Ravens give insight on planning for future

By Norman Knight

When I read the news, both the print and the online versions, I tend to search for writing that invites me to think or at least keeps me interested. Oh, I try to stay current with the latest political investigations into investigators who are investigating the investigated, but I do that more out of a sense of civic obligation rather than genuine interest.

After more than 50 years of following the shenanigans and scandals of various factions in the political world, I guess I am a bit cynical. And a bit bored.

That is why reading the Yahoo! News headline “Ravens can make plans for the future, in some ways surpassing apes” made me sit up.

“Oh, goody,” I smiled.

Here was something that might make me think and possibly lead me down some interesting speculative paths. Here was a chance to ponder some ideas I have been working through for a while.

The article reports on the recent work of two Swedish researchers who have been studying the intelligence of corvids, the family of birds that include ravens, crows, jays and magpies. The scientists designed experiments involving a specific tool the ravens would need (yes, ravens can use tools) in the future to open a puzzle box containing food.

In another task the ravens used a token to later bargain with a human researcher for a reward. Previous research has shown ravens can plan for the future by hiding food, but this latest study is different in that using tools and bargaining are not activities that take place in the wild.

My immediate thought after reading the headline about making plans for the future was, “I hope they can figure out how to get humans to plan ahead.”

I often wonder about some people’s ability to project into the future — or lack of it — when I watch news stories involving criminals who obviously were not thinking about the immediate aftermath of whatever bird-brained activity they were doing.

“Did you really think that was a good plan?” I ask the television.

It also got me thinking of the many students I taught in middle school who would act totally on impulse without any regard for what the consequences would be.

“What were you thinking?” is the question I asked, and it is one often asked by teachers, parents and anyone who works with young people. And it’s not just young people who aren’t thinking ahead.

For example, various studies show that only about half of Americans have done at least some planning for their financial future while one-third have done no planning at all. What are they thinking? The raven study makes me wonder: why is it that so many people, old and young, don’t or can’t think about their future?

The raven experiment also took me on a different path, this one involving my continually evolving belief that animals are more intelligent than we humans have previously assumed. More and more evidence confirms that many animals possess remarkable intelligence.

It also seems likely that some animals, at least, have the ability to project into the future which implies a sense of on-going time, of history, even.

So, if animals have intelligence and a consciousness of time, aren’t there ethical and moral questions that should be considered? I certainly don’t have all the answers, for myself or for anyone else, but these are questions that could be reflected upon.

I am so glad I stumbled onto the raven experiment article. It was entertaining and prompted me to do some thinking about some interesting ideas. It was also a good break from dreary political news.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.