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Science

Empathy Is For the Birds 201

Posted by samzenpus
from the polly-want-to-make-an-emotional-connection? dept.
grrlscientist writes "Common Ravens have been shown to express empathy towards a 'friend' or relative when they are distressed after an aggressive conflict — just like humans and chimpanzees do. But birds are very distant evolutionary relatives of Great Apes, so what does this similarity imply about the evolution of behavior?"
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Empathy Is For the Birds

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  • damn (Score:5, Funny)

    by cti (1595797) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:35PM (#32752626)
    man, i saw the title and was hoping ubuntu ditched empathy and went back to pidgin....
    • Same here.

      Well, it's a compromise - pigeons *with* empathy. :P

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by L4t3r4lu5 (1216702)
      They did. Open up USC, select Installed Software, search for and select Empathy and press the remove button.
      Once that's finished, select Get New Software, search for Pidgin, select Pidgin Internet Messenger and press the Install button.

      You're done. Automatically hooks into the MeMenu.
  • Raven... (Score:4, Informative)

    by X0563511 (793323) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:38PM (#32752652) Homepage Journal

    "Common" Ravens are among the most intelligent birds around, if you don't count parrots.

    • Re:Raven... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by toppings (1298207) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:49PM (#32752734) Homepage
      There's a great TED talk [ted.com] on the intelligence of crows.
    • Yeah. I'm not scientist, but I do dabble in this, and it's not surprising; a lot of the birds, including crows, ravens, and the parrot show strong cognitive abilities, even though they are "are very distant evolutionary relatives of Great Apes."

      In fact a lot of animals not close to our own species have been shown to have strong cognitive abilities, these birds for example, and cetaceans, especially dolphins.

      • To be fair, dolphins are a lot more closely related to us than ravens are, so this is still a pretty interesting and significant finding.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by jd (1658)

          Yes, but it means the underlying mechanisms for toolmaking, empathy, etc, were all present no later than the last common ancestor. If a given animal does not have these traits, then the same sections of the brain are presumably used for some other function(s) as well - function(s) more advantageous to those other animals.

          It also means that the underlying mechanisms are truly primitive and cannot involve any part of the brain not common to humans and avians. This means basic skills (such as toolmaking, basic

          • Re:Raven... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:47PM (#32753030) Homepage Journal

            Or it's just a matter of convergent evolution. There's no reason that the "underlying mechanisms" (which, of course, we're a long way from figuring out) couldn't have evolved twice, or more. Empathy seems to me like a survival trait in social animals. Although I hold out hope for AI over the long term, I think it's a dangerous assumption that the mechanisms are so simple we'll be able to simulate them with modern hardware.

          • It means the underlying mechanisms for toolmaking, empathy, etc, were all present no later than the last common ancestor.

            Not necessarily. Some or all of them could be cases of convergent evolution. You are also too optimistic about our computing power. From Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]:

            The Artificial Intelligence System project implemented non-real time simulations of a "brain" (with 10^11 neurons) in 2005. It took 50 days on a cluster of 27 processors to simulate 1 second of a model. The Blue Brain project used one of the fastest supercomputer architectures in the world, IBM's Blue Gene platform, to create a real time simulation of a single rat neocortical column consisting of approximately 10,000 neurons and 10^8 synapses in 2006.

            On top of that, in order to simulate these behaviors, we would first need to understand the "signal flow" that creates them within the brain. Brains are nothing like PCBs, and even our most advanced imaging tools don't give us the resolution we'd need to begin to understand at a more than rudimentary level what is going on. There are numerous other reasons w

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by jd (1658)

              I am extremely suspicious of "convergent evolution" in cases where there are multiple ways to perform the same general task. The probability of multiple generations converging rather than diverging should be infinitesimal. Convergent evolution does happen, but even there let's pause for thought. Dolphins and whales are descended from animals that moved back into the oceans. Their methods of controlling depth and pressure are unlike that of any fish. They have flukes, which are analogous to fins but do not o

              • Dolphins and whales are descended from animals that moved back into the oceans. Their methods of controlling depth and pressure are unlike that of any fish.

                You're referring to swim bladders? Not all fish have those.

                While there are differences in detail between a shark and a killer whale, overall they're quite similar. Enough that I'd go "OMGWTFHaaalp!" if I was in the water and saw either of them coming towards me.

          • by ultranova (717540)

            Yes, but it means the underlying mechanisms for toolmaking, empathy, etc, were all present no later than the last common ancestor.

            I wonder if a crow could possibly be using the same underlaying mechanisms as a human: would they fit in its head?

            • I wonder if a crow could possibly be using the same underlaying mechanisms as a human: would they fit in its head?

              Sure. Human brains also have to have the resources to handle much larger physical bodies, more complex language and behavioral activity, more memory storage (both in quantity and in detail), etc.

      • Re:Raven... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Nadaka (224565) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @12:47AM (#32753338)

        Cephelapods are even farther removed and also quite intelligent.

        Some indications show that they could be more intelligent than the average great ape.

        Some have shown the ability to learn "tricks" after a single demonstration and no practice.

      • Lots of distantly related animals show similar physical traits. It's called convergent evolution; form follows function, so animals that do a similar job are often a similar shape.

        I don't see why the brain - it's just another organ - should be any different.

    • I canary believe that. Ostrich my imagination and I cannot see how ravens are intelligent, but then again I am just crowing on and on about nothing.

  • by morkk (42729) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @10:42PM (#32752682) Homepage

    Humans have consistently underestimated the intelligence of higher animals except for one species whose intelligence has been consistently overestimated.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Lawyers?
    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:11PM (#32752854) Homepage Journal

      One time in Malaysia with my family we stopped our car at a tourist spot and noticed that a monkey had been killed by another vehicle, probably quite recently. Another monkey stood on the road beside the dead body thumping its hands onto the top of its head in an expression of obvious grief.

      We got out of the car and I stepped into a crowd of agitated primates, all about 40cm high. The tension between us was clear and frankly terrifying for me. I walked off slowly, trying not to make sudden movements.

      I had no doubt that there was empathy between all players in that situation.

      • by Nyder (754090)

        One time in Malaysia with my family we stopped our car at a tourist spot and noticed that a monkey had been killed by another vehicle, probably quite recently. Another monkey stood on the road beside the dead body thumping its hands onto the top of its head in an expression of obvious grief.

        We got out of the car and I stepped into a crowd of agitated primates, all about 40cm high. The tension between us was clear and frankly terrifying for me. I walked off slowly, trying not to make sudden movements.

        I had no doubt that there was empathy between all players in that situation.

        Why would you get out of a car, into a crowd of agitated primates, that are agitated because one of their own was killed by a car, not unlike the one you just got out of?

        either your full of shit, or really fucking stupid.

        • It was killed by a red Toyota. He was driving a silver Ford. Do you think monkeys are too stupid to tell the difference?

          They probably understand how big 40cm is, too.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by tophermeyer (1573841)
            I think Monkeys are absolutely smart enough to know that the two vehicles are different versions of the same beast. Color, size, and shape might be different, but I am sure that they are able to realize the connection. Especially in an environment where it is probably very common for members of their social group to be run down by these noisy rubber footed behemoths.
      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        I've seen the same thing with dogs and cats. I suspect that all mammals (and probably birds as well) have empathy, but we just don't know how to recognize it. And I've seen human beings who have a total and complete lack of empathy; they're called sociopaths. [wikipedia.org]

    • by bsDaemon (87307)

      If dolphins are so damned smart, how come they live in igloos? /southpark

    • Well to be fair, homo sapien is a remarkable species.

      Our bodies are not the most strong, nor do we have fur. Yet, because of our intelligence and endurance, we can survive in the harshest of environments. Also, no other living organism has been able to engineer objects that can destroy life as well as harbor it on such vast scales. We've just about done it all. Everything from questioning our origin, splitting the atom, developing the computer, building space craft, to setting foot on the moon...etc. And w

      • by Psaakyrn (838406)

        Based on your own judgment of intelligent and sentient, of course.

        Judge, jury, executioner.

        • What other multi-cellular species on this planet can dominate homo sapien? None.

          But then again, what other species would put forth the very questions we ask of ourselves? We try so hard to study and understand other animals and the way (and what) they communicate. But for the most part, we end up with a bunch of living organisms that run off genetically scripted instincts.

          • by Psaakyrn (838406)

            1) You base your definition on domination, a variant of "survival of the fittest". Not exactly a good judge of intelligence, though a good judge of power.
            2) You assume that only humans ask themselves these questions.
            3) You assume that other animals don't study us.
            4) You assume that it's genetic, scripted, and instincts.

            • Well, yes. Unless I actually know otherwise, is starting off on an assumption a bad thing? At this point, it's all I know until informed otherwise. But my assumptions are based on our actions and from introspection.

              How can it not be biased?

              • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

                by Psaakyrn (838406)

                I never implied I know the solution, only that there is a problem, which is this bias you mention here. It still remains important that we recognize that we may be wrong due to this bias, that we might not be all that we think we are..

          • by bhagwad (1426855)
            But all of us live on the achievements of those before us. You and I by ourselves if dropped into a rainforest, a desert, or a beach with no one around would die quickly. I can neither build a fire, catch my food, make a shelter, know what herbs to eat, or stitch clothes. From that perspective I'm a loser who doesn't deserve to survive. I'm a freelance writer. Useless.

            So I'm not sure how exactly I'm such a superior being...
    • what elevates humankind over other animals is not grey matter, it's our vocal dexterity

      take any of us, and remove our ability to talk or write, and we're pretty much a little smarter than your average raven or dolphin: we're isolated islands of thought. so we may get glimmers of brilliance now and then, but it fades, and is trapped in our skulls, and dies with us

      or, give ravens and dolphins the ability to take the more complicated ideas in their heads, and share it with others with language, and this launches them to levels comparable with humanity in terms of what they can think. because now they build on each other's ideas, and nothing is forgotten: its passed and shared around, and babies are born in this sea of wisdom and thought, to build upon even more

      thoughts don't matter. the ability to COMMUNICATE thoughts matters. that's what puts humanity in a genuine level orders of magnitude over other creatures on this planet

      and when mankind developed writing? forget about it, game over, humanity vaults into the stratosphere (literally, around 1950, because of what writing makes possible). now, in fact, these silly biological shells hardly matter anymore. memetic evolution, the retention and sharing of ideas over generations, becomes the real story of change on this planet, and genetic evolution takes a back seat in terms of importance

      eventually, the memes will shed these silly biological shells entirely, and shape the world and other worlds completely of its own volition. but it was us silly apes that gave birth to it, whatever it will be, memetically driven idea machine. and don't forget who your father is! you damn future godlike machine thingy

      • +1 for this brilliant post.
      • For obvious ethical reasons, the study would never happen. But, I've often wondered how a feral human being would act throughout its lifetime from child to adult (recorded and such). Would he or she come up with some advanced methods to trap animals? Would it understand the concept on its own of sharpening a stick to make spear? Just how innovative would a feral human be over that of any other primate or bird?

        • by Psaakyrn (838406)

          The tricky part is how to define a feral human to begin with. A human, completely isolated from birth, has as much change of survival as almost any other animal isolated from birth. (not quite true, there are plenty of creatures that manage to survive based on instincts alone, but those still have obscene death rates. But the general thought still applies). It would still need some form of care at birth.. but since humans learn from their parents, even during their subconscious states before their conscious

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by masmullin (1479239)

        I agree on the ability to communicate, I disagree that vocalization is key. I think we may have come up with some sort of sign-language or language based on snaps/claps & rhythm if we lacked vocal chords.

        If we lacked ear drums we would have been a dead species a very long time ago. "did you hear that, it sounded like a tiger coming to eat us" "no frank, i dont hear a god damn thing because I dont have ears, neither do you AAAAHHHHGGG Im being eaten!!!"

        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          I think we may have come up with some sort of sign-language or language based on snaps/claps & rhythm if we lacked vocal chords.

          Some human cultures have used sign language, as well as clicks and snaps.

      • by sjames (1099) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @01:30AM (#32753556) Homepage

        While the ravens are more limited than we are for communication (they cannot build libraries for example), they DO pass ideas to each other (as do other animals), probably by watching and then imitating.

        Overall, I don't disagree since just watching and doing can only convey the concrete and our greatest accomplishments require the abstract as well.

        I find your sig to be quite apt in this thread. Through IP laws, we are willfully limiting the very thing that makes us what we are. If taken to the extremes the corporations want, we would probably devolve.

      • So then why aren't parrots building space shuttles?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by jandersen (462034)

        What you express so boldly (and rather floridly as well) is perhaps what you learn from the more popular part of the scientific press; it is, however, not entirely correct.

        what elevates humankind over other animals is not grey matter, it's our vocal dexterity

        No, on two counts: Humans are not "elevated" over other animals, or "more highly evolved" or anything like that; and there is no single capability that sets us apart. The idea that we are somehow "the crown of creation" is simply a superstition from the past - we are animals, simply, and what sets us apart is that we have a set of traits

      • by White Flame (1074973) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @04:34AM (#32754140)

        The best example of this that I've heard is in the story of Helen Keller. Since she didn't learn to communicate until age 7 or so, she could remember what life was like beforehand, describing her early mind as a chaotic mess of strange sensations. It was only after she learned language that she was able to have actual organized thoughts and think conceptually.

      • take any of us, and remove our ability to talk or write, and we're pretty much a little smarter than your average raven or dolphin: we're isolated islands of thought. so we may get glimmers of brilliance now and then, but it fades, and is trapped in our skulls, and dies with us

        We'd just reinvent language. Deaf kids have done this in orphanages - without being taught.

        • you're talking about reality

          i'm asking you to imagine us, humans, without the capacity for language. and what you get is a raven or a dolphin: inquisitive, observant, intelligent, inventive. but unable to share our thoughts, we get glimmers that fade and die with us, trapped in our skulls

          what i'm trying to say is how communication, not raw intelligence, not grey matter, is what sets us apart from the dolphins and the ravens

          • you're talking about reality

            That's a bad thing?

            i'm asking you to imagine us, humans, without the capacity for language.

            That wouldn't be us, so it's pointless. You might as well ask me to imagine eagles that don't fly or unicorns that aren't pink.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        take any of us, and remove our ability to talk or write, and we're pretty much a little smarter than your average raven or dolphin: we're isolated islands of thought. so we may get glimmers of brilliance now and then, but it fades, and is trapped in our skulls, and dies with us

        And nobody considers that animals do communicate to some extent; everyone knows what the doberman is saying when he says "get the fock off my lawn or I'll eat you!"

        It's not so clear what the birds or dolphins are saying to each other.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by phantomfive (622387)
      Not to be contrary, but what does empathy have to do with intelligence?
      • both are thought to be functions of the brain. humans are thought to have the most refinement of both functions.

        empathy is one of the ways in which humans learn and expand their intelligence.

      • by CarpetShark (865376) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @04:51AM (#32754202)

        Not to be contrary, but what does empathy have to do with intelligence?

        Can you seriously not answer this by using a little introspection to examine your own thought processes? Most adults are fully capable of it, if they stop and give it some thought. Empathy is not some magical blackbox in your head that makes you feel what others feel; it's a mental model; a recognition that others are like you; a mapping of their emotions to your reaction to those emotions; an ability to recognise or even assess another's situation and apply that mapping. This all requires some intelligence, although perhaps not as much as we'd like to believe.

      • by IICV (652597)

        Empathy without intelligence means that you will never breed (see e.g, Slashdot).

  • by Anachragnome (1008495) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:23PM (#32752916)

    I'm not sure about evolution as far as ravens are concerned, but I do know nature throws us some curve balls every once in a while, and ravens are most definitely one of them.

    There was some researcher visiting Fairbanks, AK when I lived there. He was trying to catch ravens for some study he was doing and needed 20 birds. After a few weeks of not catching a single one, the local newspaper caught wind of what he was doing and ran a story on him. The first paragraph explained his lack of success. He had been using cheese puffs as bait in the parking lot of the local supermarket. He had a firing net to cover the birds when they came to investigate...only they never came, even when the lot usually had ravens all over the place.

    A reader finally figured it out. There was a McDonald's right next to the lot. He should have been using French Fries. The ravens knew something wasn't right and refused to touch his bait.

    I've seen them open zipped containers to steal food (the cargo compartments on snow machines are easy prey)...and then CLOSE THEM.

    I watched my cat carry on a 10 minute conversation with one. Obviously some sort of speech between the two...never seen anything like it before, or since.

    I've heard one make the sound of dripping water, then fly down and drink from my rain barrel.

    After 10 years in Alaska, I've only seen one dead raven. It had been fried on the power line above my friends truck while he was sitting in it eating his lunch. Plonk!...in the back of the truck it fell. It is so rare to find a dead raven that the Dept. of Fish and Game wanted the corpse for study.

    Even with a 160F annual temperature variation, they never seem to be affected by the weather. I watched one trying how to figure out how to eat a rock-solid, 1-pound package of hamburger meat at -45F in a Sam's Club parking lot. He eventually dragged under the tail pipe of an idling car to thaw it out(people leave their cars idling while they shop when it is that cold). I know people that would never have figured that out.

    I can completely understand the high reverence native cultures afford the creature.

    • +1, thanks for the story.
    • by Psaakyrn (838406) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @12:06AM (#32753136)

      "After 10 years in Alaska, I've only seen one dead raven. It had been fried on the power line above my friends truck while he was sitting in it eating his lunch. Plonk!...in the back of the truck it fell. It is so rare to find a dead raven that the Dept. of Fish and Game wanted the corpse for study."

      So that's the raven's equivalent to joining the Darwin Awards?

    • yes! After years of pecking at seeds in the park, I have gained their trust. As a member of their inner circle, I am privy to their secret agenda. They took me to their secret lair, and I saw all of their evil plans. There in it with the squirrels, I'll tell you. Just watch your back!

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Onymous Coward (97719)

      I watched my cat carry on a 10 minute conversation with one. Obviously some sort of speech between the two...never seen anything like it before, or since.

      Yeah, but you don't know what was being said.

      Cat: I am so gonna eat you.
      Crow: Yeah, whatever.
      Cat: No, for sure.
      Crow: Yeah, whatever.
      Cat: I am totally gonna eat you. Om nom, dude.
      Crow: You and all your genius, verb-conjugation-challenged LOLCAT friends, I'm sure. I'm quaking in my down.

      I often see my friend's cat chatter while staring, intrigued, at birds. I'm guessing it might be some kind of way to keep nearby cats informed of possible prey.

      But, yeah, crows are brilliant [youtube.com].

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by incubbus13 (1631009)

      Actually, I wrote a report about this for an Anthro class once. The advantage of "modern" humans, over homo erectus was "organization". Homo Erectus had a (20%) bigger brain (for whatever that means), massed ~20kg more than the average modern human, and was generally better established in the area.

      Cro-Magnon man gathered resources and brought them to a central location, while Neanderthal went to the resources and used them there. Whether Erectus was wiped out, assimilated, or whatever, obviously organizatio

  • by DriedClexler (814907) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:28PM (#32752934)

    what does this similarity imply about the evolution of behavior?

    It tells us that the optimality of the tit for tat [wikipedia.org] strategy is not limited to ape communities, but can arise in other species, leading to the related phenomenon of empathy.

    Some of the requirements for tit-for-tat to be optimal probably include the ability to recognize individuals and remember them, keen ability to identify (generalized) "defection", and a willingness to suffer a (short-term) loss to punish defectors, which requires some long-term historical memory. Which is to say, characteristics that persist in apes and probably ravens.

  • by Psaakyrn (838406) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @11:38PM (#32752988)

    "For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons."

  • so what does this similarity imply about the evolution of behavior?

    It means that if we are very good, we come back as ravens.

    Hmmm. Flight. Cool.

  • A few weeks back I was driving down the road and a flock of birds flew under my truck. One of them must have hit the bottom and got hurt as it was laying and moving on the ground. As I looked in the rear view I saw another bird flying out of the grass when they flew into and it was flying around the hurt bird. There was no where to pull over as the road was tight but driving back later that day I saw the bird dead and moved towards the edge of the asphalt. But the bird that flew outlooked like is was t
  • So technically the score would still be: Evolution: inf. Creationism: 0

    What this really shows is that empathy and as a result morality really are evolutionary constructs, that creationists are WRONG when they claim that it takes an invisible sky daddy to be moral.

    It also shows that either empathy have been a desirable genetic trait for a VERY long time (at least back to the common ancestor for dinosaurs and mammals), or that the trait developed independently in multiple branches of the evolutionary process,

  • implication (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Onymous Coward (97719) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @01:28AM (#32753542) Homepage

    what does this similarity imply about the evolution of behavior?

    Empathy contributes to population fitness?

  • In Baden Baden there are plenty of crows, there are a couple that from time to time sit on a house across from ours and they kiss. Seriously, they sit there and then do what looks like kissing with their beaks.

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