or in a sudden leap. We may think that species before Homo sapiens may already have had language, but spoken words do not fossilize well, nor the soft parts of the vocal track that could give us some insight.

In contrast, "our beloved songbirds of the Northern Hemisphere trace their origins to ancestors living in Australasia and New Guinea forty-five million to sixty-five million years ago."[Ackerman, p. 20] Songbirds would have been part of the African and ex-African human environment since before we split off from the other apes. It would not be surprising if proto-humans learned, or got the idea of, language and song from birds. Perhaps the question should be why chimpanzees and gorillas never learned.

We use words to tell ourselves we are conscious, in addition to telling each other about the specifics of our world. We hum and sing because it makes us feel good. Birds have been singing and communicating with their songs much, much longer than humans. Perhaps they feel more conscious when they sing, much as I feel more conscious, in a way, when listening to Beethoven's 7th Symphony or humming "hey, hey, we're the Monkees". We now know that listening to other birds, including other species of birds, as well as the general environment, is a major bird occupation. In the last 20 years the simplistic human interpretation of bird song has been vastly expanded. So too, we should grant birds the complicated, heightened awareness that should correspond to their musical depth.

"Andrew Skeoch, an Australian wildlife sound recordist, views the dawn chorus as a communal and collective phenomenon in which individual birds negotiate and affirm their relationships while minimizing conflict. . . . It may be the greatest evolutionary achievement of songbirds, allowing them to coexist and to become the wildly successful and diverse group they are." [Ackerman p. 29-30]

The great apes, in contrast, are not a wildly successful and diverse group. One species, with very narrow genetic diversity, may dominate the world, but that is a recent development. Check back in a million years.

"Birds certainly recognize one another as individuals. Precocial chicks like goslings and ducklings that follow their parents just hours after hatching learn to recognize particular adults at a surprisingly tender age, by look, voice, personality." [Ackerman, p. 11] There are many more examples of birds being able to distinguish other individual birds, of their own or other species. That implies an active memory, and a sense of self. One example was given of birds that copy a rival's repertoire of songs so that, after pushing the rival out of its territory, the new bird will be accepted by the old neighbors.

How self-aware are humans, anyway? Philosophers and others who ask questions about the nature of consciousness are rare birds indeed. Most people just accept reality and get on with it. Most don't know enough about biology to worry about how pulses of charges moving from one neuron to another could possible result in awareness of sounds, color, feelings, and the other myriad sensations (qualia) of the conscious mind. But one can be conscious without worrying about it. Who knows, perhaps some birds do worry about it.

"Birds are generally better at recognizing sound than we imagined, keenly sensitive to variations in pitch, tone, and rhythm in the sounds of their own species, which allows them to identify fellow birds not just as members of their own species, but as individuals within flocks, even in noisy, chaotic conditions." [Ackerman p. 31-32] Scientists used to attribute bird behavior, including song, to instinct. But there is considerable evidence that songs are learned, and some birds can learn or create novel songs. Some species sing duets, which may be dialogs, rather than just love songs. [Ackerman p. 35-37]

Birds have been discovered displaying many of the attributes we associate with human language. Some display specificity of subjects and verbs. [Ackerman p. 43-50] Some use syntax [p. 61-63]. Groups of birds of different species cooperate, sometimes learning each other's alarm calls. Once thought to be just a sort of "Danger!" scream, it turns out that some species have different words for the type of danger presented, for instance a snake versus a hawk. In fact, they have a word for an owl sitting in a limb nearby, as opposed to an owl flying towards them with evil intent. At least one species has a numeric code for the degree of threat. A variety of species listen to each other's alarm calls and take appropriate action. [p. 54-57]

How is all this accomplished with tiny bird brains? Like Silicon Valley firms, evolution has led birds to a dense packing of neurons. These units of behavior are smaller than those of mammals and packed much more tightly. This also gives an advantage in quicker response times as the axons connecting neurons are shorter. [Ackerman 16-17] For instance Rufous hummingbirds: "With a brain the size of a grain of rice, they can keep a running tab of multiple aspects of their visits to flowers — which ones offer the best-quality food ... displaying a type of memory once attributed solely to humans." [21-22] One reason that scientists underestimated bird intelligence and consciousness for over a century is that birds just think faster than humans. This human lack of consciousness is being corrected using high-speed video and audio recording devices.

In my previous essay I demonstrated why flight may make an individual animal more conscious than sitting in a Philosophy of Mind class or quietly, repeatedly thinking a mantra. For most philosophers the answer, for asserting human superiority in matters of consciousness, is the primacy of human language and thought. That is a strong argument, but not so strong when you realize that some bird species long ago deciphered the language of many other bird species, but humans, stupidly, simply dismissed the communications abilities of non-humans, especially non-mammals.

There is no meter we can attach to a bird brain and a human brain to see which displays a higher degree of consciousness. There are still many mysteries about how any brain can be conscious. The qualia issue does not seem likely to be solved soon. But we can look at the world with more discerning eyes and ears and try to decide the issue fairly. While crows and parrots sit in judgment.

Birds display a number of characteristics that I believe correlate with intensity of consciousness. In human terms, they are coming from behind, and I do like an underdog, or underbird. I will not be surprised if over time the birds are shown to be more conscious than humans.

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