Going batty over Betty

So a crow can bend a wire? Well, clap, clap.

Patrick West
Columnist

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Topics Politics
  • Rights for computers

‘Black. Beaky. Beady. Brilliant‘ read a headline in the Independent on Sunday on 11 August (1). It refers to news that scientists at Oxford University have revealed that a humble crow by the name of Betty has confounded animal behaviourists. In experiments, it bent a garden wire to fashion a hook, with which it lifted meat from a test tube.

This represents something of a breakthrough: although many animals are known to use tools, only a few primates are capable of actually making them. ‘Toolmaking and tool use has always been considered one of the diagnostics of a superior intelligence’, says Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University. ‘Now a bird is shown to have greater sophistication than many closer relatives of us humans.’

Drawing its own conclusion from the findings, the Observer opined: ‘The Old Testament said that animals were put on Earth for the use of man. Ever since, we have denied them souls or intelligence. Perhaps we should give them more respect.’ (2)

A little perspective: the talents of this New Caledonian crow are but a shadow of some chimpanzees’. In Senegal and Tanzania, it has been observed that some chimpanzees use twigs or grass stems to probe for termites. These are stripped of their leaves, shortened to the appropriate length, and even mended during use. But this represents about the summit of animal technological achievement. So a crow can bend a wire? Well, clap, clap.

It is a bit pathetic to hear this kind of adulation. In a society that at once romanticises animals and degrades the achievements of human beings, we know what kind of message people seek to draw from such findings. It’s part of a wider movement to eradicate the boundary between humans and animals. At worst, it is a corollary to a more pathological temptation to turn the man-beast dichotomy on its head – to view humans as irrational, greedy savages, and regard animals as the civilised custodians of this planet.

What is strange in this crow story is that the ability to perform a task is deemed of great relevance. We faun over a crow, not because it displays any signs of conscience, culture, language, the capacity for foresight and reason, but because it seems quite clever.

Judged on this criterion, the computer upon which I write these words deserves more ‘respect’ than Betty the crow. It barks at me when I do things wrong, corrects my English for me, has mathematical talents far superior to mine. If we are going to accord rights to animals on the basis of intelligence, we should give rights to computers first. Sure, your ZX-81s come right at the bottom of the Great Silicon Chain of Being, but through your Atari-STs and up to your Apple Notebooks, we can see the Ascent of The Machine in all its glory. Deep Blue doesn’t bend wires; it’s a computer that can beat the world’s finest chess masters.

And that’s the whole point. Humans, through their own technological ingenuity, are now capable of constructing artificial life forms more intelligent than those thrown up by evolution. Who’s ‘Brilliant‘ now?

  • RIP Rick

These kind of gormless expressions of astonishment at the ‘brilliance’ of animals are reminiscent of an episode of The Young Ones.

Rick has just called Neil the hippy a ‘pig’. Neil questions Rick’s choice of insult: ‘Well, I don’t mind being a pig, ’cause, for your information, pigs are really intelligent, actually.’

‘Oh?’

‘Yeah, like dolphins.’

‘Oh, so they are, are they? Well, tell me, Neil. Who invented the internal combustion engine? Was it Porky the Pig? No’, declares Rick incredulously. ‘And the Theory of Relativity. Was Pythagoras a pig? No, he was a Greek, wasn’t he? So tell me, Neil. You’re the expert. What’s the major piggy contribution to civilisation?’

‘Ummm….’

‘It’s bacon, isn’t it? Bacon and rolling around in the mud. Look out Michelangelo, here comes the new piggy Renaissance!’

This cult BBC TV comedy series celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. In many respects it has dated badly. Its characters are 1980s caricatures who have all but disappeared. Punks, such as Vyv, barely exist in real life today; except as mythical characters on postcards. Punks, metallers, indie kids and goths have today merged into ‘nu-metallers’, incorporating the various traits from these former tribes – respectively, the dyed hair and nose rings; black clothes and penchant for hard guitar music; friendship wrist-bands and baggy trousers; and black makeup and generally gloomy demeanour.

Radical Leninists like Rick are very thin on the ground. Indeed, so savagely did the programme satirise the ignorance and self-importance of student activists, that participants in student politics subsequently became a source of real ridicule – at least they were when I was at university in the mid-1990s.

Nobody pretends now to be a faux-American smoothy like Mike, though I’m not convinced anyone ever did.

And what of Neil, the animal-loving hippy who practised meditation, dabbled in Eastern mysticism, campaigned for ‘vegetable rights and peace’ and brooded incoherently about the world in general? Only Neil has survived. He is the template upon which today’s ‘anti-capitalists’ are based.

Give me Rick any day. At least old-fashioned Marxist activists had reasoned, coherent ideas on how to change the world and had faith in human beings. Their philosophy was not ‘something must be better’. They did not believe progress was a dirty word. They did not put the word civilisation in inverted commas.

  • Travel tips

I don’t see the fuss about Virgin Trains not operating a full service on the west coast at the weekends. I never travel by Virgin if possible since they’ve introduced a complete ban on smoking. Some advice: if you want to go to the north-west from London by train, take GNER and change at Doncaster/Leeds/Edinburgh. GNER is faster and you don’t have to smoke in the toilets.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

(1) Independent on Sunday, 11 August 2002

(2) Observer, 11 August 2002

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Topics Politics

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