How to Learn about Magpies

Another of those ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ stories appeared in the Times last week. In fact probably they appear every week, somewhere around page 15, reporting on new research thought charming or grotesque enough to engage the readership. This one was headed ‘Magpies show their caring, sharing side’. Apparently, biologists at the University of Vienna have discovered that azure-winged magpies (cyanopia cyanus) will make food available to their flock-fellows in routine acts of “unsolicited altruism”: a surprise, it seems, because until very recently “many researchers believed that this sort of selflessness was a uniquely human characteristic.” Yes, they would have believed that, of course. Who had ever supposed that scientists were merely unprejudiced students of nature?

The middle of a daily paper, with views in all directions of murders, wars, law-court wrangles over huge fortunes, poverty, acts of cruelty and scenes of deranged luxury, isn’t where one can best appreciate that comfortable old scientific belief in selflessness as a human speciality. Nor was this magpie research itself exactly a kindly and sympathetic attention to other ways of life. On the contrary, it was a calculated interference. The birds which showed their altruistic behaviour were not enjoying what the original report (in Biology Letters) so evocatively calls “naturalistic contexts” (= freedom). They are (or perhaps were, their after-careers not being specified) caged birds, and were performing in a drastically simplified and controlled version of flock-life. But indeed, the whole behaviourist tradition to which this research belongs is the theoretical equivalent of such experimental settings, a drastically simplified conception of animal life.

Putting aside whatever cruelty may be thought implicit in the technique of the experiment, the project can’t even be called dis-interested as science. The larger problem which this research – like other such research, on other species – claims to illuminate is “the evolution of human altruism”. As the author of the book featured in the previous post, The Science of Animal Behaviour, said in 1963 (perhaps the high noon of the behaviourist tradition), “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.” And the comprehensive world-view in which that assumption plays its part is this: that the whole astonishing many-million-years history of animal life is properly seen as a warm-up act for ourselves. Whereas really (if I’m to keep to this on-stage analogy), the brief but savagely destructive contribution made by humans to the show is probably best likened to the house-fire which destroys both the show and most of the venue.

Fortunately the behaviourist tradition in animal studies has for some time been challenged or at least complemented by ethology, the study of animals as far as possible in their “naturalistic contexts”. As its great pioneer Konrad Lorenz has shown, such studies may include everything from meticulous and self-effacing observation in the field to full human participation. In fact ethology, though newish as a tolerated science, has been a going concern over many centuries in the form of amateur natural history and, more generally, of human curiosity and affectionateness. For a brilliant and delightful instance of this longer tradition, and therefore as an Corvus.JPGoffset to the Vienna University research, I recommend Corvus: a Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta 2008).

One of the rescued birds whose life in the Woolfson household the book describes is a magpie (not of the azure-winged sub-species, though of course both are corvids). He was christened Spike, and being part-domesticated from earliest life he could never safely leave the house. You might therefore expect a series of anecdotes of cute and humanized behaviour. No: Spike’s stubborn otherness (I have to use that fashionable term here), and the strength of will through which his nature as a magpie expressed itself, are everywhere insistent. At the same time, qualities and conduct which we might carelessly regard, following our scientific mentors, as “uniquely human” – thought, empathy, practical joking, football games – this history of Spike compels us to believe we see fully translated in him (or pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived).

Scepticism about own assumptions, and about what we really can know, is not a monopoly of scientists. Esther Woolfson certainly has it, but she qualifies its mental austerity or aloofness with a generous and affectionate egalitarianism, participating in these other lives without speciesist reserve.

On the one hand, then, she doesn’t wish or guide her birds to behave humanly; she doesn’t yearningly impute human motives to them, or make humanity the measure of value (in this, she is more ‘scientific’ than the Vienna researchers). She says, “I don’t want birds to be other than they are.” And habitually she tempers or quizzes what, as a human, she sees and thinks. For example, when Spike takes a fervent part in family ball-games, she describes him “shouting with what seemed remarkably like joy” (my italics).

On the other hand, she is always moved to see how much there must be that Spike and the other birds do share with humans, in emotions and in conduct: “it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we’re nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same.” Those last nine words, with their intellectual modesty and life-hospitable “we”, bring together all that is best in science and in humanity.

No doubt the research done at Vienna will make a useful addition to a certain kind of knowledge of some bird-life. It may even do a little to counter our prejudices against magpies: the Times correspondent very properly thinks it should. But I would say that one can learn more about the life of magpies (to say nothing about their possibilities as individuals), and therefore about our true and proper relation to them, from such a book as Esther Woolfson’s than from all that can ever come from the world’s cages and laboratories.


[References: The Times news article was written by its science correspondent Oliver Moody, and appeared on 19 October, at p.15. The original report of the research, titled ‘Proactive prosociality in a cooperatively breeding corvid, the azure-winged magpie’, was published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on 18 October, and is accessible in full online. Quotations from Corvus: a Life with Birds are taken from pp. 163, 199, and 169.]


Spitting in their Faces

An item appeared on Oxford University’s ‘News and Events’ web-page a few days ago headed ‘Fish can recognise human faces, new research shows’. The fish in question were archer-fish (Toxotes chatareus), a tropical species which is able to bring down its insect prey by shooting water from its mouth. Researchers had presented these fish with images of human faces, and successfully trained them to spit at the ones associated with a food reward.

Probably this news item was also put out as a press release, since it was quickly picked up by the news media – for instance by BBC Radio 4 and by the Times newspaper. For them, it was a performing animal story, of the category ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ The title used by the University may have been deliberately worded with that in mind, because properly it should have read the other way round, ‘Human faces can be recognised by fish’. That is, the question which the research was aimed to address was not really about fish at all, but about the uniqueness or otherwise of the human capacity to recognise each other’s faces: is this capacity innate and peculiar to humans, or is it a particular application of the general visual competence possessed by most animals? If fish can do it, then recognising human faces must be at least partly a skill that can be learnt using powers of the eye not specialised for that purpose. After all, such a skill would have been of no practical advantage to any species of fish in the ordinary course of its evolutionary history, though it may now be earning archer-fish a few pellets of proprietary tropical fish-food in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

Incidentally, it’s sad to think of these and other picturesque fish spending their lives in that grim stained-concrete heap, surely the most hideous of all Oxford’s science buildings. And not just in the laboratories: in the public part of that building, too, there’s an zoology buildingaquarium of tropical fish, sited in one of the corridors presumably for decorative and instructional purposes, and steadily mis-educating generations of students as to our proper relations with the rest of the natural world.

Anyway, other orders of animal than fish have been similarly quizzed in the past, and this present research does little more than extend and confirm existing data. The authors admit, in the full article as published in Science Reports, that the results so far are “not surprising” (a news-ruining observation which is accordingly omitted from the University’s ‘News and Events’ report). After all, accurate and discriminating eyesight is essential to the survival of many or perhaps most diurnal animals, and especially so, you would suppose, for a fish which takes aim at insects while its eyes are still underwater. Still, the authors look forward to further studies using fish. This routine conclusion to published research – i.e. that more research is needed – illustrates what the zoologist Ray Lankester, one of Oxford’s earliest and keenest vivisectors (of fish, tadpoles, crayfish, among others), said about animal research: that however regulated by law, it would naturally (and quite properly, so he believed) increase in geometrical progression.

As I said, this particular research got into mainstream media as a ‘smart animal’ story. Jenni Russell of the Times (9 June, p.22), happily unaware that the results had been thought unsurprising by the report’s own authors, called it “the week’s most startling news”. She pondered over similar evidences of cleverness in other “creatures” – a term which, tellingly, she seems to use only for non-human animals. Some birds, it seems, have shown themselves to be “just as smart as apes. They empathise, think logically and recognise themselves in a mirror [that popular shibboleth in nature’s class-system]”. An octopus that escaped from its tank must have used “real intelligence”, by which I think she means recognisable intelligence, intelligence like ours. The point about the Oxford research, then, was apparently not that fish have remarkable visual acuity, but that they have swum into human relevance by showing they can do something we thought only we could do.

Ms Russell’s piece is headed ‘Not-so-dumb animals deserve our respect’, so she does get a valuable lesson from the subject, however wrong-headedly. She declares herself a meat-eater who thinks “human survival worth experimenting on creatures for” (a familiarly melodramatic formulation), but now she is “wavering”: “I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with the creatures on this planet.” True, it’s all presented in the self-regarding life-style terms commonly used in such journalism: done in the mirror, in fact, of both self and species. And the term “deserve” has school-room force: only those who “can be shown to have complex brains” get the respect. It’s animal deserts, then, not animal rights: a variety of treats for tricks. But with luck some of the article’s readers may see further than its author, and get a more serious ethical message than she intended.

I think anyway that Jenni Russell may have over-interpreted what the archer-fish were recorded as doing, namely ‘recognising’ (telling apart) human faces, rather than, as she has it, ‘reading’ (getting information from) them. She may even have pictured the fish looking up into the living faces of laboratory staff. No such homely scene: the faces, so far from being live and local, were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. This is the same Max Planck Institute at Tübingen with which Oxford University has had another news-link recently. The Institute’s various cruel experiments upon primates (conducted by way of research into human psychiatric and neurological pathologies), and its harsh management of these animals, were the subject of undercover investigation in 2013-14 by Cruelty Free International and the German group SOKO Tierschutz. Hurrying to Max Planck’s defence last year, the European Animal Research Association condemned the investigation, and announced that “some renown [sic] scientists from different affiliations have already given their expert support”. They quoted two such scientists, though not from different affiliations: both are Oxford professors. One of them, a professor of Experimental Psychology (that subject with its history of uniquely ruthless animal research), explained that the Institute’s work on monkeys was essential not just for human medicine, but also in order “to reduce the long-term need for animal experiments”. Excellent! Vivisection as a way of reducing vivisection: it may not be as plausible a piece of thinking as Ray Lankester’s prognosis, but at least its ‘affiliation’ to the alma mater of Lewis Carroll seems just right.


[References: For the ‘News and Events’ piece, with a short video of the fish spitting at a face, see ; for the article in Scientific Reports, ; for Cruelty Free International’s report, .]