Do animals think?


For thirty years he talked in feathered pride;
For thirty years he talked before he died.
You say that parrots do not really know
The meaning of the words they speak? Just so,
I grant you that you may be right—but then,
  – Theodore Stephanides

Most animal lovers, farmers, children and pet owners in everyday contact with dogs, horses, birds and even mice have long observed or at least suspected that animals not only think but have complex emotional lives similar to ours. Scientists, however, have found the inner lives of animals difficult to study and harder to prove. But recently, contrary to a long tradition in European thought which held that animals had no minds at all, scientific evidence has emerged to verify that the cognitive traits of animals are a lot richer than once thought.

The celebrated 17th-century philosopher René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) argued that only humans were capable of reason, possessed souls and were linked to the mind of God. All other animals, he said, were merely living robots that “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it. They desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”

Anyone who observes animals today knows this attitude is ludicrous. Yet students of animal behavior in the past held that the question of whether animals could think was irrelevant since it was impossible to answer. Thoughts and emotions seemed to be beyond the scope of objective inquiry. Attributing conscious thought to animals was untestable.

It seems incredible that it was not until 1976 that a contrary view was taken by Donald R. Griffin, a professor at Rockefeller University in Manhattan. In his book “The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience,” Griffin contested that animals could think and this could be supported by authentic scientific scrutiny. But such progress was not easy. Field observations were often dismissed as anecdotal since domestic animals may not behave as they do in the wild. Nevertheless, most scientists finally accepted the obvious and agreed that some animals process information and express emotions in ways that are accompanied by conscious mental experience.

OMG, what took them so long?

Studies eventually concluded that animals from dolphins to whales, from bison to birds, from rats to cats have complex mental capacities, and that a few species have attributes once thought to be unique to people, such as using tools, falling in love, learning by example and reacting to music. I once had a cockatoo named Charlie who could keep time and dance to music. Some animals — primates, cetaceans (whales and dolphins), corvids (the crow family) and parrots — even have their own cultures. Birds create beautiful nests and squirrels have been observed stealing outdoor Christmas tree lights to decorate their homes. My dog Wolf collected attractive toys. Wild wolves and mountain goats prefer scenic views. Chutzpa, my cat, seeks out silk negligees to sleep on. Primatologist Jane Goodall says chimps express a pantheistic pleasure in nature.

Koko, the giant gorilla, famous for her unique ability to communicate with humans in sign language, became a natural ambassador for endangered species and the “Voice of Nature” at the 2016 Climate Summit (COP21) in Paris. She also plays the flute, blows kisses and loves kittens.

Research has demonstrated that segments of the brains of chimpanzees are associated with communication and language. Brain mapping of rats reveals that the neurological process underlying emotions is similar to those in humans.

The Economist magazine, in a recent article on animal minds, reported that a group of neuroscientists studying animal brains in 2012 concluded, “Humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds and many other creatures … also possess these neurological substrates.”

It seems obvious that animals think in ways that humans may not yet be able to decipher, perhaps because they have evolved from different survival needs. So there will be some dimensions in which animal minds exceed humans. Some are more adapted to sensory and mental realms completely different from that of humans so they have no need for linguistics to get the message across. Many use body language, sniffing scent glands and other means that seem close to mind-reading and ESP that we cannot comprehend or prove.

However, we do know that animals communicate all the time. Honeybees use “waggle dances” to pass on directions to pollen-rich flower beds. Much hamster vocalization is ultrasonic. Shrews use ultrasound as an echolocation device. Birds and whales sing complex songs to find mates and warn of dangers. Monkeys have different alarm signals for every predator. Lions and tigers plan attacks and leave trail markers.

We all know our pets can learn to understand amazing things. Chase, a Border Collie, knows more than 1,000 words and fetches toys by name. Charlie, the cockatoo I rescued in Hong Kong, spoke simple words in three languages — Chinese, English and Spanish — plus crow and dog talk. He called all seven members of my family by name and knew who he was talking to. He also loved the gin-soaked olives in my husband Top’s martinis and laughed wildly at my jokes, so I assume he had a good sense of humor.

For the rest of the story see Audrey’s book “Charlie’s World: The Improbable Adventures of a Hong Kong Cockatoo and his American Family.”

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