Intelligent Mr. Toad

Kenneth Grahame knew that animals can be pretty smart.

Posted Nov 06, 2019

It shouldn’t be surprising that other animals think. After all, the common denominator, bottom-line, take-home message of evolution by natural selection is, in a word, continuity. Hence, it is only to be expected that nearly all of those traits enlisted as possible defining human characteristics have turned out, upon closer study of other animals, to be found in one or more species. Otters and elephants play, chimpanzees not only use tools but make them, parrots and dogs reveal complex cognition; it would have been astounding if human beings were alone in the organic world when it comes to such actions.

We are unique, of course, in our ability to program computers, just as Clark’s nutcrackers are exceptional in their ability to remember the precise location of more than a thousand nuts that they have stashed. (Can you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday? Or where you parked your car when you come out of the supermarket?) For homocentric people-firsters, reports of animal cognition nonetheless constitute a paradigm that is vigorously resisted even today—especially by religious fundamentalists, eager to see in human thinking a distinctly non-animal trait that, unlike the supposed soul, can be measured and thus gestured toward as evidence of humanity partaking of something that suggests the divine.

Scientists, too, have long hesitated to acknowledge the reality of animal minds, although not primarily because of theological influence. Rather, it was a reaction against anthropomorphism (“human shape”), the widespread layperson’s temptation to attribute human traits and motivations to nonhuman animals, which gave rise to notions that ants, for example, are industrious, lions are noble, camels are supercilious, owls are wise, and so forth.

Anthropomorphism became an unconscious habit, and a lazy one at that, permitting observers to substitute a simplistic explanation where serious, objective research is called for. Reacting to the assertion that pigs postulate, fish philosophize, and, for all one can say, rhododendrons ruminate, scientists went “whole hog” in the other direction, such that it now seems likely that in the process, human minds were closed to the mental continuity that links human and nonhuman animals, in the course of which harm of several sorts was done.

For one thing, a non-existent gulf was established between Homo sapiens and other living things, which is not only objectively false but hurtful in that it facilitates the abuse of animals; after all, if they are mere automatons, devoid not only of a soul but of a subjective, internal mental life, then there is little to prevent them from being cruelly abused. We should no more feel concerned about a dog, cat, parrot, or elephant than for a bicycle or a fire hydrant.

The good news is that this error is rapidly being corrected, leading to an interesting situation whereby science comes eventually to catch up with something long acknowledged by much of the untutored public. Or as Kenneth Grahame wrote in The Wind in the Willows,

"The clever men at Oxford

Know all that there is to be knowed.

But they none of them know one half as much

As intelligent Mr. Toad."