Ravens Discovered to have Low Time Preferences
Ravens have a low time preference according to research published this month in the magazine, Science. The stately covid was made famous by Edgar Allan Poe in his poem “The Raven,” a story about a man lamenting the loss of his wife Lenore, when he heard a tap, tap, tapping at his chamber door.
No one was there. When the tapping starts again, he opens the shutter, “with many a flirt and flutter,” in flies a raven, “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore.” The bird speaks just one word: “Nevermore.”
While ravens, scientists have learned, plan for the future, ironically, Poe did not. Jill Lepore wrote brilliantly in The New Yorker, “Poe didn’t write ‘The Raven’ to answer the exacting demands of a philosophic Art, or not entirely, anyway. He wrote it for the same reason that he wrote tales like ‘The Gold-Bug’: to stave off starvation. For a long while, Poe lived on bread and molasses; weeks before ‘The Gold-Bug’ was published, he was begging near-strangers on the street for fifty cents to buy something to eat.”
Poe was, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe describes in Democracy: The God That Failed, a high time preference individual, who are drifters, drunkards, junkies, vagabonds, daydreamers, or simply just happy-go-lucky sorts of fellows who work as little as possible.
Poe died at age 40 in 1849. “Poe, drunk and delirious, seems to have been dragged around Baltimore to cast votes, precinct after precinct, in one of that city’s infamously corrupt congressional elections, until he finally collapsed. From Ryan’s tavern, a polling place in the Fourth Ward, Poe was carried, like a corpse, to a hospital. He died four days later,” writes Lepore.
Markus Boeckle and Nicola S. Clayton write in Science, “The human brain stores memories of past events to guide decision-making about current and future events. Researchers long assumed that animals do not use memories in this way but rather exist in a constant stream of present needs, unable to plan for the future.”
However it turns out ravens have the same capacity as humans, or at least to the capacity of 4-year old humans. Boeckle and Clayton write, “ravens anticipate the nature, time, and location of a future event based on previous experiences. The ravens' behavior is not merely prospective, anticipating future states; rather, they flexibly apply future planning in behaviors not typically seen in the wild.”
In their studies, Kabadayi and Osvath, tested ravens and found the birds “take temporal distance between item choice and reward into account, exercise self-control, and make decisions for predicted futures rather than arbitrary ones. Thus, the birds opt for a more distant but higher gratification rather than an immediate but lower gratification and do so flexibly across behaviors.”
According to Boeckle and Clayton humans plan for the future having two cognitive processes at work: “one is directly related to the value of a future reward and the other to imagining the experience of a future reward.”
Meanwhile, “Ravens and other food-caching corvids might similarly use two potential routes for future planning—namely, orienting to the value of future reward and/or imagining themselves retrieving food caches in the future. For ravens just as for humans, memories are thus more for the future than for the past.”
In his book Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich explains that captive ravens don’t cache food because they know they will be fed by their human hosts. Heinrich quotes Mark Pavelka of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as saying, “No matter how strange or amazing the story, chances are pretty good that at least some raven somewhere actually did that.” For instance. At a New England ski area, a researcher heard a raven gurgle out, "three, two, one — boom!" in an area where the ski patrol had recently set off dynamite to control avalanches.
Heinrich stresses, “ravens are individuals,” that use tools to solve problems and barter in planning for the future.
He goes on to write, “Ravens, like humans and unlike perhaps most other birds, probably do not have instructions to all of life’s problems in advance, or they would not likely have been considered highly intelligent, and mythologized as creators, destroyers, prophets, playful clowns, and tricksters.”
And while humans, especially in democracy, tend to conform to society’s norm, Heinrich writes, “There is little indication that the activity of one (raven) has any influence on the activities of another.”
Heinrich spent time with a domestic raven named Merlin. I use the word domestic because Merlin could have flew away at any time, but didn’t leave his family. “Merlin has emotions. He remembers faces and events that he associates with them. He has moods. I do not know if he is a thinking being, but there is no doubt he is a feeling one.”
Murray Rothbard’s Robinson Crusoe economics comes to mind near the close of Heinrich’s book. He writes of a raven pair that fed on a large chunk of beef suet in back of his house. “This bird, rather than randomly picking off small chips for immediate eating, had carved a groove around one corner of the fat. This groove was carved with precisely aimed blows. The object had obviously been to cut off a manageable chunk from a larger, immovable one.”
As Heinrich explained, “That’s planning. There were no secret raven trainers out there in the woods, it was not a learned plan. It was a plan derived from mental visualization. It was an invention. It made the raven’s life easier but was hardly necessary.” Heinrich wrote, “This was a raven Einstein,” but no scientific journal would publish his findings.
“Intelligence is doing the right thing under a novel situation, precisely as this bird had done.”
Crusoe was stuck alone on an island (not in the cold woods) and was forced to take certain actions in order to live effectively. To act, he chose between alternatives in allocating resources and time. From this example, Austrian economists draw some basic, “self evident'' axioms: Humans act, their decisions are based on subjective values, uncertainty exists, and so on. We can now say at least some ravens act in the same way.
As for Poe, Lepore points out his “biography really is a series of unfortunate events. But two of those events were transatlantic financial crises: the Panic of 1819 and the Panic of 1837, the pit and the pendulum of the antebellum economy.”
For all of his talent and training (he attended posh boarding schools and the University of Virginia), Poe succumbed to drink and gambling, and owed debts he could never repay.
“Indigence cast a shadow over everything he attempted,” she writes. “Poverty was his raven, tapping at the door, and it was Poe, not the bird, who uttered, helplessly, another rhyme for ‘Nevermore.’” “‘I send you an original tale,’ Poe once began a letter, and, at its end, added one line more: ‘P.S. I am poor.’”
But not the raven, nevermore.