Tag Archives: Design

New study: birds are as intelligent as macaques and other mammals

Cockatiel lets a trusted friend see her wing
Female cockatiel lets a trusted friend spread her wing for inspection

Evolution News reports on a new study about my favorite creatures of all: birds!

It says:

Next time someone calls you a birdbrain, smile and say “thank you.” Our feathered friends come well equipped with hardware and software for complex behaviors. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences puts birds on par with macaques and other mammals, and even suggests they can think.

Here’s what the news from Vanderbilt University says about the results of a detailed study by researchers primarily from the University of Prague, with additional team members from Austria, Brazil, and the United States:

The macaw has a brain the size of an unshelled walnut, while the macaque monkey has a brain about the size of a lemon. Nevertheless, the macaw has more neurons in its forebrain — the portion of the brain associated with intelligent behavior — than the macaque.

That is one of the surprising results of the first study to systematically measure the number of neurons in the brains of more than two dozen species of birds ranging in size from the tiny zebra finch to the six-foot-tall emu, which found that theyconsistently have more neurons packed into their small brainsthan are stuffed into mammalian or even primate brains of the same mass. [Emphasis added.]

How is this possible? The answer includes miniaturization and efficient packaging:

That is possible because the neurons in avian brains are much smaller and more densely packed than those in mammalian brains, the study found. Parrot and songbird brains, for example, contain about twice as many neurons as primate brains of the same mass and two to four times as many neurons as equivalent rodent brains.

Not only are neurons packed into the brains of parrots and crows at a much higher density than in primate brains, but the proportion of neurons in the forebrain is also significantly higher, the study found.

The scientists note that even despised birds like pigeons show much the same brain power. Powered flight, obviously, takes a lot of hardware and software to operate in any bird; how much so in the supreme flyers Illustra Media showed in Flight: The Genius of Birds: starlings, Arctic terns, and especially the tiny hummingbirds? […]The small heads of birds belie the observations of complex behaviors they perform.

But it’s not just routine tasks the brains must perform. Some birds can remember where they stored hundreds of seeds. Birds have been observed to hide a seed while another bird is watching, then move it when the neighbor is gone — indicative of a possible ‘theory of mind’ that shows planning and recognizing what the other bird is thinking.

The study provides a straightforward answer to a puzzle that comparative neuroanatomists have been wrestling with for more than a decade: how can birds with their small brains perform complicated cognitive behaviors?

The conundrum was created by a series of studies beginning in the previous decade that directly compared the cognitive abilities of parrots and crows with those of primates. The studies found that the birds could manufacture and use tools, use insight to solve problems, make inferences about cause-effect relationships,recognize themselves in a mirror and plan for future needs, among other cognitive skills previously considered the exclusive domain of primates.

Indeed, crows have shown the ability to solve a puzzle made famous in an Aesop’s fable (Reuters): dropping stones in a pitcher to raise the water level in order to get a drink. New Caledonian crows have shown the ability to use three tools in succession to reach a food source (BBC News). Owners of parrots know the cleverness of their pets; their ability to mimic human speech and singing is astonishing. Some cockatiels can even do the Riverdance.

I love cockatiels and green cheek conures, they are my absolute favorite birds. Absolutely adorable creatures!

Anyway, the rest of the Evolution News post notes that this intelligence is a problem for naturalistic evolution. Specifically, it’s a convergence problem – the same capabilities being evolved independently, without recent shared common ancestry. How can birds and mammals, who don’t share recent common ancestors, have evolved the same capabilities, e.g. – vocal learning pathways, by chance? There is an explanation that does explain the observations, however – common designs made by a single designer.

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Biomimetics again: scientists reverse engineer the design of snake scales

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

Today, I have an example of biomimetics.

But first, here’s what that is:

Biomimetic refers to human-made processes, substances, devices, or systems that imitate nature. The art and science of designing and building biomimetic apparatus is called biomimetics, and is of special interest to researchers in nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the medical industry, and the military.

This is from Science Daily. (H/T Fuz Rana)

It says:

A snake moves without legs by the scales on its belly gripping the ground. It generates friction at the points needed to move forwards only and prevents its scales from being worn off by too much friction. Researchers of KIT have found a way to transfer this feature to components of movable systems. In this way, durability of hip prostheses, computer hard disks or smartphones might be enhanced.

“Friction and wear are two of the biggest challenges in systems of several individual components,” Christian Greiner of the Institute for Applied Materials says. A solution is found in nature: Snakes, such as the ball python, or lizards, such as the sandfish skink, use friction to move forwards, but can reduce it to a minimum thanks to their scales. Together with Michael Schäfer, Greiner developed a process to transfer the scale structure of reptiles to components of electromechanical systems: With a fiber laser, they milled scales into a steel bolt of 8 mm in diameter.

With the help of two different structures, the materials researchers tested whether the distance of the scales influences friction behavior. In the first structure, the scales overlap and are located very closely to each other, such as the scales on the belly of a ball python. The second structure consists of scales arranged in vertical rows at a larger distance, such as the skin of a sandfish skink. “The distance between the rows in our experiment was the smallest possible distance we could produce with the laser. The structure, hence, does not entirely correspond to that of the sandfish skink,” Greiner says. In the future, however, the researchers plan to produce structures that are closer to the original in nature.

[…]To find out whether scales reduce friction, Greiner and Schäfer fixed the structured surface of the bolts to a rotating plate. The experiments were carried out without and with a lubricant (1 ml of mineral oil). For the experiments with oil as lubricant, the scientists used steel disks. Under dry sliding conditions, sapphire disks were applied. The disk diameter was 50 mm.

Experiments under lubricated conditions revealed that both narrow and wide arrangements of the scales increase friction compared to the unstructured bolt: By the wide scales, friction is increased by a factor of 1.6. The narrow scales increase friction by a factor of 3. In the non-lubricated state, the wide scale structure reduced friction by more than 40 percent, while friction was reduced by 22 percent in case of a narrow scale structure.

The finding that the narrow scale structure increases friction under both lubricated and non-lubricated conditions had not been expected by the researchers: “We assumed that the narrow structure is more effective, as it is closer to nature,” Greiner says.

See the related posts for more examples of humans learning from the engineering designs in nature.

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New study: galactic habitable zone depends on fine-tuning of cosmological constant

The galactic habitable zone (GHZ) is shown in green against a spiral galaxy
The galactic habitable zone (GHZ) is shown in green superimposed on a spiral galaxy

This is going to be old news to readers of this blog who are familiar with the Michael Strauss, Walter Bradley and Guillermo Gonzalez lectures on habitability and fine-tuning. But, it’s nice to see these ideas show up in one of the most presitigious peer-reviewed science journals in the world (if not the most presitigious).

Here’s the article from Science. (H/T Gunter)

It says:

Scientists have known for several years now that stars, galaxies, and almost everything in the universe is moving away from us (and from everything else) at a faster and faster pace. Now, it turns out that the unknown forces behind the rate of this accelerating expansion—a mathematical value called the cosmological constant—may play a previously unexplored role in creating the right conditions for life.

That’s the conclusion of a group of physicists who studied the effects of massive cosmic explosions, called gamma ray bursts, on planets. They found that when it comes to growing life, it’s better to be far away from your neighbors—and the cosmological constant helps thin out the neighborhood.

“In dense environments, you have many explosions, and you’re too close to them,” says cosmologist and theoretical physicist Raul Jimenez of the University of Barcelona in Spain and an author on the new study. “It’s best to be in the outskirts, or in regions that have not been highly populated by small galaxies—and that’s exactly where the Milky Way is.”

Jimenez and his team had previously shown that gamma ray bursts could cause mass extinctions or make planets inhospitable to life by zapping them with radiation and destroying their ozone layer. The bursts channel the radiation into tight beams so powerful that one of them sweeping through a star system could wipe out planets in another galaxy. For their latest work, published this month in Physical Review Letters, they wanted to apply those findings on a broader scale and determine what type of universe would be most likely to support life.

The research is the latest investigation to touch on the so-called anthropic principle: the idea that in some sense the universe is tuned for the emergence of intelligent life. If the forces of nature were much stronger or weaker than physicists observe, proponents note, crucial building blocks of life—such fundamental particles, atoms, or the long-chain molecules needed for the chemistry of life—might not have formed, resulting in a sterile or even completely chaotic universe.

Basically, the best place for a galaxy that permits complex, embodied life to exist is one where you can pick up enough heavy elements from dying stars nearby, but not be in an area that is so crowded by stars that you will be murdered by intense gamma radiation when they die.

The cosmological constant has to be set just right that we spread out enough to make space between spiral arms for life-permitting solar systems, but no so spread out that we cannot pick up the heavy elements we need for a metal-rich star, a moon, and the bodies of the intelligent agents themselves.


As it turns out, our universe seems to get it just about right. The existing cosmological constant means the rate of expansion is large enough that it minimizes planets’ exposure to gamma ray bursts, but small enough to form lots of hydrogen-burning stars around which life can exist. (A faster expansion rate would make it hard for gas clouds to collapse into stars.)

Jimenez says the expansion of the universe played a bigger role in creating habitable worlds than he expected. “It was surprising to me that you do need the cosmological constant to clear out the region and make it more suburbanlike,” he says.

Remember, this is only one of many characteristics that must obtain in order for a have a location in the universe that can support complex, embodied life of any conceivable kind.

Let’s review the big picture

Time for me to list out some of the things that are required for a galaxy, solar system and planet to support complex embodied life. Not just life as we know it, but life of any conceivable kind given these laws of physics.

  • a solar system with a single massive Sun than can serve as a long-lived, stable source of energy
  • a terrestrial planet (non-gaseous)
  • the planet must be the right distance from the sun in order to preserve liquid water at the surface – if it’s too close, the water is burnt off in a runaway greenhouse effect, if it’s too far, the water is permanently frozen in a runaway glaciation
  • the solar system must be placed at the right place in the galaxy – not too near dangerous radiation, but close enough to other stars to be able to absorb heavy elements after neighboring stars die
  • a moon of sufficient mass to stabilize the tilt of the planet’s rotation
  • plate tectonics
  • an oxygen-rich atmosphere
  • a sweeper planet to deflect comets, etc.
  • planetary neighbors must have non-eccentric orbits

It’s not easy to make a planet that supports life. For those who are interested in reaching out to God, he has left us an abundance of evidence for his existence – and his attention to detail.

And remember, these requirements for a habitable planet are downstream from the cosmic fine-tuning of constants and quantities that occurs at the Big Bang. No point in talking about the need for plate tectonics if you only have hydrogen in your universe. The habitability requirements are a further problem that comes after the fine-tuning problem.


The best book to read on this topic is “The Privileged Planet“, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards. The latter is one of my absolute favorite Christian scholars, a real renaissance man. If the book is too much, there is a DVD by the same name that covers everything you need to know at a high level. Just FYI, Gonzalez made the cover of Scientific American in 2001, for his research on habitable zones. This is real evidence you can discuss with anyone, anywhere.

You can also watch the DVD for FREE on YouTube. Not sure how long that will be there. If you like it, buy the DVD, so you can show your friends.

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The formation of the elements required for complex embodied life is fine-tuned

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Some atheists who don’t understand the fine-tuning argument like to assert that the constants and quantities that are fine-tuned to allow for the existence of complex, embodied life can be changed arbitrarily, and life would still exist as it does now. They say that maybe we would have a ridges in our foreheads like Klingons, or maybe we would have longer ears like Vulcans or maybe green skin like Orions. The evidential support for this view seems to be grounded in Star Trek TV shows, not peer-reviewed evidence. Are atheists right to ground their rejection of a cosmic Designer in science fiction television shows? What does the peer-reviewed research say?

The fine-tuning argument

First, let’s review the structure of the fine-tuning argument.

The argument goes like this:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to law, chance or design
  2. It is not due to law or chance
  3. Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design

Although each permutation of values for the constants and quantities is equally improbable, the vast majority of the permutations will not permit life.

Let’s review:

  • Life has certain minimal requirements; long-term stable source of energy, a large number of different chemical elements, an element that can serve as a hub for joining together other elements into compounds, a universal solvent, etc.
  • In order to meet these minimal requirements, the physical constants, (such as the gravitational constant), and the ratios between physical constants, need to be withing a narrow range of values in order to support the minimal requirements for life of any kind.
  • Slight changes to any of the physical constants, or to the ratios between the constants, will result in a universe inhospitable to life.
  • The range of possible values spans 70 orders of magnitude.
  • The constants are selected by whoever creates the universe. They are not determined by physical laws. And the extreme probabilities involved required put the fine-tuning beyond the reach of chance.
  • Although each individual selection of constants and ratios is as unlikely as any other selection, the vast majority of these possibilities do not support the minimal requirements of life of any kind. (In the same way as any hand of 5 cards that is dealt is as likely as any other, but you are overwhelmingly likely NOT to get a royal flush. In our case, a royal flush is a life-permitting universe).

Now let’s see a specific example: carbon and oxygen formation.

Carbon is that element that can serve as a hub for larger molecules, and oxygen is also a vital element, since it is a component of water, which is required for life (universal solvent). Both are required for complex life of any imaginable kind.

Now for the study.

Here is an article on Science Daily about the fine-tuning argument.

It says:

Life as we know it is based upon the elements of carbon and oxygen. Now a team of physicists, including one from North Carolina State University, is looking at the conditions necessary to the formation of those two elements in the universe. They’ve found that when it comes to supporting life, the universe leaves very little margin for error.

Both carbon and oxygen are produced when helium burns inside of giant red stars. Carbon-12, an essential element we’re all made of, can only form when three alpha particles, or helium-4 nuclei, combine in a very specific way. The key to formation is an excited state of carbon-12 known as the Hoyle state, and it has a very specific energy — measured at 379 keV (or 379,000 electron volts) above the energy of three alpha particles. Oxygen is produced by the combination of another alpha particle and carbon.

NC State physicist Dean Lee and German colleagues Evgeny Epelbaum, Hermann Krebs, Timo Laehde and Ulf-G. Meissner had previously confirmed the existence and structure of the Hoyle state with a numerical lattice that allowed the researchers to simulate how protons and neutrons interact. These protons and neutrons are made up of elementary particles called quarks. The light quark mass is one of the fundamental parameters of nature, and this mass affects particles’ energies.

In new lattice calculations done at the Juelich Supercomputer Centre the physicists found that just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

[…]The researchers’ findings appear in Physical Review Letters.

There are many, many other examples of fine-tuning of the constants and quantities to permit complex, embodied life. And, as we’ll see below, this evidence is admitted by atheists.

Atheists agree: the fine-tuning is a fact

Let me give you a citation from the best one of all, Martin Rees. Martin Rees is an atheist and a qualified astronomer. He wrote a book called “Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe”, (Basic Books: 2001). In it, he discusses 6 numbers that need to be fine-tuned in order to have a life-permitting universe.

In chapter 1, Rees writes:

Mathematical laws underpin the fabric of our universe — not just atoms, but galaxies, stars and people. The properties of atoms — their sizes and masses, how many different kinds there are, and the forces linking them together — determine the chemistry of our everyday world. The very existence of atoms depends on forces and particles deep inside them. The objects that astronomers study — planets, stars and galaxies — are controlled by the force of gravity. And everything takes place in the arena of an expanding universe, whose properties were imprinted into it at the time of the initial Big Bang.

[…]This book describes six numbers that now seem especially significant.

[…]Perhaps there are some connections between these numbers. At the moment, however, we cannot predict any one of them from the values of the others.

[…]These six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator?

There are some atheists who deny the fine-tuning, but these atheists are in firm opposition to the progress of science. The more science has progressed, the more constants, ratios and quantities we have discovered that need to be fine-tuned. Science is going in a theistic direction. Next, let’s see how atheists try to account for the fine-tuning.

Atheistic responses to the fine-tuning evidence

There are two common responses among atheists to this argument.

The first is to speculate that there are actually an infinite number of other universes that are not fine-tuned, (i.e. – the gambler’s fallacy). All these other universes don’t support life. We just happen to be in the one universe is fine-tuned for life. The problem is that there is no way of directly observing these other universes and no independent evidence that they exist.

Here is an excerpt from an article in Discover magazine, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multiverse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn’t even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non­religious explanation for what is often called the “fine-tuning problem”—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.

The second response by atheists is that the human observers that exist today, 14 billion years after the universe was created out of nothing, actually caused the fine-tuning by going back in time and causing the universe to be fine-tuned. This solution would mean that although humans did not exist at the time the of the big bang, they are going to be able to reach back in time at some point in the future and manually fine-tune the universe.

Here is an excerpt from and article in the New Scientist, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).

…maybe we should approach cosmic fine-tuning not as a problem but as a clue. Perhaps it is evidence that we somehow endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation… observers are creating the universe and its entire history right now. If we in some sense create the universe, it is not surprising that the universe is well suited to us.

So, there are two choices for atheists. Either an infinite number of unobservable universes that are not fine-tuned, or humans go back in time at some future point and fine-tune the beginning of the universe, billions of years in the past. I think I will prefer the design explanation to those alternatives.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

New study: cameras capture wild crows using tools they made to hunt for insects

Crow using a tool he made to hunt for bugs
Crow using a tool he made to hunt for bugs

By now regular readers know that birds are my favorite creatures of all, especially parrots. Pretty much any new study about how great birds are will be blogged about here. Partly to bolster the argument for design in nature, and partly just because I think that birds are so awesome!

Here is the latest bird news from Science Daily.


Scientists have been given an extraordinary glimpse into how wild New Caledonian crows make and use ‘hooked stick tools’ to hunt for insect prey.

Dr Jolyon Troscianko, from the University of Exeter, and Dr Christian Rutz, from the University of St Andrews, have captured first video recordings documenting how these tropical corvids fashion these particularly complex tools in the wild.

The pair developed tiny video ‘spy-cameras’ which were attached to the crows, to observe their natural foraging behaviour.

They discovered two instances of hooked stick tool making on the footage they recorded, with one crow spending a minute making the tool, before using it to probe for food in tree crevices and even in leaf litter on the ground.

The findings are reported in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on Wednesday, December 23.

[…]”In one scene, a crow drops its tool, and then recovers it from the ground shortly afterwards, suggesting they value their tools and don’t simply discard them after a single use.” According to Rutz, this observation agrees with recent aviary experiments conducted by his group: “Crows really hate losing their tools, and will use all sorts of tricks to keep them safe. We even observed them storing tools temporarily in tree holes, the same way a human would put a treasured pen into a pen holder.”

New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) are found on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia.

They can use their bills to whittle twigs and leaves into bug-grabbing implements; some believe their tool-use is so advanced that it rivals that of some primates.

OK, that is pretty cool, but on crows are not the most cuddly birds. However, Goffin cockatoos are pretty cuddly, and there was a related story about them.

Goffin cockatoo using a tool he made to scoop up food through cage bars
Goffin cockatoo using a tool he made to scoop up food through cage bars

First, this one from November 2012: (Science Daily)

A cockatoo from a species not known to use tools in the wild has been observed spontaneously making and using tools for reaching food and other objects.

A Goffin’s cockatoo called ‘Figaro’, that has been reared in captivity and lives near Vienna, used his powerful beak to cut long splinters out of wooden beams in its aviary, or twigs out of a branch, to reach and rake in objects out of its reach. Researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Vienna filmed Figaro making and using these tools.

How the bird discovered how to make and use tools is unclear but shows how much we still don’t understand about the evolution of innovative behaviour and intelligence.

A report of the research is published this week in Current Biology…

And then an update to the story – a new study showing that the cockatoo is actually able to teach other birds how to make tools as well: (Science Daily)

Goffin’s cockatoos can learn how to make and use wooden tools from each other, a new study has found.

The discovery, made by scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute at Seewiesen, is thought to be the first controlled experimental evidence for the social transmission of tool use in any bird species.

Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) is a curious species of Indonesian parrot not known to use tools in the wild. At a laboratory in Austria the researchers had observed a captive adult male Goffin’s cockatoo named ‘Figaro’ spontaneously start to sculpt stick tools out of wooden aviary beams to use them for raking in nuts out of his reach. To investigate if such individual invention could be passed on to other cockatoos the team used Figaro as a ‘role model’, exposing other birds to tool use demonstrations, some with Figaro as ‘teacher’ and others without his ‘students’ seeing him at work.

In the experiments one cockatoo group was allowed to observe Figaro skilfully employing a ready-made stick tool, while another could see what researchers called ‘ghost demonstrations’ — either seeing the tools displacing the nuts by themselves, while being controlled by magnets hidden under a table, or seeing the nuts moving towards Figaro without his intervention, again using magnets to displace the food. The birds were all then placed in front of an identical problem, with a ready-made tool lying on the ground nearby.

Three males and three females that saw Figaro’s complete demonstration interacted much more with potential tools and other components of the problem than those seeing ghost demos. They picked up sticks more than the ghost demo control groups and generally seemed more interested in achieving the result. Remarkably, all three males in this group acquired proficient tool use, while neither the females in the same group nor males and females in the ghost demo groups did.

A report of the research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

During the Christmas holidays, I’ve been working on a technical project that is now deployed and functioning on a cloud service, backed by a data store. One of the reasons I have been able to keep at it despite all the festivities going on, is because my pet bird has been flying and landing on top the computer monitor and urging me to get cracking on the next feature in the feature list. He is very bossy.

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