***Note- the original advertisement I was gaping at here has been taken down. Still- $600 will buy you a nice breeding specimen... and there are no restrictions on 'pet' ownership in Idaho. Remind me to get my letter to Santa in the mail!
Many people are aware that humans (or ‘man’, to use the barbaric vernacular) were once defined as tool using animals. This dates back to Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Restarus. Man is a tool-using animal...Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.
I can just imagine Carlyle’s nervous gyrations somewhere beneath his tombstone when a young English girl with an open mind and a piercing observational wit observed a chimpanzee named David Graybeard modifying a twig and using it to spear termites.
With one flick of his twig, David Graybeard had gate-crashed a very exclusive club. Before long, gorillas were ushered past the velvet rope as well. Nonetheless, humans, from their lofty, Husqvarna-happy heights, were still able to assume that the club was a primates-only affair. Opposable thumbs were the evolutionary equivalent of the dinner jacket and Harvard tie. Until New Caledonian Crows came along, that is.
However, through some Darwinian quirk that we don’t yet understand, New Caledonia Crows are the MacGyvers of the animal kingdom. They’re not only tool users, but tool modifiers, tearing at leaves and twigs with their beaks to make insect fishhooks.
In an experimental enclosure, one crow named ‘Betty’ bent a wire into a fishhook and used it to extract a food reward from a tube. Other members of her tribe were presented with a complex puzzle that mandated the sequential use of three different tools- one crow took only 110 seconds to examine the scenario and connect the dots.
Ignoring the baffling fact that a primate level of cognition has somehow been wedged into a braincase that can barely hold a walnut, an equally interesting question involves our response to Leakey’s ultimatum (Now we have to redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human).
Cognitive awareness, or a ‘sense of self’, seemed promising at one stage. Unfortunately, it’s now abundantly clear that other creatures share this capacity. Again, we’re not just talking about chimps (and elephants, and dolphins)- magpies (close kin to Corvus moneduloides) can pass a classic cognitive test called the mark test.
Certainly there’s a question of degree- humans possess many traits that are developed beyond the baseline observed in our cousins. It’s still just a matter of degree, however… little different than the demarcation between the wise and the foolish, the infantile and the adult even among H. sapiens.
However, one of the most dynamic recent riffs off this basic idea unfolds in David Brin’s ‘Earthclan’ trilogy. Brin is an amazingly playful writer- rare, but not unheard of, in someone who huffs quantum physics and evolutionary biology like nitrous oxide.
‘Earthclan’ envisions a time in the wake of first contact with a sprawling, amazingly diverse galactic civilization. In Brin’s universe, galactic accolades are predicated on finding emergent life and 'uplifting' it to sentience.
The entire 'Uplift' trilogy (which include Sundiver and Startide Rising) is- at its essence- an excuse for Brin to explore the moral status of non-human creatures. The idea of 'potentiality' (the chance that some animals may have the capacity for sentience) has long been a key fulcrum in this debate.
I, for one, would be happy to welcome a 'murder' of New Caledonian Crows to the family.
"There is one more reason to protect other species. One seldom if ever mentioned. Perhaps we are the first to talk and think and build and aspire, but we may not be the last. Others may follow us in this adventure.
Some day we may be judged by just how well we served, when alone we were Earth’s caretakers."