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Several avian species such as African grey parrots or the New Caledonian crow have demonstrated tool use, the ability to use new information in separate contexts, and other types of cognition that approach or surpass the level of a human toddler or young child.

What event or evolutionary pressure would lead such species to bridge the final step towards something approaching the cognition of an adult human, or to develop another kind of equivalent intelligence? I am assuming that they retain their basic bird-like morphology as much as possible in this scenario.

I see that there are previous questions dealing with a 'Planet of the Aves' and a crow-based civilization, however my focus here is strictly to have a semi-hard sci-fi reason for an intelligent avian species to emerge in the first place. The nature of such a civilization doesn't matter to the story I'm building, at least for now.

Edit: The previous question How can we influence our own future world by encouraging evolution of non-human intelligent species? does not answer my query, please stop closevoting with it. I am looking for non-directed evolution only.

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11 Answers 11

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Incrementally more complicated food in an otherwise-forgiving environment

There's obviously any amount of debate over what led to human intelligence, but if we follow Joseph Henrich's The Secret of Our Success, the number one thing is the requirement to build long mental sequences, in order to make tools and process food.

You could situate the crows as immigrants to an isolated continent without predators or close rivals, and place them in an evolutionary arms race with various complex food sources - armoured plants and prey animals. Successful crows learn ever-longer series of manipulations in order to manufacture tools, pry their food out from its defences, render it digestible, etc.

The mental sequences become too complicated for one crow to invent by itself, so they evolve for culture: observing their parents and teaching skills to their children. This leads to theory of mind and unlocks cooperative behaviour. In time, the long mental sequences and the need for communication combine to create language, and then we're off to the races. The food sources can no longer keep up the pace, but the crows keep getting smarter through social competition.

We'd imagine the crows getting larger and larger to support bigger brains, losing the ability to fly, and gaining dexterity with wing manipulators. None of that is clearly essential, though - we have no idea how intelligent a small flying animal could become with the right incentives.

(I've only addressed crows here because they've already got a good start on this complex-extraction path. Parrot intelligence seems altogether different.)

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  • $\begingroup$ There are many great answers here, and I am indebted to their writers, but yours was the one that gave me an immediate "ah yes!" moment $\endgroup$
    – Qwokker
    Nov 6, 2023 at 23:30
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They need to first evolve humanoidism

Birds evolved advanced brains before apes did, but birds don't have the bodies for advanced tool use. The niche of advanced civilization in humans came after 2 key features set us aside from the other mammals:

  1. Hands: Because birds have to do all of their manipulation with their feet and beaks, it limits their ability to perform certain actions. A human can pick up any tool, walk to where they are going, brace themselves with their feet, and perform powerful, full body actions like chopping, hammering, etc. while maintaining a fixed gaze on their work for precision. While the beak itself can be a powerful and precise tool, it lacks the surface area to control a created tool for heavy labor, and a tool in the talon cannot be followed through with the full strength of its body. This means there is no advantage for a bird to ever make something like an axe, hammer, etc. If most tools don't improve on their natural abilities, then there is no point in investing in complex tool use. No bird alive today has a body plan capable of tooled blacksmithing, mining, etc. So, birds can not really move past mezolithic tool use at their current morphologies.
  2. Upright walking: The big difference between a monkey's body and a human's body is our posture. While monkeys are proportionally stronger when it comes to grasping and ripping strength, their body plan is terrible for carrying heavy loads over long distances. When humans went upright, it was the difference between being able carry a simple tool, and being able to carry a large bundle of sticks, boards, etc. which made fire working and large scale construction many times as practical. In other words, if you can't walk or fly with a heavy load, you can't do neolithic work.
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    $\begingroup$ More on point #2: It's not just that they can't carry heavy loads over long distances; they have trouble travelling long distances empty-handed. $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Nov 1, 2023 at 12:52
  • $\begingroup$ @EvilSnack very true that distance traveling is not a forte of most apes at all, but the key IMO is more about being able to work the environment. Many nomadic animals never evolve advanced civilizations, but a human staying in one general area building a hut or fueling a fire pit from local resources may walk several kilometers in a day just hauling materials around a few meters at a time; so, it is the distance carrying specifically that you need $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:45
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Start with the hoatzin instead. It still has claws on its wings when young.

Put a breeding population of hoatzin into an environment where retaining those claws gives a distinct survival advantage. Wait until those claws are not lost at any stage of life.

Then put the handsy hoatzin into an environment where the bodily flexibility and upper body strength required for picking up stuff with those claws gives a reproductive advantage. Wait until they can bend over and pick up food to eat it. They'll probably have to stop using their wings for flight. This is not a problem.

Then put your proto-bird people into an environment where the smart ones have more children than the stupid ones. Edit: Let's say that there are predators who are bigger, stronger, and/or faster, so that fighting them or outrunning them is not an option, but outsmarting them is.

Then wait some more.

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    $\begingroup$ "an environment where the smart ones have more children than the stupid ones" - WHAT should be this environment, man? $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Nov 2, 2023 at 5:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Vesper That is "left as an exercise for the interested student." $\endgroup$
    – EvilSnack
    Nov 2, 2023 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ This should be the part of the answer, as it's explicitly being sought by the question. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Nov 2, 2023 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Probably just as much chance if not more of ending up with miniature proto-T Rexs as you have of getting 'proto-humans'. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Nov 2, 2023 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need the ability to pick things with "hands" because birds already have prensile feet. The main difference with hands is that humans have the ability to work with both hands at the same time while birds can't work with both feet while standing. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Nov 2, 2023 at 23:02
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You need to realize that:

  • Humanity is only scratching the surface of understanding evolution. We do not have a scientifically rigorous understanding of how any specific thing could evolve (such as alternative intelligent species).

But we do have a growing understanding of the general pattern.

1: Problem solving opportunities

Evolution is a somewhat random process of small, incremental changes over vast amounts of time. When those changes favor survival, that change survives into the next generation. Therefore, your species need challenges to overcome and problems to solve. Challenges are often passive and require little to no "intelligence." Problems tend to require the evolving species to react to something, and react well. All these can take the form of climate, predator, breeding, eating, and a thousand other opportunities.

2: A window for survival

Predators can't be too successful. The environment can't be too extreme. It's not enough to have problem solving opportunities, those opportunities must also have a "reasonable" chance for success. What do I mean when I quote the word "reasonable?" There isn't a hard-and-fast rule for any particular opportunity that decides whether or not it is (*ahem*) too hot, too cold, or just right. But the window for survival must exist. Is the temperature too hot? Your evolving species must adapt to finding shade — or using water to stay cool. Do the predators have long tongues? Your species must adapt to digging deeper — or learning how to sting the tongue. Did a solar flare raise the temperature too high? Your species is dead. Did the predator develop a longer tongue faster than your species could learn to dig? Your species is dead.

3: A means of surviving or avoiding extinction-level-events

In many ways, Earth's story of evolution is a story of dodging the proverbial bullet. Meteors, exploding calderas, ice ages, shifting plate tectonics, de-oxygenation of the ocean.... life (and, particularly, specific chains of life) had to dodge those bullets to evolve into human intelligence. But, to avoid burning a number on a duplicate, you need a balance just as you do for problem-solving opportunities. You can't avoid all ELEs or you don't weed out the casually successful chains of life from the "superior" chains (and I say "superior" tongue-in-cheek... we created the Austin Powers movies after all...). So it's not the events you're looking to minimize, its the strengths of your evolving life that you're looking to support and propagate.

4: Spread like a virus successful species

Back in college I had to write a program called "sharks vs. fish." Maybe they still have people write it today to study recursive subroutines. (How far back was that? I wrote it in Fortran....) While the point of the exercise was recursion, the goal was to write a program that simulated the predator-vs-prey relationship. Predators propagate slowly and only in relation to the food supply. Prey propagates like the proverbial rabbits. Predators consume prey on a logarithmic scale (the greater the numbers of predators, the faster they eat the prey). What's the point of all this? Your species must propagate fast enough to ensure there is a next generation. All those evils propounded by anti-human-population-and-expansion activists? Yeah, they're the evolutionary strengths that got us to the point where someone could complain about it. Without those strengths, we wouldn't have made it to the point of complaining about it. However, you can't spread too fast or you no longer have the most powerful compulsion for change: predation. Why have mosquitoes never evolved beyond what they are? Because there's no need to change. They are completely successful in their niche.

5: Availability of dietary requirements

The evolutionary chain that brought the world Humanity in all its glory included the foods necessary for a changing diet brought about by the changes necessary for our evolution. Over-simplifying a LOT, we started with eating oceanic organics, graduated to leaves and grass, moved on to fruits and nuts, then came the need for proteins and fat-rich food sources (yeah... meat..., especially bone marrow), until we ended up today with the ability to complain about people who frequent all-you-can-eat BBQ. Your birds are most likely fruit and nut eaters, maybe a bit of meal worm... but as they evolve, they'll need access to foods that can fuel those changes — notably that can fuel the changes in the brain. But that also means they must change to handle consuming, processing, and expelling those kinds of foods.

Now for the real problem...

At the beginning I said that evolution is a somewhat random process of small, incremental changes over vast amounts of time. It is. The problem is that you're likely looking for a magical summary of the top five events that justify human intelligence and, thus, could justify avian intelligence (or similar). The problem is that it doesn't work that way.

When I say "small" and "vast" I really mean it. Just contemplating how the human eye (and the ability to "see, involving nerves and the brain") evolved is breathtaking. So many eons making small, almost meaningless changes until, boom! Michelangelo.

In other words, no matter what any of us say in response to this question, you're stuck with a worldbuilding problem. If you're trying to map out a "realistic" evolution of anything, you're kinda doomed to failure. Lots of small, incremental changes over vast amounts of time. You'll be stuck with creating a (very) short list of "big events" that will rationalize your end result — an avian species both sentient and sapient. And what, specifically, that list is has more to do with storybuilding (the needs of your story) than it does worldbuilding (the rules underlying the operation of your world). Thus, I've given you the outline of a bunch of potential rules — but it'll be up to you to craft the specifics that your story needs. (I'm assuming a story, I apologize if that's not the case.)

Don't feel bad about that! Worldbuilding is often the art of simplifying things. Even massive worldbulding projects like Orion's Arm are, for all their cool and amazing glory, massive simplifications. Just remember, you should be looking to rationalize your creation, not fully explain it. You'll sleep better if you keep that in mind. Cheers.

One last thing...

If what you're looking for is something that looks like a modern parrot who can competently discuss quantum mechanics with Stephen Hawking, you're going to need to change your paradigm. The changes that must occur to the bird you see sitting on a branch today may result in something that has bird-like characteristics (in the same way that you can kinda see the primate in humanity), but it won't be the parrot of day anymore than we're the chimpanzee of today. I don't entirely agree with @Nosajimiki that your birds would be required to evolve into humanoids... but I completely agree that they'd need to change to accommodate everything I've discussed.

Keep in mind, we don't have fur all over our bodies anymore because we've evolved to no longer need it. But we didn't need or use it for mating, either. What would a bird's plumage evolve into if it no longer needed it for warmth, etc.? And how would that hang around (kinda like human hair...) if a colorful display (not necessarily plumage!) was still needed to attract a mate?

enter image description here

To conclude... what you want to design is more important than the Real Life processes that might (maybe) lead to its design. Start with a little science... but don't be completely bound by it or you'll have to go where the proverbial evidence takes you. Which might very well be the flying cow @Vesper mentions. I liked the flying cow!

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel bad for not being able to select multiple answers... because yours was very helpful in reframing the problem. I ended up selecting @BiroCash's answer because his idea is one I immediately felt compelled to adopt, but I will also be using your framework to build the story. $\endgroup$
    – Qwokker
    Nov 6, 2023 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Qwokker You'll never hurt my feelings not selecting mine as your preferred answer. It is nice to know that it had some value for you. You might consider reading my answer to a Meta question about wanting to select multiple answers. If nothing else, I think it's one of my better writing efforts. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 6, 2023 at 23:14
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None (need bigger brains)

First of all, many avian species are smart. Their brains generally have an overall high density compared to any other brain. They demonstrate an incredible ability for several areas, like language an tool use.

Something approaching modern human intelligence is right out. Even early humans is a stretch. The described birds current brains have already been optimised. Without enlarging the brain and thus the whole bird, you cannot get a further leap to adult humans.

While the intelligence of birds is often stated as phenomenal, it is still important to note it is compared to their weight. Their demonstrated intelligence also happens to coincide with things we deem important to intelligence. But even those are limited and narrow. Put any bird into a scenario an average modern adult should face. From obeying traffic laws to just understanding why you need to work, the complexities of our current civilisation is simply beyond the capabilities of your described bird species. This is regardless of however much further evolution you give them. If a container is full, you can only do so much rearranging to cram in more before you need a bigger container. A physical limit. With bigger brains the the often stated square cube law would demand further changes to their basic bird like morphology. You could still claim them as birds, but it is probably out of scope of your question.

Without bigger brains, no human tier intelligence.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't the New Caledonian crows wait for the lights to change when they use cars for nutcrackers? $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Nov 1, 2023 at 5:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Would I know any of those, if nobody taught me? Probably not. I might assume that cars had destinations, by analogy to everything else that goes from place to place, but other than that… I think you're being unfair. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 1, 2023 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ I don't buy this explanation because the birds with the biggest brains are far from the biggest birds. A bird the size of a pelican, albatross, or eagle could easily hold a brain large enough to match human intelligence, and that is assuming a flying bird. A terror bird or ostrich is big enough for a human sized skull before you even consider bird brain efficiencies. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ ... and lets not forget how big dinosaur skulls were... $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Sorry, I was a bit unclear there. My point was not to start with a larger bird, just that if size actually constricted intelligence of an animal that was under evolutionary pressure to become more intelligent, then they would just get bigger (humans have nearly doubled in size in the past 2 million years). As long as you can prove that a bigger version of the general body plan works, then size is not a constraint for evolution. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 2, 2023 at 13:17
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There seems to be a ton of requirements for intelligent avians. Starting from deepest:

You need hexapods to dominate early ground

An intelligent avian needs hands, or else his tools would be limited to beak-appendages which would obstruct his ability to communicate verbally, as well as his head's free movement mid-air, after all. the best tools humans have are weapons, and weapons are required to be available to be drawn in every possible moment. For avians this includes mid-air attack from the clouds, for example, they need to be able to deter airborne predators which would be aplenty. Therefore, an avian would have to have at least six limbs: arms, wings, legs. (Aka dragon, just with feathers) For this to happen, their ancestors should be hexapods that would evolve wings out of one pair of limbs.

You might be able to achieve this by implementing a heavily tectonic world, at least in the past, where and when four legs were not enough to maintain equilibrium, so any four-legged creatures were outpaced by six-legged ones. Eventually tremors ceased or diminished, yet dominant lifeform structure won't get easily altered into four-limb configuration, so everything ends up having six. (Hey, this allows centaurs below! Quite a civilization war might happen if both would develop intelligence)

Avians have to fly in dense atmosphere

Brains are heavy, and to lift a creature with a brain the size of a Homo habilis' would take quite a structure just to support the weight of it and the life-support system required. The big brain would have to evolve from a smaller one, yet the smaller brain would need some complex problems to solve in order for bigger-brain creatures to dominate the skies. This can be achieved by adding high turbulence and obscure vision mid-air, so that specimen that would be able to discern the sound of an attacking falcon (equivalent) would have adaptation advantage. Perhaps those species' forelimbs would develop feelers that would detect aggressive wind swipes prior to them knocking the avian off balance in flight, or something, also they might get better hearing like owls, that would help both to hunt and evade predators. Anyway there needs to be a use for higher processing power in flight in order for the brains of avians to ever become big enough. The high atmospheric density should be retained over the course of their evolution to not force the now-too-big birds to land and forfeit going airborne again. Their eyes might also evolve unpredictably, perhaps towards viewing in a spectrum that's not obscured by atmospheric events (NIR or UV? Maybe both, making them have more eyes than just the two we have), this would also add requirement to signal processing power, so brains would grow.

There must be relative predators in the skies, perhaps even those that never land

A bird in the sky is generally safe from land-based threats, yet it has to land somewhere to lay eggs or rest, where land-based predators might disrupt their proliferation process, ending their existence. The dense atmosphere required for avians to fly with big brains would also allow plants and other life to float, granting a possibility for an entirely sky-based life to exist, that never comes down to unstable ground (if it's still unstable), but is constantly tossed by high winds, both up and down and in all directions. Such a system would still have its plants, plant-eating animals and predators that eat them in turn; avians could enter such an ecosystem soon or late, so that airborne ceratures might follow a different evolution path like flying by flotation. Yet since the mineral supply is scarce in midair, there would be both high food concurrency and a possibility to find rest in mid-air on top of those floaters, for example. Having a big brain would let avian predecessors to accommodate to ever-changing nature of the sky turmoil, allowing to take unobvious opportunities to hide, hunt or make shelter for children that won't be available to those with less organized brain, letting them sustain their existence for enough time to gain enough intelligence to start thinking about tools, finally employing their hands for actual job insteda of maybe using them for self-defense in air clinch combat.

PS: all this is a very thin ground, yet I've tried to make it look plausible and still science-based on what we know about our own evolution as species throughout the lifetime of the biosphere. And there should be enough quirks in between these stages that might turn the course of avian evolution, say beaks vs teeth, shaped skulls, brain location, overall form, flotation capability etc etc., so in the end you might not even get an intelligent avian, but instead an intelligent flying cow. That's a skliss. It's not owned. Dad, let's take him! (c)

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It is not obvious that birds traded intelligence for flight. Our brains are heavy. It does not follow that a much lighter brain cannot exist. Some birds can use tools and language so they can get into the same intellectual region as us. Some birds are born with with instincts to survive from the egg. 'Crow funerals' suggest a communal memory or 'hive mind'. These together might save a lot of weight.

It seems reasonable that birds traded wing claws and fingers, teeth, and other features for flight. It is a good trick, and worth trading a lot for. Their arms/wings are strong but specialised. They no longer have fine manipulation skills, so these actions have passed to their feet.

Birds have become flightless independently several times. This may have been when there were no significant predators, and becoming larger was a better strategy than flying. Dodos, penguins, ostriches, kiwis, emus, and turkeys probably stopped flying. In all cases, they seem to have lost the strength of their wings. If you want upper body dexterity, you have to somehow keep the strength of the wings, and recover the use of the fingers. No birds have managed this yet.

This leaves you with a slightly odd creature. It may keep its wings for flight. It may tuck objects under the wings to hold them. But the wings do not recover their agility, and the dexterity has passed to the beak and the feet. This puts at a disadvantage when it meets bipeds such as ourselves with teeth that bite and claws that catch, etc.

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  • $\begingroup$ Jabberwocky: The avian people's word for humans. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 1, 2023 at 18:54
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Change the Landscape of the world to suit intelligent birds and be unforgiving for most other species.

Maybe there is no human intervention building the world, but it still has to follow the principle that birds are best suited, and it pushes attributes indicative of bird intelligence.

Picture a world with stone steppes like elaborate coral structure with litle trees and vines growing on plateaus near the top, high up in the sky. In this world only the birds are capable of reaching the micro climates at the top where the food supply is.

In this world the flight pattern recognition, bird song, mimicry, nest building, and constructing crochet like tools that birds make are necessary skills.

Flight pattern recognition- In this world the seasons change in an unforgiving way. Routes to food sources must be strictly adhered to. Perhaps their seasons change more rapidly than they do on earth.

Only the best and most adaptive singers survive by co-operating with birds that have other dialects, in order to evade the other animals on the world.

Only the most architectural nests get safely to the highest fertile areas.

Only the birds that build nuanced tools can eat the grubs or whatever animal they feed on.

This whole world is almost like a complex platform game, where only the best and most clever flyers will win.

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Although I agree with the idea that evolving human-like traits such as hands and an upright posture might be necessary, I can't help but think that a natural catastrophe could render the environment so inhospitable that most birds perish, leaving only a very small group of more intelligent birds.

These survivors would be forced to devise collaborative strategies to locate food in a challenging environment, potentially developing mental capacities for social collaboration and language. Subsequently, they would need to invent ways to create advanced tools, which circles back to the argument that they would require hands or evolve their beaks and feet to manipulate objects with greater dexterity.

So I think language (written and spoken), social collaboration, and tool-handling dexterity are a must. Something along these lines.

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Avoiding predators, or becoming predators.

Onde possibility is an arms race. If their predators gain an advantage by becoming smarter outweighing the disadvantage of becoming heavier (bigger brains), then the crows or parrots will have to up their own game to avoid being eaten. Since the least smart ones will tend to become lunch for these predators, the evolutionary drive is strong.

Alternatively, I have read reports that in parts of the world, ravens are overcoming their pair-solitary nature and coming together in groups to hunt sheep. Some hold the sheep's tail while others try to wound it or put out its eyes. It's hideously "cruel" since they aren't well-equipped by nature as predators. On the other hand, I don't imagine that early hominids using blunt sticks and stones on herbivores were any less "cruel". The need to cooperate in groups may well drive intelligence higher.

In passing, ravens already have human-tier intelligence, estimated around that of an average human 7-year-old. They are the largest and smartest of the corvids.

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Potentially Nothing

It is true that we humans have observed crows and parrots to be less intelligent than humans: However, this doesn't mean that this is the be all and end all of our knowledge of nonhuman intellect

Believe it or not, but neither parrots nor crows are human beings: Their mind, culture, and history are entirely different. And if intelligence testing within a single subspecies is so often biased towards as granular as the testmaker's culture, why should we imagine that a test of an entirely different class would produce perfect results?

In summary, there's no good reason to believe that crows aren't already perfectly smart enough for civilization

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