Monday, October 15, 2012

Clever crows! Now shown to reason about hidden causes.

Behavioral studies on New Caledonian crows, especially over the past twenty years, continue to yield amazing results. (A video I first posted for my Biology of Mind course over ten years ago showing some of this earlier work has received 125,000 viewings!). Taylor et al. now demonstrate reasoning about hidden causes:
The ability to make inferences about hidden causal mechanisms underpins scientific and religious thought. It also facilitates the understanding of social interactions and the production of sophisticated tool-using behaviors. However, although animals can reason about the outcomes of accidental interventions, only humans have been shown to make inferences about hidden causal mechanisms. Here, we show that tool-making New Caledonian crows react differently to an observable event when it is caused by a hidden causal agent. Eight crows watched two series of events in which a stick moved. In the first set of events, the crows observed a human enter a hide, a stick move, and the human then leave the hide. In the second, the stick moved without a human entering or exiting the hide. The crows inspected the hide and abandoned probing with a tool for food more often after the second, unexplained series of events. This difference shows that the crows can reason about a hidden causal agent. Comparative studies with the methodology outlined here could aid in elucidating the selective pressures that led to the evolution of this cognitive ability.


  1. Simon Dymond at Swansea has a fairly detailed take-down of this paper (to the point where he'll be writing to PNAS about it). There are some serious problems with the study.

  2. Hey, thanks for your comment.

  3. Yeah, I'm not convinced by the snippet I read that there's a direct correlation between not seeing an agent in the second test and the crows' subsequent behaviors being the result of a linear, rational thought process.

    I'm looking forward to reading the article Andrew posted.