More Than Human: An Abductive Thinking Experiment

Midjourney’s imagining of what an origami crow might look like

I’ve spent many hours watching the crows outside my window from my “terrace in the sky”. I have speculated before about what it might be like to be a crow. But those who have spent a lifetime studying birds and other wild creatures have concluded that we can never know what it’s like to be another creature, even if we have spent thousands of hours among cats, dogs, whales, bonobos, or birds. In fact, we cannot even know what it’s like to be another human.

The scientific method just doesn’t apply. We can form hypotheses, and collect reams of observations and data, as ornithologists like Bernd Heinrich have done, but we really cannot ever properly test our hypotheses. We can only speculate. And while there have been many hypotheses seriously studied, it seems clear that the more data we accumulate the more likely it is that we end up disproving even our most seemingly-credible theories. 

For example, it was long believed that a lot of wild animal and bird “play” was youngsters’ safe rehearsal for potential real-life challenges — an appealing form of practice. But the more exhaustive studies suggest that there is no correlation between play and evolutionary success — it’s just not a successful strategy. So the only hypothesis still left standing is that wild creatures play just for the fun of it. Every other presumption, it seems, is just anthropomorphizing. 

Science depends principally on analytical, deductive reasoning — starting with a hypothesis, such as “all human languages conform to a single, universal grammar”, confirming it with observations, and searching for exceptions, and declaring it to be “truth” until a counter-example (like the Pirahã language) disproves it. 

But most of how our brains make sense of the world is via inductive or abductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning starts with observations — the particular — and then generalizes hypotheses from them. If we wanted to, we could then exhaustively test those hypotheses to confirm or refute them, but generally we don’t do that. We get attached to our hypotheses quickly and are reluctant to abandon them. 

So, if two mainstream newspapers tell us that Russia invaded Ukraine because Putin is evil and insane, and that nothing Ukraine’s government or the US/NATO did had anything to do with it, those two data points may be enough to convince us and close our minds to other possibilities, even when contrary data (such as Biden’s bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines) makes those beliefs utterly untenable.

That’s not to say inductive reasoning doesn’t have its place, just that it is wildly susceptible to mis- and disinformation, and very human cognitive biases. The only solution to that, as Dave Snowden has repeatedly noted, is to allow yourself to be exposed to a greater diversity of people, interactions and environments that increase the likelihood of you seeing and hearing data and viewpoints that undermine your misunderstanding. What you’re then left with is uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, and perhaps shame over having been credulous or misled. No surprise we tend not to seek that diversity, and cling to our echo chambers’ beliefs. The challenge for those who want to enlighten the world is to make it easier, and more fun, to discover that diversity of possibilities. Not an easy task.

Abductive reasoning, as I explained in an earlier post, entails the capacity to see things from different trans-contextual perspectives, to listen empathetically and pay attention to outliers on the “margins of meaning”, and imagine novel approaches and ideas, to draw on the “logic of hunches” and intuition, to rest in uncertainty and welcome and play with ambiguity, and to combine well-considered theory with direct experience. It requires lots of practice, good attention skills, and rigour. And a practiced capacity to hypothesize, and to test our hypotheses, and hold several hypotheses simultaneously. And a capacity for “small noticings” — such as noticing something during a journey that you didn’t realize was important until you’d passed it, and then turning back to give it more attention.

An excellent example of abductive reasoning is evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin’s small book The Triple Helix, in which, among other things, he explores the causes of human deaths in the world since the middle ages. He concludes that the commonly-accepted explanations (better hygiene and sanitation, antibiotics and other medicines) for the dramatic drop in deaths from infectious diseases in “industrialized” nations, represent a complete misunderstanding of historical events and the impact of technologies. Instead, he argues, using abductive reasoning, “Infectious diseases were not the causes of death, but only the agencies. The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the Third World [and among the poor the world over]: overwork and undernourishment.”

Likewise, he argues, using the same reasoning, our modern western chronic diseases, and the ecological devastation of our planet, are the agencies, not the causes, of the horrific and grossly unequal suffering we are contending with in this century. “The cause is the narrow rationality of an anarchic scheme of production that was developed by industrial capitalism and adopted by industrial socialism. In this, as in all else, the confusion between agencies and causes prevents a realistic confrontation with the conditions of human life.”

So he might argue (though he leaves this to the reader) that instead of solely trying to develop and propagate technologies in order to fight diseases, and instead of solely trying to deal with ecological collapse though programs and technologies that reduce pollution and waste, we should instead focus our efforts on improving working conditions and wages, reducing work stress, enabling people to eat better, and scrapping both industrial capitalism and industrial socialism in favour of systems that reward different, more desirable, sustainable behaviours. If only that were possible!

Could similar abductive reasoning enable us to get closer to understanding what it’s like to be a crow or other more-than-human animal?

I thought I would try. I’m blessed, and cursed, with a rather exceptional imagination. So I’ve spent some time recently just watching the crows, reading up on them, and trying to suspend my beliefs, anthropocentric assumptions and judgements about what I am seeing and the ‘why’s (the causes, not the agencies) behind what they are apparently doing.

Here are some hypotheses that I’ve come up with:

1. Over the past 50 years, crows have migrated toward the cities almost in lockstep to humans, to the point that globally, now more than half of both species are urban dwellers. Why? Hypothesis: Crows come to cities for the same reasons many humans do — intellectual stimulation and better, more interesting opportunities. Crows are extremely smart creatures, and they spend most of their time in leisure activities, and seem delighted to explore small objects and human artefacts. They treat everything as natural, whether it be a forest, a skyscraper, or a landfill. Urban crows have evolved significantly larger brains than rural crows, despite similar body size. I’d guess their dopamine levels are also higher. Mechanized monoculture has dramatically reduced the biodiversity of most rural areas, potentially making them less healthy and less interesting for big-brained corvids. And all species’ population and distribution is closely linked to quantity and proximity of preferred foods. Needless to say, they’ve developed some unhealthy eating habits from hanging with us, such as a sweet tooth.

2. Urban crows migrate to huge shared roosts every evening for most of the year, then return to their ‘home’ communities every morning. Why? Hypothesis: Crows congregate each evening simply because they’re social creatures, and enjoy the company and stimulation of others of their kind. The traditional explanation that they do this to protect against owls because there is safety in numbers and because nearby lights dissuade predators just doesn’t hold water — there’s just no data to support it. They have the leisure time, there’s a party every night, a chance to interact with new birds and share gossip, have fun, and just proclaim ‘I am here!’, so why wouldn’t they go? 

3. Crows seem to squabble a lot. It is common to see groups of a dozen or more flying around and landing on or right beside each other while emitting loud, full-body caws. Some observing crows seem to egg them on. But there does not seem to be any fighting per se. The traditional explanation is that this is territorial behaviour, revolving around nesting areas or mates. But if it were so, surely the fighting would be nastier. Ornithologists say they’ve never seen a crow kill another crow in a fight. Hypothesis: When it’s just crows in a neighbourhood flock, all that noisy squabbling is basically roughhousing, crow-wrestling, a stress-buster, a way of discharging extra energy. I watched a bunch of them at it today, about a dozen of them, and they pounced on and yelled at and chased each other, but ten minutes later they were all together on the same ledge as if nothing had ever happened. 

4. Crows play with objects a lot. This includes pushing objects along the ground, sliding down slippery surfaces, dropping pebbles from their beaks and then diving down to retrieve them in mid-air, and stealing non-food objects from the beaks of other crows. The traditional explanation is that this is mating behaviour, trying to impress potential partners with shiny objects or daredevil actions. But again, studies suggest that crows aren’t particularly interested in objects per se, but only what they can do with them. And they do the pebble-dive even when no other crows are in evidence. Hypothesis: Like kids with a ball or cats with string, the crows are just playing with stuff, knocking it around, because it’s fun, pleasurable. It’s a game. Why need it be anything more than that? “Hey, cool — I can make this thing do this!”

5. Crows will apparently, though rarely, gang up on and quickly kill a crow that has been seriously injured such that it can no longer take care of itself. The traditional explanation for this is that a severely injured crow puts the rest of the flock in jeopardy from predators that might see crows as ‘easy’ prey if they caught one that was injured. Again, this prevailing wisdom is just a conjecture, with no data to back it up that I have seen. Hypothesis: This is a community act of mercy, to prevent the injured crow from suffering any longer than it must. Many injured wild creatures crawl away alone to die, and I suspect some crows do that too (and are too smart to be seen doing so). But for those unable to do so, perhaps community-assisted suicide is the back-up. If that’s the case, crows are perhaps, in this respect at least, more ‘humane’ creatures than humans. I wouldn’t be the least surprised.

These hypotheses rely to some extent on my intuitive sense that bodies, human and probably more-than-human as well, instinctively do what maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain, and that all our and their behaviour is biologically and culturally conditioned. They would be hard to prove, or disprove, but no more so than conventional explanations, which, I think, insult crows’ intelligence and emotional capacity.

We homo ‘sapiens’, on the other hand, are merely human, and tragically disconnected from the instincts that cause many wild creatures to self-limit their procreation, to take responsibility for their entire community’s welfare as if it were a single creature, and to live non-judgemental lives of simple wonder, enthusiasm and equanimity. In our modern atomized society, that’s hard for any of us to imagine. 

After all that, I still can’t imagine what it’s like to be a crow, though I suspect they have no sense of being separate individuals, and no sense of time; they are likely just part of everything that is appearing, and appreciate that, while we humans are incapable of seeing it.

But somehow I feel I understand them a bit better. They are awesome creatures.

This abductive thinking is hard work! As much as I enjoy practicing using my imagination, thinking outside the box, challenging everything, and simultaneously considering multiple hypotheses, this process is so much more difficult than simple deductive and inductive reasoning. I think it requires starting with compassion and the presumption that we’re all doing our best, subject to our conditioning, when it is so much simpler to start with a judgement, blame, a familiar and uncontroversial simplistic notion, or an uncharitable assumption. No wonder we’re loath to do it.

This was my first concerted effort to do this on a particular subject where the prevailing hypotheses and conjectures just didn’t ring true for me. I want to do more of this. I’d like to try to understand all three perspectives on the Ukraine war, with a mind to seeing what might be the least unworkable way to end it, but that may be impossible to do with the current fog of war and disinformation.

In any case, I’m told that the best abductive hypotheses emerge from a mixture of external insights and direct personal experience, so I’d probably be better to practice applying this thinking to subjects where I actually have some direct personal experience to draw on. I’ve tried recently with my explorations on our sense of smell, and on our tastes in music. Maybe I’ll have a go at coming up with some novel ideas about Moloch: The Multipolar Trap. Stay tuned.

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4 Responses to More Than Human: An Abductive Thinking Experiment

  1. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Interesting abductive reflections. You may enjoy Adrian Tchaikovsky’s sci fi novel Children of Memory, which features corvids as the dominant species on a terraformed planet. His previous two books in a series, Children of Time and Children of Ruin, have featured evolved spiders and octopuses, and are pretty good on ‘what it’s like to be …’ scenarios and imagining more-than-human worlds.

  2. Peter Webb says:

    Thanks Dave for abducting our attention to simplicity, abundance, and Life as it was meant to be for us all.
    The strands of interdependence are long and intertwined where each of us are like keys (I believe) to communications with the non human world through our individual and collective strands. When we are truly ourselves like your description of Crows being, we can abduct away with that which most touches us deeply (and produce dopamine). Obviously we could pass more time doing a little nothing so that we can really get to know who we are and then, be more able to abduct away; to discover through our personal totems, reflections of ourselves awakened and deepened through ressonance in a web like Indras’. Nature awaits !
    Thanks for keeping up the flow
    Regards, Pete

  3. Peter Webb says:

    With so many of we humans on the planet at the moment it certainly seems like a good time to be talking about and reflecting with such things.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    There is a certain magic pleasure that comes when you have been dissatisfied with the “prevailing narrative” on a subject, and the apparent imaginative poverty, and suddenly you get an insight, another way of thinking about the problem, another avenue of exploration, or another possibility that seems to have been overlooked. Mostly it comes after a lot of discussion, research, and open-minded thinking, but occasionally it just comes out of the blue. And when it happens, it’s like everyone you’re talking with about the subject suddenly sees it too, and there’s that collective “aha!”. And it doesn’t matter who contributed what to that discovery, it’s just everyone’s. Such a rush when it happens.

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