I recently read Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel (2013) by Virginia Morell, correspondent for Science and contributor to National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other publications. She’s author of several books including Wildlife Wars (2001), which she co-authored with Richard Leakey.
Morell takes us on a tour of current research into the minds of animals, starting with ants and working up through various species to our primate relatives. Dear to my heart, she reserves the last chapter for our best friends, dogs.
I found it a wonderful exploration with some real eye-openers.
The tour is nicely outlined by the chapters:
- The Ant Teachers
- Among Fish
- Birds with Brains
- Parrots in Translation
- The Laughter of Rats
- Elephant Memories
- The Educated Dolphin
- The Wild minds of Dolphins
- What it Means to be a Chimpanzee
- Of Dogs and Wolves
As the chapters suggest, the tour starts with “lowly” ants and proceeds “upwards” through fish, birds, and rats, to “intelligent” creatures such as elephants, dolphins, and chimpanzees. Each chapter focuses on a different researcher.
(I quote “lowly” and “upwards” and even “intelligent” here because there can be some question as to how accurate they are depending on what we mean.)
Dogs get final billing, not from their intelligence (which isn’t superlative), but from from their amazing relationship with humans. They’ve been domesticated for at least 10,000 years (longer than any other animal), and it turns out their brains have a lot to teach us.
Morell’s journey begins with Nigel Franks, who studies ants (and wears khaki pants). His main interest is in how ants decide things. For example, how do they find and choose a new nest if their current one is destroyed?
In order to identify and track individual rock ants in their colonies, Franks and his colleagues code them with tiny dots of paint (in places harmless to the ant, of course). High-speed cameras allow observation of each ant.
One discovery is that ants apparently teach other ants.
Which is, or at least was, a source of controversy. Firstly, that any animals teach; secondly, that tiny simple ants teach.
Of course, it depends on what is meant by “teach.”
Animals certainly learn, but teaching is a different process. An early definition required a ‘teacher’ modify its behavior due to the ‘student.’ Franks observed this in ants and reported it.
Others, rejecting the notion ants teach, insisted the definition be expanded (in some cases to the point it only included humans). In the new definition, the teacher must have an understanding of the mental state of the student. The teacher must know if the student is learning.
The experiments Franks and others have done seems to indicate communication and awareness between ant teachers and students. An ant teaching another ant the path to a new nest site pauses while the student takes in the landmarks. It waits for the student to tap the teacher’s legs to signal, “Okay, got it!”
Physiologically, ant brains contain the neuronal structures, mushroom bodies, which appear associated with learning. That says they can learn — as almost any animal can — but doesn’t imply they can teach, so it remains somewhat controversial.
More significantly, teaching is a social behavior, and there seems a strong link between intelligence and social behavior. Simply put, the requirements of interacting with a group require a brain. This theme is repeated increasingly throughout the book.
Nigel Franks, like many of the ethologists Morell visits, adores his subjects. His garage at home is filled with ant colonies no longer useful in his studies, but which he doesn’t have the heart to let perish.
Another theme repeated through the book is the love researchers have for their subjects. Some of them refer to the animals as “colleagues” with whom they’ve worked, in some cases, for many years or even decades. (That does not mean their studies aren’t objective. They take great care in how they describe animal behavior, but Morell digs into what they really think.)
Their back stories vary. Some discovered a love of animals early in life; some stumbled into it due to circumstances. One planned to be an accountant but fell in love with dolphins and the idea of not having a desk job. (Ironically, he found himself entering lots of spreadsheet data anyway.)
What’s universal (and to me very enjoyable) is the commitment, both to the search for understanding, for bridging that gap, and to the animals themselves. Morell mentions a 1991 survey of ethologists who overwhelmingly responded that their primary motivation was the desire to know what it was like to be that animal (because there is something it is like to be a bat).
These fish have a squirt gun ability (due to specially shaped tongue and mouth) which they use to knock prey down from low-hanging branches. They’re extremely accurate, both in targeting and in judging the force required (and where the prey will land).
(The stories of the fish targeting the eyeballs of researchers — including Morell — are pretty funny.)
It’s not surprising the fish must learn this capability. Their neural nets are doing action-result programming. Athletes and musicians do something similar. It’s sometimes called “muscle memory.”
The eye-opener for me was that these fish apparently can learn by watching.
The fish don’t normally target moving objects, so Schuster and his (human) colleagues have trained groups of them to do so. It takes the fish a while to learn the new skill. Sometimes aggressive fish hog the best spots, forcing the other fish to watch.
When the bully is removed, the other fish demonstrate the skill without practice. In contrast, a new group of fish allowed to watch the tantalizing moving target — but prevented by researchers from taking a good firing position — do not demonstrate the skill when allowed into position.
Something about watching another fish accomplish the task teaches them the skill (despite the other fish definitely not being a deliberate teacher).
Alex, who lived to be 31, does seem to have been exceptional. It’s not clear if this was due to circumstances (Pepperberg got him when he was one) or was innate with Alex. Two other parrots in Pepperberg’s lab are not performing as Alex did.
One thing I found interesting about Alex was his desire to learn. (To the point of practicing words when he was alone.) He even assisted in training the other birds (including scolding them).
I’m not really a bird guy, but Alex sounds fascinating, and his intelligence is impressive.
Pepperberg’s intent is teaching parrots to communicate with us. Morell’s fourth stop is with Karl Berg who is trying to decode how parrots “talk” in the wild.
Birds turn out to be vocal learners. Only humans, whales, dolphins, seals, bats, elephants,… and birds, can learn new vocalizations. In contrast, many animals are auditory learners — they can learn what new sounds mean.
Another thing about birds is that some appear to have individual names, which may be given to them by their parents. These are reflected in their vocalizations. They each have a pattern that’s apparently their name, and they use the patterns of others to call and interact.
These two chapters also illustrate the difference between studying animals in captivity and studying them in the wild. That theme is repeated with dolphins and chimpanzees. It’s also significant between dogs and wolves.
Chapter five introduces laughing rats. Laughing because they’re being tickled.
The head rat tickler is Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University. To quote Morell:
Panksepp and his laughing rats have helped overturn the old, Cartesian idea that emotion and reason are separate entities. Today, emotion and cognition are acknowledged to be inextricably intertwined — at least in humans. Some researchers are still reluctant to assign anything more than just a few emotional behaviors to other animals.
Panksepp has identified seven basic mammalian emotional systems in the brain. He labels them: FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, PLAY, and SEEKING. (The capital letters indicate these are scientific labels for those brain systems.)
As with all these animals, the rats are fascinating. One thing that strikes me is their apparent love of play. I’m convinced dogs play, and it doesn’t surprise me that rats do. (I’m pretty sure whale breach, at least in part, because it must be fun.)
Most dog owners are pretty convinced their dogs grin. Turns out rats laugh.
This has gotten long, so I’ll skip getting into the elephants (they have long memories and express a special interest in elephant bones), the dolphins (very complex and competitive societies), the chimpanzees (our closest cousins), or the dogs (finely tuned best friends who love us instinctively).
Suffice to say those chapters are as engaging and fascinating as the earlier ones.
I recommend the book without qualification for those with an interest in animals. Morell is easy and enjoyable to read, and the tour of animal research is riveting.
A key point here is that “think and feel” both speak to mental content. We use the metaphor of head versus heart, but it’s really all just the head.
One even can question whether intelligence requires emotional thinking. If one determines a goal, makes a plan, and then is frustrated accomplishing it, is an emotional reaction part of a full evaluation of the situation? (In contrast with the way machines keep mindlessly trying apparently without frustration.)
In any event, the link between intelligence and emotion is intriguing. The forms of intelligence we know of all seem to experience emotion, in some cases quite profoundly. Is that merely due to biology and chemicals, or is emotion a fundamental aspect of intelligence?
One I find striking about humans is that we easily can fake or suppress our emotions. We can control them, almost without effort. (Granted, some people less than others.)
With animals, that’s generally not true. Animals tend to be transparent about their emotions. They also generally act on those emotions. (Their behavior can sometimes be deceitful, which could be seen as crude emotional control.)
One of my favorite quotes is due to W.G. Sebald: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” The researchers in this book are trying to narrow that gap.
One thing I can’t help but note with regard to dolphins, elephants, primates, even dogs. Why don’t they try to communicate with us as we do with them?
Instead (all through the book) researchers treat them carefully due to their animal nature. (Especially the larger primates and wolves. With birds, fish, and rats, it’s more a matter of not stressing them out. It turns out even the distant scent of a cat disturbs rats, so cat-owning researchers must make special effort to be scent-free.)
Eye contact is a biggie. If communication were a mutual goal, eye contact shouldn’t be a problem. This is what sets dogs hugely apart — all that eye contact.
Stay safe, my friends! Wear your masks — COVID-19 is airborne!