Could a pigeon be the next great art critic?

Are humans the only animals that can appreciate beauty? Stories about painting elephants and chimps have convinced some that we are not the only species with a developed sense of the aesthetic. But doubts remain regarding whether these animals are truly creating art or simply trained performers. A Japanese scientist has approached the question from a different angle by testing whether pigeons can learn human aesthetics — using children's paintings.

Photo by Jackie Finn-Irwin

For the study, "Pigeons can discriminate "good" and "bad" paintings by children," the researcher trained groups of pigeons (obtained from the Japanese Society for Racing Pigeons, no less) to judge pastels and watercolors from an elementary school in Tokyo. Why children's paintings? According to the author, even though we may argue about whether a particular great work of art is beautiful or not, people tend to agree on a "common sense of beauty for rather relatively less sophisticated paintings such as those drawn by schoolchildren."

Could a pigeon be the next great art critic?

First, 57 paintings were graded by the school's art teacher. The scientist then took the pieces graded as "A" and "C" or "D" work and asked 10 adults to classify them as "good" or "bad", resulting in two groups of 15 pictures (see Figure). Ten paintings of each type were then put into a Powerpoint presentation and used to train the pigeons. If the birds pecked a key after viewing a "good" painting, they received a food reward (mmm, birdseed!), but they got no reward if they pecked the key after viewing a "bad" painting.

The scientist then set the pigeons loose on the five previously unseen "good" and "bad" paintings. Lo and behold, the birds were able to correctly classify the new paintings, pecking after the new "good" pictures 35% of the time but after the "bad" ones only 15% of the time. The scientist went on to determine which visual cues the pigeons used to tell the "good" and "bad" art apart; it turns out the pigeons' ability collapsed when presented with black and white or highly pixellated versions of the pictures, indicating that the birds were primarily using color and shape to judge the paintings:

The results clearly demonstrated that the pigeons acquired the visual concept of the stimulus class that was classified as 'good' pictures as subjectively judged by human observers. This does not mean that the pigeons perceived the pictures as 'beautiful' as we do, but instead suggests that they discriminate beautiful paintings as one class of stimuli...

As the author carefully points out, although we don't know if the pigeons actually like the "good" paintings, its clear that the pigeons can be trained to recognize them. But who knows—the pigeons may have actually looked forward to the "good" paintings due to the reward that followed close behind. And really, how different is that from people being trained by societal rewards to have "good taste"?

Lillian Fritz-Laylin and Meredith Carpenter run NCBI ROFL, a blog devoted to scientific malingering.