Jennifer Ackerman makes a convincing case for bird intelligence in her 2016 The Genius of Birds. Birds use tools, sing, live socially, navigate over long distances and have at least the rudiments of mind. The most intelligent have larger and more complexly organized brains. In her last chapter, Sparrowville: Adaptive Genius, she suggests that birds that have mastered living in human environments – house sparrows, members of the crow and pigeon families and others – have prospered because of their flexibility and intelligence. She speculates that “we humans, in creating novel and unstable environments, are changing the very nature of the bird family tree” by creating evolutionary pressures for species characterized by increased intelligence. Writ large, she wonders, is whether the changes being wrought by humans in all the areas we affect – from city environments, to deforestation, to climate change – favor the development of intelligence in species that manage to survive.
It is interesting to consider whether the new Anthropocene epoch that we seem to have entered will be one of those catastrophic periods of destruction that sweep away species that cannot adapt quickly enough to the pace and degree of change. Among those species that do adapt and even prosper, the key for many may be the development of greater intelligence. Some species may find other ways to survive, but many will go extinct. Intelligence (in the form of operational flexibility and adaptability) or bust may be the motif of the next centuries, including for human societies. And of course, it is not yet clear that intelligence itself is adaptive in the long term. We may be in the process of changing the world we live in faster than even we can accommodate.