Followup to “Of Minds and Crows”

New research shows that birds have as many neurons as mid-size primates. Evolution apparently has figured out a way of packing neurons more densely. Researchers took brains from 28 different species and dissected them.

Although many in the field expected the bird brain could be densely packed, the extent came as a surprise to the study authors. “My expectation was simply that bird brains should be different from mammals in size and number of neurons,” says neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, now at Vanderbilt University, one of the senior authors on the paper. “But we didn’t have any idea that the difference would be so extreme that in a parrot brain you would have as many neurons as in a mid-size primate.”

Particularly of interest here is that the advanced cognition capabilities of the small brains of birds might really be the result of the same mechanisms that is usually associated with larger brain size – the number of neurons. Over three years ago I speculated on changes from the early anatomically modern humans to present day humans. I wonder now  if this change can be accounted for by a similar mechanism. In other words we really are smarter than the early Homo sapiens because we have more neurons than they did. What’s more this increases the possibility that human intelligence could still be increasing despite the huge energy requirements that the large brain makes on our species.

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World Stuff

“Human beings are organizations of – do not let us use the philosophically tendentious word ‘matter’, but rather the neutral and philosophically non-committal term translated from the German Weltstoff – the universal ‘world stuff’. But our organization has two aspects a material aspect when looked at objectively from the outside, and a mental aspect when experienced subjectively from the inside. We are simultaneously and indissolubly both matter and mind.” – Julian Huxley

I used the quote from Julian Huxley in a post years ago. I’ve had good reason to think about it recently on encountering the ideas of Donald Hoffman. Hoffman is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California and has spent years studying perception and the brain. He appears to have done a lot of work particularly in the area of visual perception. Hoffman’s main conclusion after these years of research and study is exactly the opposite of what we might expect.  Instead of “brain activity creates consciousness”, the usual and safe scientific view, Hoffman’s radical view, that he calls conscious realism, is that. “consciousness creates brain activity, and indeed creates all objects and properties of the physical world.”


We might expect this coming from a mystic, or maybe an insane person, but not from a scientist. An interview with Hoffman in Quanta Magazine excited a firestorm of comments, mostly dismissive, with some threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Let’s take a look.

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Of Minds and Crows


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A fellow blogger and I had a little debate  about consciousness and awareness in non-human organisms. His view seems to be that humans are largely unique in their capabilities for awareness. My view is that humans clearly have unique talents and abilities, but those capabilities do not intrinsically provide us with greater consciousness or self-awareness. In other words, other organisms, take the crow for example, might be as conscious and self-aware as we are even they are not as intelligent as we are. This post is not so much about the debate on self-awareness as it is about crows.

As I am writing this, I can hear in my backyard a group of crows. After a little chatter, they begin to make the characteristic commotion I usually hear when a cat is making its way through the backyard. By the time I get to the window to check, however, the noise has quieted down and four crows are around a plate of dried cat food. I had put out the plate of cat food and some stale crackers earlier. The crows had been coming and going through the morning first hauling away the stale crackers to dip them in the bird baths. Some crows seem to gravitate more to the bread and crackers, others to the dried cat food. They usually eat in groups. The first crow to spot food will typically call others to join. I think this is partly altruism and partly a safety consideration. Eating in a group while on the ground provides a safety in numbers. More eyes, more ears to see and hear predators. Not uncommonly one of more crows will remain on a perch to be an additional lookout. A sudden noise such as opening the backdoor will make them retreat to the trees. Eventually for reasons of their own the crows of this morning depart with some food remaining.

I have been feeding and watching crows for a few years.
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Posted in Human Evolution | 12 Comments