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.
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 don’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.
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.