I gotta get this off my desk. For a month, I’ve wanted to talk about this amazing video, Swallows Suss Out Motion Detectors, Learn to Open Doors. Some college campus added motion detector doors to their “Campus Bike Centre.” There were swallows who nested in there, but they still needed to get in and out. Almost immediately, they learned how to activate the doors. In the video below, you will see them. They fly past the detector and then do small circles until the doors (which are slow) open.
What bugs me about this is that a lot of scientists say, “Oh, this is just stimulus and response. They aren’t necessarily learning the way humans do.” I used to accept this kind of thinking. You hear the same thing about Koko, the sign language using gorilla. It sounds Very Serious to make such pronouncements, “We can’t know that they are really doing what we are!” But then two things occurred to me.
First, this is an anti-evolutionary idea. It is the idea that somehow humans aren’t just yet another great ape that has a large brain and an over-sized frontal lobe. This is just a dressed up version of what you read in the Bronze Age Bible. Yes, we are so different from other animals. But if you accept evolution, you can’t think there is some kind of quantum leap between us and swallows, much less us and gorillas.
Second, this is a weird form of solipsism. The normal kind is where we can’t know if anything outside of yourself exists. But this form is that we can’t know what’s going on in a bird’s brain. Well, that’s true. But I also can’t know what is going on in other humans’ brains. Maybe they actually think like I do, or maybe it’s just stimulus-response. Maybe other humans seem to think like I do, but they are really more like alligators without as many teeth. Who can say?
The truth is, we can’t say for certain. And as Bertrand Russell noted, we can’t say for sure that there isn’t a teapot orbiting the sun between the earth and Mars. We have to take some things on faith, like the idea that there is an external reality. But I tend to think things are actually the opposite of what I’ve been arguing. Swallows opening doors is just stimulus-response. And so was Rodin’s actions when he was carving the first version of The Thinker. I’m more than willing to believe that. But there is something in the wiring of brains that tricks us into thinking that we are actually, you know, thinking. And I don’t see any reason to “think” that swallows don’t suffer from the very same delusions.
See also: Monkeys Do Math as Expected.