Bigger Brains Are NOT Better Brains

Camelot macaw

As I was driving the other day, I was thinking about the huge contribution that Irene Pepperberg and the amazing Alex made to our knowledge of avian cognition. Without she and Alex, and our acceptance of her findings, I wonder if the avian community would be using terms like “enrichment” today.

Life was uncertain for Dr. Pepperberg. She became outcast among her peers. Grants to fund her work were hard to come by and it must have seemed to her that her career was always on the verge of collapse. We owe her a debt of gratitude for her perseverence.

We, who spend our lives with birds, were amazed with Alex’s feats, but I doubt that many of us were very surprised. We routinely watch our birds doing things that defied the scientific world’s former claims. Birds are now ranked alongside small primates in their demonstration of intelligence – a position they have earned. HA!

Blue throated macaw

I wonder where humans went wrong that we saw fit to coin terms like “bird brain” or “dumb animal”. Somewhere we lost sight of the fact that WE are classified first as “mammalian” and as “human” second. We have gotten the idea into our head that because we evolved to develop “big brains” that we are better than the rest of the creatures that inhabit this world.
The fact is, our big brains have made us vulnerable in many ways. Our brain, only 2% of our body weight, uses 20% of our total energy intake, increasing need in that area. Our infants are unusually helpless and remain dependent for a very long time.

If WE are taken out of our “natural” environment and forced to live in the extreme conditions faced by most of our wildlife; foraging for food and determining what is safe and most nutritious to eat, building shelter from the elements, etc., most of us would be dead within a week. When a animal is placed in our environment, they adapt to survive.

Rosebreasted cockatoo

Yes, our big brains have invented some amazing technlogy (some of which we are now dependent on). And the human life expectancy has increased through the advancement of the sciences. But to say that we have evolved as “superior” is just wrong.

Evoution means “change”, not “improvement”. Each species on this planet has adapted over millions of years to become exactly what it needs to be to survive in a changing world environment. All life is perfect, just as it is. And as to the intelligence of these “lower” species, we are not smart enough to judge it with any certainty and are continually surprised to find how little we know.

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987. 

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