Dumb cluck. Birdbrain. Chickens aren't considered a very intelligent species, as epithets like these suggest. But Italian neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara is turning that conventional wisdom on its head. He says that newborn chicks are natural mathematicians and intuitive physicists.
Vallortigara's lab is in the cellar of a sixteenth-century convent in Rovereto, an Italian town in the foothills of the Alps. A dapper man in a light-blue shirt and silk tie, he was born here in the decade after World War II, when Italy was poor and flocks were critical to survival. "Not to have chickens was not to have eggs," he says, and that often meant going hungry. As a child, he grew curious about how animals like the common fowl perceived the world.
The idea that animals have mental abilities similar to those of humans has been controversial since the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes declared that they lack minds, reason, and a soul. Animals communicate anger, fear, or hunger with sounds, he noted, but they don't speak and therefore lack the inner voice that is the very basis of human thought. His famous "I think therefore I am" might be better stated as "I speak therefore I am." Animals might feel pain or pleasure-"I deny sensation to no animal," he wrote-but they lack that human quality of greater awareness or cognition. Philosophers, scientists, religious figures, and animal activists have been arguing this point ever since.