Animal intelligence and ethics

This is something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile now. There is now a mounting body of evidence that demonstrates that animals have more intelligence and self-awareness than we previously thought. And if this is true, I think that this has some ramifications regarding the behavior of human beings toward animals.

This philosophical journey started for me when I read a book called Alex and Me, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the science of animal cognition. The book was written by the researcher who worked with Alex, a parrot. Most people may know Alex from the soundbites in the news when he died–he’s the parrot that told the researcher studying him, “Be good, I love you,” right before he died. But perhaps, one may argue, this is just us anthropomorphizing the parrot. Maybe he was just mimicking what he heard other people say in situations where one person was leaving another, and he didn’t really have any concept of the meaning of what he was saying.

Perhaps, but did you also know that this parrot had a concept of what “nothing” was? That’s pretty astounding to me. But Alex the parrot demonstrated an understanding of “nothingness” as incredible as that may seem. Alex understood simple things, like color, and if presented with two objects of different color, could tell you what the difference was. However, if there were no differences, he would answer “none,” suggesting that he had an understanding of what “nothing” was.

Alex in the lab
Alex in the lab

There were numerous claims that Alex was exhibiting operant conditioning. However, the researcher that worked with Alex allowed anyone to work with him, and Alex’s responses and abilities could be demonstrated and repeated by people who had never had any association with him. If Alex was able to do all of these incredible things with total strangers, operant conditioning seems unlikely to me.

Perhaps there is another explanation for Alex’s abilities. As a scientist, I have to admit that no experiment is beyond unrealized influences. But at the very least, the idea that Alex would express agitation over experiments showed that he had some concept of what “anger” was. When the researchers became agitated with him, he would say “I’m sorry” which might have been a reaction stemming from his observation of similar situations, but at the very least shows that he was able to recognize when other creatures where emotionally upset, which seems to indicate guilt or regret.

Anyone who has owned a dog has probably seen this. Maybe your dog doesn’t realize that his reflection is not in point of fact another dog. But when you have a bad day and you’re depressed or sad or grumpy, doesn’t your dog behave in a way in accordance with those moods? Your dog might not understand what’s going on or his role in it, but he knows that something is different, and exhibits empathetic behavior.

We can go beyond dogs and parrots, though. Take the idea that elephants mourn their dead. From the article:

“When an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he or she will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, the elephant may touch the bones of the dead elephant (not the bones of any other species), smelling them, turning them over and caressing the bones with their trunk. Researchers donโ€™t quite understand the reason for this behavior. They guess the elephants could be grieving. Or they could they be reliving memories. Or perhaps the elephant is trying to recognize the deceased. Whatever the reason, researchers suspect that the sheer interest in the dead elephant is evidence that elephants have a concept of death.”

Certainly, behaviors like these could have alternate explanations. Or, perhaps we humans are the ones who are biased. Perhaps the flaw is our anthropocentric views or egos. As research progresses and our understanding of how brains work continues to expand, perhaps we will have more concrete answers to the questions in animal cognition.

But let’s take stock of what we do know. Animals can learn. This suggests they have an ability to remember and to understand the world around them. And it seems apparent that animals can at least recognize emotions, even if we can’t say that they fully understand them–or more aptly, don’t experience them the same way we humans do. And we can also say that animals also seem to exhibit emotional behavior, although again, an animal emotion might not perfectly correlate to a human emotion. But then again, do human emotions even correlate to each other? The way I grieve is not the same as the way others grieve; I experience anger differently than others do. If you asked people to verbally describe emotional states they’d probably give different and varying responses. Perhaps all emotions, animal and human, are on the same continuum. Maybe animals don’t experience emotions the same ways that humans do, but perhaps the human way of experiencing something is not the only way of experiencing.

I began thinking about this more last night. My dog had a bad dream. I could hear it all the way down stairs. I went and observed it. There she was, fast asleep. She was exhibiting REM sleep; I could see the eyes moving back and forth even though her lids were closed. She was whimpering and crying. Her paws were twitching. I say that this was a “bad” dream because when I woke her up, she jumped into my lap and started nuzzling me–and she’s a 70 lb lab. And no, I am not anthropomorphizing my dog’s reactions. Studies have shown that dogs respond to touch the same way that humans respond to it–with a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and a release of Oxycontin, “the feel good” hormone. Science would suggest that my dog wanted to be comforted. Which indicates that my dog can experience distress or fear. And since this was generated by a dream, I can assume that my dog is capable of either some degree of abstract thought and imagination or reliving terrible events/memories.

My dog during a thunder storm. She clearly has some ability to reason that "thunder = bad"
My dog during a thunder storm. She clearly has some ability to reason that “thunder = bad”

I’ll never know what my dog dreams because she will never be able to tell me. But the mere fact that my dog can learn and dream indicates to me that she–and other dogs, of course–are more than instinct driven creatures who just desire eating and sleeping. Dolphins and chimps have exhibited self-awareness; they have a sense of “self” (see “the dot test” for more info on this). It just seemed clear to me, after all of the evidence, that animals are intelligent. I think it’s pretty clear that humans are the most intelligent creatures on the planet–but that doesn’t mean that we’re the only intelligent ones.

And to me that has serious ethical ramifications in how we treat animals. If an animal has a cognitive and emotional status equivalent to a two year old human, why should they be treated any different? Simply for the fact that they’re a different species? That seems like a pretty lame answer. We don’t base the rights of a two year old human on their intelligence and emotional maturity.

So then I think of things like medical experimentation. You would never give a two year old human child cancer or some other disease based on the fact that it isn’t as intelligent or emotionally mature as an adult. But it’s fine to do the same to an animal with equivalent intelligence–who can experience the same emotions as the two year old in a rudimentary way–by virtue of that fact that it happens to be a chimp and not a human being. Yes, I understand that medical trials on animals help human beings. I won’t deny that. I’ve even benefited from that. But given the fact that science seems to be showing that animals are far more intelligent and emotional than we originally thought, should we not re-evaluate these actions or our values?

And I’m not trying to advocate that we should all become vegans or whatever. Clearly nature designed us to consumer other animals. That’s fine. They certainly wouldn’t hesitate to eat us. But perhaps we can raise the animals we eat in a more humane way. Perhaps it’s not ethical to cram them in tiny, festering conditions and pump them full of hormones and drugs. If animals do have some degree–ANY degree!–of intelligence and emotion, then quality of life becomes an issue. If nothing else, animals can feel pain, and they can fear pain. That alone should amount to something. It’s never okay to use intellect as a justification for causing something pain.

I guess at the end of the day, I would invite everyone to look at the evidence and then take another look at their values, beliefs, and behaviors. Perhaps as the most intelligent species on the planet we have an inherent moral or ethical obligation to use that intelligence responsibly and fairly, no matter what forms of life are involved.

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10 thoughts on “Animal intelligence and ethics

  1. Interesting findings. I think there is no doubt we are on a continuum with other animals. It’s becoming more and more clear that while other animals might not have as sophisticated a consciousness as we do, they do have it at least to a small degree. In Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee the goal of the book is to demonstrate the things that we think are uniquely human exist in not only are fellow primates but elsewhere in the animal world. However one thing that he does talk about is that just because a chimpanzee has the intelligence of a 6 year old child, does not make it a 6 year old child. So I have never been comfortable with the analogy you wouldn’t do X to a 2 year old child so why would you do it to another species that has the intelligence of a 2 year old child. It’s not really fair in my opinion because all species treat their own species different than they treat others. Life consumes life, and we protect our own. That seems as natural as anything.

    Our ability to be compassionate is an evolutionary trait as it has a strong evolutionary trait for the survival of our own species. It helps us be social animals and work well in groups. The side effect, and I think overall a positive one is that we are obviously going to have an instinctual compassion for other creatures that exhibit human like characteristics. And so it certainly makes sense that many of us love animals to the point of being vegan, loving the average dog more than the average human, etc.

    One line that had a huge influence on me, which I think I mentioned in another book was also in a Jared Diamond book, Guns, Germs, and Steel when he was talking about how microbes work and he said “The microbe has the same right to life as we do”. This was further emphasized by a talk I saw a couple of years ago from entomologist (who obviously loved insects) who was showing the inherent conceit associated with our view of evolution which often puts us at the top of a pyramid of evolution. Evolution is not a pyramid. Every species evolves to adapt to its environment, with no species being anymore important than the other. A person from the audience asked her if she thought it was an atrocity to experiment on chimps because of the pain it caused them. And she said well we’ve just learned that lobsters feel pain, so is it anymore ethical to boil them alive? And she went on to argue, if no species is more important than any other species, what has a central nervous system got to do with it? And so while my “compassion chip” might make me empathize more with animals that seem more like me, is there any other reason that I should consider one species more important than the other whether plant or animal?

    Now perhaps I have reasoned this way to justify the fact that I don’t think I can ever give up meat. lol I don’t know. I do agree though that conservation, and preservation of species diversity should always be a goal of ours. We should not hunt to extinction, we should not radically change habitats causing extreme population pressures on species, and we should have respect for all that we kill for our nourishment. I feel the grocery store sort of takes that away from us. I know many people who eat meat, but couldn’t imagine killing the animal themselves in order to get it. In my opinion if you can’t kill it yourself, you shouldn’t eat it. I can. Maybe I am not as compassionate as I think I am. lol But I grew up going to my grandmothers farm and there you killed animals. But you killed a few chickens, a cow a year, and you fed your family, and the whole process seemed sort of natural. The slaughterhouse, growth hormones…well that doesn’t and it seems disrespectful to life in general.

    1. I would agree that ethics does not compell us to abandon the eating of meat lol.

      However, there are some things I take some slight issue with. For instance, life may consume life, but that doesn’t necessarily follow that it is ok for life to exploit life. In that sense, I do see a difference between experimenting on an animal and eating that animal. Perhaps other animals would consume us, but I think it is a uniquely human thing to exploit another species. Pain is certainly part of the equation, but I think the component missing from the equation is whether or not that pain is necessary.

      Of course that opens up a whole other can of worms about what constitutes “necessity.” I bought a book on the subject today hoping to educate myself.

      At the very least I’m glad that most reasonable people agree we should not be disrespectful to other lifeforms ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. I have always told my kids that the ants that made the ant hill, deserved to live just as much as we do. Every species is just as deserving to its place in the eco system as we are. While I feel that way about darn near all critters… mosquitos, ticks, and carpenter bees drilling into my decks and outbuildings, are still on my hit list. Also I am compelled to admit my fondness for meat. As long as we can keep it as humane as possible I have little issue with that.

        As far as exploiting animal life, would shearing sheep and breeding dogs to certain tasks be considered exploitation? Using the skin of an already dead cow for the purpose of meat, to make leather products? Using horses and oxen for farming? Some animal exploitation at least to a degree, has been much of what we are as humans for centuries. I understand you are concerned with lab animals and I sympathize, but there are useful exploitations as well.
        Just saying, not trying to make a soapbox out of it…

        Another great post Ryan, you have been on a hot streak lately.

      2. Thank you for the compliment!

        Certainly there are forms of exploitation which can be beneficial, but more importantly harmless. Shearing a sheep doesn’t cause the sheep any harm. When it comes to work or service animals, perhaps they enjoy being productive. If animals are more conscious than we previously thought, maybe they’re capable of feeling pride or accomplishment.

        And certainly a symbiotic relationship is not exploitation. We may use the sheep for wool or the ox for plowing, but in return we protect them from predators and provide them with food.

      3. I agree that experimentation and consumption are two different things. Although if experimenting on 10 animals saves the lives of 10,000 of our species is that less or more right than eating them for our nourishment? In the end it equates to survival. And we really cannot reverse roles in that case, because animals don’t have the capacity to experiment with us, even if they could eat us. So our intelligence does make us capable of more. The question of “necessity” is important. It certainly isn’t “necessary” for me to eat meat, or at least as much meat as I do probably. Certainly, even amongst hunter-gatherers, meat was a rare thing even if it was part of their diet.

        I guess I feel like it isn’t really about how similar it is to me from an ethical standpoint. Even some GMOs (I am not against it wholly, because many GMOs are beneficial) one could argue are messing with a plant species that can cause harm to the ecosystem and thus I don’t necessarily see any difference in ethic for exploiting a plant than an animal raised in captivity and experimented on. We can breed rats just as easily as grow plants really. Chimpanzees, not so much.

        I also feel that if you kill one animal to feed yourself for a good portion of the year, this is very different than killing many in a slaughterhouse, or killing many while experimenting. I think that has to take a toll on your soul after awhile. I remember watching food inc, and there is a guy in the slaughterhouse, and all he does all day long for his job is take a chainsaw and slice the cow in half. And while I could do that to maybe one cow, once a year to eat, I could never do it all day long every day. I would break down in tears.

      4. Well I definitely agree that the way in which we consume animals could probably use some changing. The food industry has become quite inhumane in some areas, and I think that needs to change. I don’t intend to stop eating meat anytime soon, since that’s the way nature designed us, but I do think about adopting a more Native American-esque attitude about it: take only what you need, use every part, pay respect or homage to the animal.

        I definitely wouldn’t argue that sacrificing 10 creatures to save 1000 doesn’t have “good” consequences. But there are several things about such a scenario as it relates to animals and humans that troubles me.

        For one thing, in such a hypothetical scenario, ten human beings could volunteer to sacrifice themselves to save the others. Animals do not volunteer for medical and scientific testing. I think volition changes ethics, certainly.

        So let’s consider a situation where in you have to kill 10 people, at random, to save 1000 lives. Does that change things? It may be easier to justify killing a few to save a majority when those people either want to die or okay with it; but what about when the people you have to kill do not want to die?

        And that’s where I have a problem with animal experimentation. I’d be willing to bet that the animals involved do not want to die. And to a less extreme extent, I’m extremely sure that they do not want to feel pain or suffer.

        And suffering really comes down to the crux of the issue. Perhaps it is okay to cause a little suffering in order to save lives. But if animals suffer similarly to humans–physically and on a conscious level, as science seems to indicate is more possible than we previously thought, does that not change how we should treat these animals?

        Because if animals can suffer the same way humans can, then really there is no qualitative difference between performing an experiment on a chimp and performing the same experiment on a human toddler. The difference is that we exhibit favoritism toward our own species. Favoritism doesn’t seem to me to be enough justification for the infliction of suffering.

        Of course, at the end of the day, I’m sure there are researchers and scientists who do try to treat their animal subjects with compassion and dignity and respect. I’m sure that not ALL animal research is cruel and inhumane. And I’m sure the issue is a lot more complicated than I think it is lol.

        Hopefully we as a society at least have a dialogue about the subject. That’s all i can ask for. ๐Ÿ™‚

      5. I enjoy this discussion very much because while I have convictions they are not so firm that I don’t think about these things.

        I guess I think favoritism to our species is natural and thus isn’t necessarily a bad justification either. No cow is volunteering for the slaughter and you could argue that without it, 100 people would die of starvation in a year (I mean obviously if that was the only food source). So animals are not volunteering in either case. Which means that we all should be vegetarians if one feels that favoritism towards our own species is not ethically justified. Every species does survive at the expense of another. I guess I still posit that an attitude that places intelligence and consciousness as a more important trait in how we treat one species as compared to another still sort of falls under the idea that somehow we are the most superior species on the planet. I guess it depends how you would rate a species. If you rate a species on how long it has been around and how well it survives, humans don’t really do too well, but we are doing really well in areas of sanitation, trans-world travel, and leisure time activities compared to other species. lol

        There was a meme I saw recently, a big pet lover on my feed was complaining about people who get rid of their pets because their new child is allergic or keeps getting attacked, and that we would never get rid of our child if the situation was reversed. I don’t know, to me that seemed ridiculous. As much as I love my pets, there is no question what is more important to me. I would cry, and I would feel sad if I had to give my pet away, but I would definitely choose my child over my pet. Comparing humans to animals to me is always dangerous because it makes humans the standard and usually end up personifying the animals actions as if they were human and thinking they go through the same process that we do. And I’m willing to accept that some people are simply more compassionate than I am, and I’m okay with that. Maybe one can have too much compassion. It’s an interesting question.

        The other thing that enters into my head is the idea of conflict. What I mean here is that let’s say your a kid and your parents are super-excited when you do well on an exam and very critical of you when you do poorly. Let’s say that they also tell you that cheating on an exam is wrong. Let’s say now you are not prepared for an exam. You all of a sudden are faced with a moral dilemma. Your parents don’t want you to cheat, but they also seem very angry when you do poorly? Which one do you do? Freud would argue that no choice is necessarily the wrong chase given the consequences you might face in either direction. Ultimately you will choose the one that seems most likely to give you the greatest reward. It seems to me that many people who experiment on animals are not necessarily unsympathetic people. I would say that many of them don’t enjoy doing anything cruel to the animals, but rather they feel what they are doing is so important in saving human lives, that they feel the cost is worth the gain. Much like we might feel the death of a cow is worth the gain to what we feel is important, which is food. As an outsider I am not necessarily going to feel that the gain is worth the cost. I may only thinking about the cost, and judge the person doing the experiments as harsh. Now obviously this would be for some life-saving stuff…testing animals when it comes to see if make up is toxic etc is just criminal in my opinion. I do think that as we grow to understand animals more we will treat them more compassionately and I think we do. Programs in animal conservation, animal rescue, animal cruelty laws, these are all recent things and I think it correlates well with our advancing morality as a species.

      6. I can’t fault your logic on a lot of these things. I think this is probably why I wasn’t a philosophy major in college–this stuff makes my head spin lol.

        I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at things from a cost/benefit point of view in philosophy. Certainly a lot of valid arguments on a variety of topics can be made using that logic.

        Nor can I really make any definitive statements about suffering and it’s role in morality. People have pondered that one for ages. But I do agree that people can take these philosophical issues to ridiculous lengths, like the whole allergy meme.

        Whether or not one can be too compassionate is indeed an interesting question. I suppose that’s why there is such a wide distribution of personalities within our species. It takes all kinds to make things work. It’s great to have less compassionate people when a situation calls for a tough decision, and it’s great to have more compassionate people when less drastic situations require a decision.

        Maybe there is no answer to some of these questions. Or maybe there is no good answer. Perhaps the world is full of situations where the best answer is still a shitty answer. I have no clue. But I do enjoy thinking about these things, even if they do give me a headache ๐Ÿ˜›

      7. I got a headache too….but not the real bad kind. Just the kind that lets you know that it’s even a wonderful world because there are no easy answers. ๐Ÿ™‚

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