Animal Minds are Richer Than Science Once Thought

An essay in The Economist provides a good review of cognitive ethology research

Posted Dec 18, 2015

Animals are "in." My email inbox continually overflows with messages about scientific and popular essays on all aspects of animal behavior, cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), comparative psychology, anthrozoology (the study of human-animal relationships), and conservation. And, while there is a lot of solid science being done that clearly shows that animal minds are far richer than science once thought, a highly significant and influential way in how this information trickles down to non-researchers comes via popular media. Thus, I was thrilled, as were many people who informed me of an essay called "Animals think, therefore…" published in The Economist. The essay is available online so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more. 

"… most scientists now feel they can say with confidence that some animals process information and express emotions in ways that are accompanied by conscious mental experience. They agree that animals, from rats and mice to parrots and humpback whales, have complex mental capacities; that a few species have attributes once thought to be unique to people, such as the ability to give objects names and use tools; and that a handful of animals—primates, corvids (the crow family) and cetaceans (whales and dolphins)—have something close to what in humans is seen as culture, in that they develop distinctive ways of doing things which are passed down by imitation and example. No animals have all the attributes of human minds; but almost all the attributes of human minds are found in some animal or other."

"Brain mapping reveals that the neurological processes underlying what look like emotions in rats are similar to those behind what clearly are emotions in humans. As a group of neuroscientists seeking to sum the field up put it in 2012, 'Humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures...also possess these neurological substrates.'”

"Some animals seem to display pity, or at least concern, for diseased and injured members of their group. Stronger chimps help weaker ones to cross roads in the wild. Elephants mourn their dead (see 'The grieving elephant'). In a famous experiment, Hal Markowitz, later director of the San Francisco zoo, trained Diana monkeys to get food by putting a token in a slot. When the oldest female could not get the hang of it, a younger unrelated male put her tokens in the slot for her and stood back to let her eat."

"In 'The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins', Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, and Luke Rendell of the University of St Andrews, in Scotland, argue that all cultures have five distinctive features: a characteristic technology; teaching and learning; a moral component, with rules that buttress “the way we do things” and punishments for infraction; an acquired, not innate, distinction between insiders and outsiders; and a cumulative character that builds up over time. These attributes together allow individuals in a group to do things that they would not be able to achieve by themselves. For the first feature, look no further than the crow. New Caledonian crows are the champion toolmakers of the animal kingdom. They make hooks by snipping off V-shaped twigs and nibbling them into shape. They fashion Pandanus leaves into toothed saws." (I reviewed The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins here.)

This and other essays like it are great news for animals. I hope you enjoy it, share it widely including with youngsters and aspiring researchers, and will continue reading more about the fascinating cognitive and emotional lives of the magnificent animals with whom we share our wondrous planet. Good weekend!

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and ConservationRewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)