2. Bird Machines

Our wizards today, of course, are scientists and the problem of reading the brains of animals underlies the quest of scientific inquiry around animal behavior to varying degrees of literalness. Inquiry into animal intelligence is all the more significant as machine intelligence continues to develop, even if animals represent the primitive past and machines the utopian future. 

We ask two things of nature and of machines: to be just like us and to be more than us. The premise of the Turing Test constructs an imagined thinking/learning machine which can mimic human behavior to the extent of introducing deliberate slowness and calculation mistakes. Yet what we expect of computers now is not humanness but superhumanness: the ability to predict the future and our own desires through mass collation of data and algorithmic analysis. It’s that which we once asked for from nature, the patterns of birds in the sky, and the omens which got caught in our nets. The interrogation of whether or not an intelligence is human enough, then, has shifted into inquiries into animal cognition. Understanding an “other” intelligence, similar to the Turing Test’s pondering of the human condition, is always an attempt to grasp the inherent other-ness of another human mind, but while we assume (hopefully! not always!) that a human speaking in a different language is still intelligent, birds singing to each other were not always afforded the same dignity. Animals, machines, and other non-human actors have a higher burden of proof of intelligence. 

In attempting to understand bird cognition, I will be focusing on three media representations of intelligence used in scientific discourse, in which something abstract (intelligence) is translated into a readable form—though misreadings remain standard. These three are: brain maps and atlases, sonographs of songs, sand experimental scenarios designed to observe bird behavior. In the first, physical arrangement of the brain is taken as the marker of intelligence or, at least, key to understanding its origins; similarity to the brains we know (“know”) are intelligent, human brains, was often taken as the mark of intelligence in non-human brains, though now a more complex understanding of differing brain evolution has mitigated that misreading. In the second, communicative ability is the mark of intelligence; if we can graph and analyze birdsong patterns, we will know what secrets they share amongst themselves. Finally, the construction of experimental scenarios for birds to act within function as mediated situations which communicate to the researchers the birds’ understanding of the world around them. Often, the behaviors marked as intelligent are ones which resemble the ideas humans would come up with in similar situations—how do you get that damn cracker out of the tube? You make a tool out of a stick to pull it out! Of course! However, even as these intelligent behaviors are measured by legibility to human experience, scientists try to resist the urge to anthropomorphize their motivations; the animals acts not out of love or guilt or sadness, human emotions, but out of hunger, training, or the evolutionary urge to mate, animal emotions.

Through these media, scientists counter a world of animals-as-omen, animals-as-symbol, which inhabits the world of human culturally-constructed depictions of animals by attempting to understand the experience of the animal from within that animal’s own brain. Ultimately, though, what we seem to be looking for in bird brains is a message about ourselves—either that we are unique or that we are not alone, contradictory desires which animates our conflicting understandings of our relationship to animals, machines, and the world.