June 12, 2008 | Graham

What would pigeons make of Henson or Leda?

I’ve always found the claims for what you might call Human Exceptionalism a little absurd and over-blown. Over the years I’ve had some quite close relationships with non-human animals, and I don’t think I’m practicing anthropomorphism in saying that they’ve been more rewarding than some of the relationships I’ve had with human animals.
Life, intelligence and emotional depth are all continuums with huge overlap between species, both absolutely, and over the lifetimes of individual members. One such overlap is captured in this press release from Japan’s Keio University:

Japan’s Keio University scientists have shown that pigeons are able to discriminate video images of themselves, paintings of certain painters (Van Gogh vs Chagall) and more. The video image discrimination ability is higher than that of a 3-year-old child.
Prof. Shigeru Watanabe of Keio University and Tsukuba University graduate student Kohji Toda trained pigeons to discriminate real-time self-image using mirrors as well as videotaped self-image, and proved that pigeons can recognize video images that reflect their movements as self-image.
Self-recognition is found in large primates such as chimpanzees, and recent findings show that dolphins and elephants also have such intelligence. Proving that pigeons also have this ability show that such high intelligence as self-recognition can be seen in various animals, and are not limited to primates and dolphins that have large brains.
Through various experiments, it is known that pigeons have great visual cognitive abilities. At Prof. Shigeru Watanabe’s laboratory, pigeons could discriminate paintings of a certain painter (such as Van Gogh) from another painter (such as Chagall). Furthermore, pigeons could discriminate other pigeons individually, and also discriminate stimulated pigeons that were given stimulant drugs from none.
In this experiment, pigeons could discriminate video images that reflect their movements even with a 5-7 second delay from video images that don’t reflect their movements. This ability is higher than an average 3-year-olds of humans who have difficulty recognizing their self-image with only a 2 second delay.

Over on our general forum, C J Morgan wants to know why there aren’t any Christians defending Henson. I’m not sure that this is a theological issue, but thoughts of pornography and birds and Christianity reminded me that Rubens’ Leda and the Swan was painted to hang in a Cardinal’s robing room. Apparently while you couldn’t paint a man and a woman making love, you could paint a woman making love with an animal. Now what would Hetty Johnson think about that? Or a pigeon?

Posted by Graham at 8:53 am | Comments (5) |
Filed under: Science


  1. Fascinating, Graham. My favourite example of surprising animal intelligence is our friend, the octopus. Check this link

    Comment by Jason — June 12, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  2. “Apparently while you couldn’t paint a man and a woman making love, you could paint a woman making love with an animal. Now what would Hetty Johnson think about that?”
    Hetty would be cool with that- providing the liaison wasn’t between and overage cardinal and an underage swan.

    Comment by Meself — June 12, 2008 @ 3:45 pm

  3. Since ancient times, in the philosophy of Pythagoras for example, mind and the cosmos were seen as inextricably linked. Kant, anyone? Man is different because he has a soul, spirit, dasein, apperception, conscious cognition, or whatever you choose to call it. That is the ability to be moral agents and aspire to higher things. If you deny that you deny yourself. Animals don’t have it, that is why they are lower forms of life; their ability and potential to interact with the world is infinitely less than that of man. We should not treat them cruelly, but there is a hierarchy of beings which must be respected. That’s just the Tao.

    Comment by jjyz — June 12, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

  4. Interesting stuff indeed, Graham.
    Apologies for forgetting your posts here at Ambit Gambit when I asked where the Christian Henson defenders were. Happily, it seems you’re not the only one 🙂
    As to your question, as meself says, I think that St Hetty would only be interested if either Leda or Zeus was a minor at the time of consummation. Mind you, think of the possibilities if that were the case – no Helen, no Trojan War, no trojan horse viruses and no really bad Orlando Bloom blockbusters!
    As for the pigeon, one would hope that it didn’t get too many ideas. Parks and outdoor malls would be very risky places for women…

    Comment by CJ Morgan — June 13, 2008 @ 8:54 am

  5. Please check out this website which gives a uniquie understanding of the non-humans.
    1. http://animalliberty.com

    Comment by Sue — June 13, 2008 @ 10:19 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.