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Creation 40(4):16–18, October 2018

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Pigeon Revision: Brainy birds trump bookish baboons

Astonished scientists observe pigeons can match primate intelligence across multiple measures



Pigeons are a lot smarter than once thought, according to a study published in the prestigious PNAS journal.1

One of the study’s authors, Professor Michael Colombo, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, mused, “We may have to seriously re-think the use of the term ‘bird brain’ as a put down.”2

But first, some background.

The study was the latest research endeavour that among other things was trying to answer an evolutionary puzzle: Why can people read? This involves the capability for what is known as orthographic processing—being able to visually form, store and recall words, such as writing them in the air in front of you. The problem for evolutionists is that there hasn’t been enough time for the part of the human brain believed to be needed for reading fluency, namely, the visual word form area (VWFA) to have evolved:

“[T]he presence of a VWFA is difficult to assimilate with the fact that writing was invented merely 5,400 years ago, and only became widespread very recently in human history, making it impossible that an area of the human brain evolved specifically for reading. Without the time to evolve, how can we explain the presence of the VWFA?”1

To try to explain this, evolutionists came up with the idea that the VWFA must have evolved in our supposed non-human primate ancestors to give them this visual word-processing capability but for a purpose relevant to their savannah/jungle lifestyle. I.e., “A novel theory suggests that orthographic processing is the product of neuronal recycling, with visual circuits that evolved to code visual objects now co-opted to code words.”1

So there was excitement among the evolutionary fraternity when researchers found that baboons visually presented with four-letter strings could be trained to discriminate real (English) words from nonsense combinations of letters that resembled real words.3,4 To check that the animals weren’t simply doing this by merely memorizing words, the researchers introduced new words and non-words that the baboons had never seen before. As a further check, the researchers monitored the baboons’ performance when letters were transposed (e.g. DONE becoming DNOE)—considered to be “the hallmark of orthographic processing”.4 The baboons correctly identified the novel letter strings as words or non-words at a rate significantly above chance, indicating the baboons were not merely rote-learning visual patterns.

The fact that baboons could do this was huge news, given that it was “an ability previously thought to be unique to humans, and one for which the VWFA is purportedly critical.”1

Shifting focus from baboons to birds

The aforementioned Professor Colombo, his University of Otago colleague Dr Damien Scarf, and their co-workers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany were sufficiently intrigued by the orthographic processing ability of baboons that they wondered if it was unique to primates. As they pointed out in the introduction to their paper, the neuron recycling hypothesis to explain the existence of the VWFA had been formulated with our brain and visual system in mind. However, “we have no idea whether a primate brain is a prerequisite for orthographic processing.”1

So to explore that further, the researchers set out to assess orthographic processing in pigeons, whose brain architecture and visual system are very different from that of both humans and baboons.

Adapting the baboon experiments’ food-reward system, the researchers set up a touchscreen so that if pigeons pecked the correct answers they received grains of wheat. Much to the researchers’ surprise, the pigeons’ ability to discriminate between words and non-words was on a par with that of the baboons. On the key parameters, the pigeons’ and baboons’ datasets were “indistinguishable” from each other. As the researchers wrote, “Astonishingly, we find that pigeons display every hallmark of orthographic processing displayed by Grainger et al.’s baboons.”1

What’s more, in one measure the pigeons’ achievements were “actually more comparable to that of literate humans than the baboons’ performance.”1

Numbers, too

The fact that pigeons could match monkeys in intelligence was not new to Damien Scarf, who several years earlier reported the phenomenon in numerosity, i.e. the ability to rank collections of objects numerically.5,6 Scarf had said at that time, “Our findings add to a growing body of evidence that pigeons are among a number of avian species exhibiting impressive mental abilities that really do give the lie to the old ‘bird brain’ insult.”7

A discerning eye for fine art

Subsequently Dr Scarf observed his pigeons have a discriminating eye in fine art as well, being able to distinguish between paintings by different artists, e.g. a Picasso from a Monet. Once the pigeons were familiar with an artist’s style, they could identify his work among paintings not previously shown to them. As Scarf explained, “they can discriminate between Picasso and Monet, and they can transfer to pictures of Picasso and Monet they’ve never seen before. And so it shows that they are picking up on the subtle differences between the two artists, which I don’t think I’d be able to do.”8 (Knowledgeable art lovers might disagree with Dr Scarf about the differences being ‘subtle’, but we won’t debate that here … .)

Other researchers had also previously reported this, even observing further that pigeons could more broadly distinguish the works of the Impressionists from others.9 I.e. pigeons “showed generalization from Monet’s to Cezanne’s and Renoir’s [all Impressionists] paintings or from Picasso’s to Braque’s and Matisse’s paintings.”10

Temporal and spatial concepts

Adding to all this is a recent study showing that pigeons are capable of grasping the abstract concepts of space and time,11 which humans are said to do using the brain region known as the cortex. However, bird brains don’t have a cortex, their brains being absolutely and proportionally way smaller than the human brain—one reason why the avian brain has been widely regarded by scientists as being inferior to that of primates. But there is a mounting body of evidence showing that pigeon brain capability has been woefully underestimated. This is forcing a dramatic and widespread revision in the scientific community’s view of the pigeon. As one of the space-and-time study co-researchers, Iowa University’s Edward Wasserman, said: “Those avian nervous systems are capable of far greater achievements than the pejorative term ‘bird brain’ would suggest. Indeed, the cognitive prowess of birds is now deemed to be ever closer to that of both human and nonhuman primates.”12

Surprise, surprise—but it shouldn’t be

Given the ever-growing body of research demonstrating birds’ brain power as being on a par with that of primates, why do we continue to hear these studies being labelled as “surprising”?2 It’s actually to do with the evolutionary worldview framework of the secular science community, as this statement from one of the pigeon literacy co-investigators, Onur Güntürkün, professor of behavioural neuroscience at Ruhr University, would indicate: “[the fact] that pigeons—separated by 300 million years of evolution from humans and having vastly different brain architectures—show such a skill as orthographic processing is astonishing”.1

Yes, it’s “astonishing” because the evolutionary framework posits that non-human primates, as supposedly ‘our closest evolutionary relatives’, rather than the ‘300-million-year’ evolutionarily-distant birds, would be the animals expected to most closely match humans in various measures of ‘intelligence’. But the evolutionary fraternity’s own observations of brainy birds, now spanning decades,13 highlights the fallacy of that evolution framework.

Also, impressive though the pigeons’ and baboons’ word-distinguishing abilities might be, there’s a huge gulf between us and them. Having acquired at most 308 four-letter words, their bookishness isn’t going to extend to ‘reading the classics’ anytime soon.1,14

Man—made in God’s image

The profound differences between their mental capacities and ours reinforces the biblical truth that man is not just another animal, but made in God’s image and placed as the federal head of creation (Genesis 1:26–28). This perfectly explains why it’s humans who have developed touchscreens and other experimental tools enabling the study and writing of research papers about animals, rather than the other way around. Research papers are intended to be read by people, not birds or baboons. It’s hugely ironic therefore, that the pigeon literacy research paper opens with this sentence: “On the surface, the human brain seems to have evolved for reading.”1

No, it was designed that way, that we might e.g. devote ourselves to the public and personal reading of Scripture (Matthew 19:4; 21:42; 1 Timothy 4:13; Revelation 1:3), useful for bringing us into right ways of thinking (2 Timothy 3:16). Compare that to the mindset of Dr Scarf and his colleagues, who in their paper took the evolutionary leap from their pigeon results to conclude that “birds are ideal models with which to investigate the origins of language.”1 The researchers also wrote that “pigeons’ conceptualization abilities make them an ideal animal model with which to investigate the early stages of human word learning.”1

So, we are to look to pigeons to understand human word learning?! Given the unfortunate influence of evolutionary thinking on education in many jurisdictions, one wonders what more wacky ideas our young people might be exposed to next.

References and notes

  1. Scarf, D., Boy, K., Uber Reinert, A., Devine, J., Güntürkün, O., and Colombo, M., Orthographic processing in pigeons (Columba livia), PNAS 113(40):11272–11276, 2016 | doi:10.1073/pnas.1607870113. Return to text.
  2. Pigeons have quite a way with words: Otago research, otago.ac.nz, 19 September 2016. Return to text.
  3. Grainger, J., Dufau, S., Montant, M., Ziegler, J., and Fagot J., Orthographic processing in baboons (Papio papio), Science 336(6078):245–248, 2012 | doi:10.1126/science.1218152. Return to text.
  4. Ziegler, J.C. et al., Transposed-letter effects reveal orthographic processing in baboons, Psychol. Sci. 24(8):1609–1611, 2013 | doi:10.1177/0956797612474322. Return to text.
  5. Scarf, D., Hayne, H., and Colombo, M., Pigeons on par with primates in numerical competence, Science 334(6063):1664, 23 December 2011 | doi:10.1126/science.1213357. Return to text.
  6. Number-savvy pigeons match monkeys, Creation 34(3):9, 2011; creation.com/number-savvy-pigeons. Return to text.
  7. Pigeons no bird brains when it comes to number sense: Otago research, otago.ac.nz, 23 December 2011. Return to text.
  8. Pigeons smarter than we thought, ABC Science Show, presented by Robyn Williams, broadcast 28 January 2017, transcript at abc.net.au. Return to text.
  9. Warner, J., Pecking birds can pick a Picasso, newscientist.com, 6 May1995. Return to text.
  10. Watanabe, S., Sakamoto, J., and Wakita, M., Pigeons’ discrimination of paintings by Monet and Picasso, J. Exp. Anal. Behav. 63(2):165–74, 1995 | doi:10.1901/jeab.1995.63-165. Return to text.
  11. De Corte, B., Navarro, V., and Wasserman, E., Non-cortical magnitude coding of space and time by pigeons, Current Biology 27(23):R1264–R1265, 4 December 2017 | doi:dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.10.029. Return to text.
  12. Weisberger, M., Brainy birds: Pigeons can understand distance and time, livescience.com, 4 December 2017. Return to text.
  13. See, e.g., Wieland, C., Bird-brain matches chimps (and neither makes it to grade school), Creation 19(1):47, 1996; creation.com/alex. Return to text.
  14. Taylor, M., Is it pigeon English?, odt.co.nz, 20 September 2016. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Paul R.
It’s an ongoing sense of wonderment to me that the anti-creationist movement still functions in the face of all the evidences to the contrary! And the anti-creationist movement is alive and well in ALL places in this creation—from the spirit subservient tribes in the Amazon to the hallowed halls of Cambridge and Harvard. As the Big Picture gets bigger of the wonders of the creatures God created in the Creation week account in Genesis 1, the folly of humanity becomes evident when the Creator isn’t honoured.
Neil O.
If the Scarf et al. study leads them to conclude only that “pigeons’ conceptualization abilities make them an ideal animal model with which to investigate the early stages of human word learning,” then I am forced to conclude that their Naturalistic thought processes can be summed up in the ‘bird-word’, CUCKOO!
Jeannette P.
Job 12:
7 But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
8 or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
9 Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind.
Joel L.
Evolutionary speculations aside, surely the research is relevant beyond just its utility in falsifying one specific set of evolutionary theories? Am I to believe that comparing the abilities of humans, primates and other creatures sheds no light on how they function in us, or what the boundary is between cognition operating in God’s own image and cognition that isn’t?

I’m increasingly coming to accept that I just have a fundamentally different philosophy from most creationist orgs and advocates when it comes to the distinction between human cognition and the rest of creation.

It seems to me that while we know from Scripture much of what spirits and souls do, and how our combination of soul and intellect relate both to creation and to God, we can only take a minimalist approach to any facet of what our souls are. Our souls are eternal. Our soul and intellect together were created to relate to God and creation in a unique way. We bear a unique moral culpability, and are capable of unique evil, with a unique choice between good and evil. We were either uniquely formed, or uniquely singled out and emphasized as having been formed by the hand of God (the former is a certainty in the case of Eve). This much we know.

We don’t know what souls are. We don’t know how they enter into our nature, or the insubstantial reality into any other creature. We don’t know what they're formed out of, or how ‘soul’ relates to consciousness, or even what role our intellect alone plays in our being ‘in the image of God’.

I’ve given up the idea of making definitive assertions about something whose nature we don’t understand, which are not spelled out in Scripture and which have no bearing (as opposed to function and relationship) on the Gospel message. It just invites distraction.
Jonathan Sarfati
Presumably God told us in Scripture that humans are made in God's image and likeness for a reason. After all, He wrote Scripture to teach us.

Thus teaching undergirds the prohibition against murder in the Noahic Covenant of Genesis 9, for example, as well as Jesus telling us to fear not the ones who can destroy the body but the One who can destroy both body and soul. The whole point of good systematic theology is making logical deductions from the propositions of Scripture, which must include the image and likeness of God.
Rodney P.
Every corollary deduced from a false premise is likely also to be wrong – such as “junk DNA”, or “vestigial organs”, or “poor design” of body parts, etc, etc. But the evolutionists will never admit that their theories are being refuted over and over.
Jonathan Sarfati
Glad you said “likely also to be wrong” rather than “must be wrong”. Sometimes people believe the right things for the wrong reason, e.g. people have been onvinced of the truth of creation from one of the arguments we advise creationists not to use. From a logical standpoint, a false premise guarantees neither a false conclusion nor a true one (cf. denying the antecedent).
Jonathan B.
Fascinating article! Thank you for posting it. I wonder what would be discovered in similar experiments with some of the parrot family. We already know they have many incredible mental capabilities. Maybe they could even read music, and learn to sing in (human) tune, something I can’t do!

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