How Much Do Animals Really Know?
Scientists are taking a new look at the surprising evidence.
By Eugene Lınden
We all want to believe our pet is as smart as it seems, and every now and then a dog or cat does something astonishing. In 2003 in Kentucky, a dog named Scooby limped to a vet’s office after being hit by a car. A year later in Richland, Wash., a rottweiler named Faith hit 911 on the speed dial with its nose and barked into the phone after its owner fell out of her wheelchair.
Are these slam-dunk cases of animal intelligence? The answer used to be a definitive “no,” but now we can say “maybe.”
Scientists are seeing evidence of higher mental abilities in a wider range of animals than previously imagined. They have also observed unexpected traits and skills, like empathy and the ability to fashion weapons.
Empathy—being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—is important because it is the basis of morality. But empathy is very difficult to prove. Actions don’t always imply intent. Thus, skeptics have tended to dismiss accounts of chimps helping other chimps, dolphins saving drowning people and elephants supporting their injured herd mates. In lab experiments, rats have been shown to refuse food if their eating causes suffering for other rats. But Harvard biologist Marc Hauser has pointed out that the rats might simply be avoiding unpleasant squealing.
Empathy relies on self-awareness. Only an animal that recognizes itself can understand another’s plight. So there’s the gauntlet: If you can prove that an animal knows it is a separate creature from others, the case for animal empathy becomes stronger.
A widely used test for a sense of self is to see whether an animal recognizes itself in a mirror. Experimenters will put a mark on an animal’s forehead, then place the animal in front of a mirror. Monkeys, cats and rats react as though they are encountering another member of their species and have shown no curiosity about the mark. By contrast, dolphins and great apes realize that they are looking at themselves.
Do elephants care?
Elephants have the largest brain of any land animal, but not much is known about how they use it.
Last fall, Joshua Plotnik, an Emory University graduate student, published the results of a mirror test he’d done with elephants. Working with Emory’s Frans de Waal, a pioneer in the study of chimpanzee intelligence, and Diana Reiss, who devised a version of the mirror test for dolphins, Plotnik installed a sturdy 8×8-foot Plexiglass mirror in an enclosure at New York City’s Bronx Zoo. Keepers painted a white X on the foreheads of three females—Maxine, Patty and Happy. Then Plotnik sat back and enjoyed the show.
The results were fascinating. The three females seemed to recognize right off the bat that the image was not another elephant. They experimented with the reflected image just like kids—moving their heads to the side and watching how the mirror image reacted. Happy used the image to guide her trunk so that she could examine the white X marked on her forehead.
It may not sound like much, but this means that Happy has a prerequisite for recognizing that another animal—or human—needs help. And if Happy has the capacity for empathy, so do all elephants.
That’s what seemed to happen once at the Indianapolis Zoo. Sophi, a female elephant, watched her keepers push a heavy cart across the yard after cleaning up the enclosure. The elephant had never received any training to do chores, but suddenly she started to push too. Was Sophi displaying empathy? We have no way of knowing, notes Deborah Olson, a director at the zoo, but the staff keenly felt Sophi’s attachment to them.
Actually, examples of animal empathy have long been noted. What’s new today is that scientists seem ready to accept the idea that animals may be conscious or smart. Frans de Waal cites an example of chimp empathy dating back to 1910: A Russian scientist couldn’t get a chimp to come down from a roof unless she pretended she was hurt. Only now are such stories receiving a hearing in the scientific establishment.
“We are now much freer to talk about mental processes and emotions in animals that 15 years ago would have been laughed out of the room,” says de Waal.
Animals bearing arms
The use of tools—and weapons—is considered a mark of higher intelligence. In the 1960s, the idea that animals might fashion weapons was the stuff of science-fiction films. Then, in 1999, a team led by Richard Wrangham of Harvard observed chimps using sticks to beat other chimps. Even more stunning were reports published this spring by Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University about chimps in the savannas of Senegal fashioning sticks into spears, which they used to hunt small primates called bush babies.
These chimps may have been hunting for a very long time—there’s evidence that they pass on such expertise from generation to generation. The primatologist Christophe Boesch has observed chimps using granite stones to crack panda nuts in the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest since the 1980s. But this year, Boesch and Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary uncovered nut-cracking stones in that same forest dating back 4,300 years—even before early Africans started using agriculture. This means that, unknown to science, the chimps have been doing something in close proximity to humans for thousands of years.
As scientists continue to investigate evidence of intelligence, empathy and foresight in animals, we’re also likely to broaden our understanding of the origins and nature of human ingenuity. Such studies should increase our respect for the other creatures with whom we share the planet.