What are our pets thinking? Or are we smart enough to know whether other animals are smart enough to think?
Conventional research compared other animals’ cognitive abilities to human cognition. And conventional “wisdom” has been that non-human animals merely respond, Pavlovian-like. Robert J. Sternberg has, perhaps unwittingly, stood that on its head.
All through his early years, from first through third grade, Sternberg had such test anxiety that he consistently racked up below-average intelligence scores. Today, Cornell University professor Sternberg’s definition of human smarts — “(a) mental activity directed toward purposive adaptation to, selection and shaping of, real-world environments relevant to one’s life” — is transforming the way scientists think about animals’ thinking abilities.
Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal is a vanguard foot-soldier in that transformative march. That is, all animals’ intelligence (including humans’) is shaped by their species-specific evolution to fit the “real-world environment relative to” their life.
De Wall says that “the important question is not whether an octopus or a crow can do the same things a human can, but how those animals solve the cognitive problems they face.” Crows, for example, bend the end of straws to “fish” termites from holes. One Japanese crow population drops walnuts on streets at intersections so that vehicles can crack them open.
No birdbrains there, but rather practical, creative, analytical problem solving, precisely the three components Sternberg says comprise intelligence. Stanford-Binet Intelligence test score? Not required.
Human evolution included language. Language allows humans to do things other animals can’t, like express quantities symbolically, think abstractly, and intuitively reflect consciousness of and sensitivity for others. Self-awareness, consciousness, is thought to be the base of humanness.
Even if we acknowledged that other animals think, we have no empirical evidence. Yet they are conscious; they experience self-awareness or apartness from others; that they have a mind, as distinct from a brain. But for many scientists the mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not. This approach invokes ethical concerns regarding our treatment of other animals.
Consciousness permits emotions like love. And dogs, like humans, possess brain juices that include the “love drug,” oxytocin, which spikes when they gaze into their owner’s eyes. And they’re the only species of non-human animals that make eye contact with their owners. Dogs exhibit anxiety when humans leave them, and their blood pressure lowers when they’re stroked. But they don’t pass the mirror test.
Charles Darwin experimented, unsuccessfully, with chimpanzees and mirrors. Then, in 1970, American psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. used a mirror to design a test for consciousness in other animals. Gallup allowed a chimp to grow accustomed to seeing his mirror reflection, then, while the chimp slept, put a noticeable stain on its face.
When the animal awakened and looked in the mirror, it reacted, as any human would, by attempting to remove the stain, as in “hey, what’s this stuff doing on ‘me’”? Self-awareness was evident. Gallup says “self-awareness may also entail death-awareness. And this brings into sharp focus the ethics of how we use other animals.”
There are other, different ways to monitor animals’ self-awareness by using the mirror test. To date, the only ones to pass are humans, dolphins, chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants, humpback whales and magpies. No dogs, but dog owners, take heart. Researchers — Russian Gazzolla Gatti and American Alexandra Horowitz — have published new study results showing that dogs recognize themselves by scent. “I sniff, therefore I am.”
Dolphins are special animals. Even in the murkiest water, they accurately negotiate their world primarily by sound — echolocation. Their brain-to-body size is second only to humans, and their brains have “spindle neurons,” which associate with reasoning, remembering, problem-solving and other cognitive traits. Moreover, they have a complex limbic system, which processes emotions.
And get this: With distinctly different whistles, dolphins assign names for each other. Infant dolphins learn their unique whistle at birth and keep it for life. “They greet one another at sea by exchanging names and remember other dolphins’ names for decades. Though many animals communicate with each other, except for humans, no creature but dolphins use given names for each other.”
No animal but dolphins uses whistling for communication, either — except humans. Evia, Greece’s second largest island, embraces the tiny village of Antia. Denizens of Antia still use Sfyria, a whistling language for communication. Some whistlers there are fond of communicating “bad words,” something like “go to hell.”
There are other whistling communities, as well. Best known are in La Gomera, in the Spanish Canary Islands. But others are in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains, Himalaya Mountains, Ethiopia, Brazil and Myanmar.
Reckon human whistlers and dolphins could carry on an intelligent whistling conversation?
Michael Smith is a Southern Pines resident and writer.