Thursday, July 21, 2011

They All Look the Same... To Us

An article at the Live Science site tells us that French researchers have come to the conclusion that feral, untrained pigeons can recognize human faces.

This is based on an experiment in which two similar people behaved differently toward pigeons, after which the pigeons avoided the person who had been antagonistic, even when the people exchanged clothing, thus changing most of their physical appearance.

While I don't wish to denigrate the pigeons' intelligence, the description in the article leaves the findings open to other interpretations, such as perhaps the pigeons may recognize people by their smell rather than their looks. I'm just saying it's a possibility.

Which reminds me of another, oft-repeated experiment, in which scientists try to prove whether an animal is self-aware, by using the mirror test: can an animal use a mirror to detect an unusual mark that has been added to its face? Many animals "fail" this test, leading scientists to conclude that they don't have self-awareness. But many animals are more scent-oriented than vision-oriented, and a mirror has its own scent that is clearly not the animal's own. So it's not a matter of not being self aware, it's a matter of the mirror not providing the proper cues.

I contend that any animal that stealthily stalks its prey, or that hides from a predator, demonstrates self-awareness. But somehow that bit of logic escapes the researchers.

Back to the pigeons. I won't say that they can't recognize human faces. A bird's life requires well-developed abilities to see and process visual cues. But it hasn't been proved that they don't use some other means to recognize people. Smell is only one possibility. It's even possible they use some other cues that we don't know about. We are limited by our own senses and our own views of the world. I am reminded that it is only recently that people became aware that elephants use infrasound to communicate (sounds pitched so low that we can't hear them).

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