Can Animals Really Think?
Of course animals have to use their brains to survive in the
world, and we can call this thinking. But usually when the question
is asked people mean something more like, "Can animals really
think like we do?" But this too becomes somewhat of an exercise
in definition, since even humans do not all necessarily think
in the same ways. But there are some similarities, both between
individual humans and between us and other animals. And there
might be more conceptual thinking going on in that squirrel brain
than we realize.
To use an example
closer to home, I'll tell you about our cats, Jack and Opie.
Jack is more of a hunter, and he likes to watch for other animals.
It seems that he is very analytical about the process, but the
evidence is not that clear. Opie, on the other hand, shows his
intelligence in a particular way. When he sees another cat through
the window he starts to make a howling sound. If the cat is closer
to a different window Opie will leave his location and run to
that window to get a better view. This happens even when to do
so he has to initially move away from the cat he is monitoring
to get to the other window. Clearly he has had some kind of thought
about where he needs to be to get a better look.
Julian Jaynes, in his book, "The Origin of Consciousness
in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," makes it clear
that he believes animals can reason and form concepts. A deer
sees movement and reflection, and drinks there. Repeated exposure
to moving surfaces, and a tasty drink, results in learning that
a moving surface is a place to drink from. This is reasoning
from particulars, he says, and is not limited to humans or to
human consciousness. This reasoning is a part of the structure
of the nervous system, not necessarily part of what we call consciousness.
Furthermore, he claims that consciousness of the human sort
is not necessary for concepts. We see only individual trees,
but we have an idea of a tree -- as does a bird, says Jaynes.
A bird has never seen a particular berry bush, for example, yet
knows it is a place to collect food, because it fits the idea
or concept which has formed in the bird's brain. Otherwise, why
wouldn't it try to eat from a dead tree or only from the particular
bushes where it had previously fed?
Words stand for concepts, and allow the manipulation of concepts
into new ones that did not previously exist. Language, then,
is a powerful tool that we have, yet even this is not entirely
unique to humans. Many animals have rudimentary words and some
even have been shown to create new sentences, indicating they
can use words as more than just a signal for something.
Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor of psychology, has studied
animal cognition since 1980, and he believes, based on his experiments,
that many animals have conceptual abilities like humans. The
primary difference is that humans have language. Animals have
thoughts and feelings and even empathy, but cannot talk about
what is going on in their minds. Hauser says, "Feedback
between language and thinking then boosted human self-awareness
and other cognitive functions."
Hauser and others have shown that monkeys can count to four,
which doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment, but some
groups of humans don't use large numbers either. The Hadza people
of Tanzania have words for "one," "two,"
and "three," but just say "many" for larger
quantities. They can see the basic difference between larger
quantities (as can many animals), but do not have words to describe
the difference between 50 and 100 apples, for example. Apparently
our ability to understand larger numbers and the relationships
between them came with the development of words, and that development
was not the same everywhere in the world, at least in regards
to mathematical concepts (it would be interesting to see how
a Hadza man would divide 100 apples equally between five people).
The biggest difference between human and nonhuman thinking
seems to be not just having words, but our ability to combine
them in endless new ways to form new ideas. As mentioned, some
animals can do this (primates and dolphins, for example), but
not to the degree that we do -- at least not yet.
Can animals think? The simple answer is yes, but there are
some other questions this brings up, including the following
What makes humans truly different from other animals?
Is it just that we have more highly evolved languages? Did
that alone lead to the many other differences, like our ability
to plan for the future, invent the scientific method and hate
people we have never even met?
What is our unique form of consciousness made of?
Again, is it just language that created what we consider to
be our unique form of consciousness and self-awareness? This
has been studied, to some extent, in cases where children were
raised in isolation and did not learn to speak or understand
words. In general they do seem to have a consciousness and awareness
of their surroundings that is very much like that of any primate
(although these matters are not easily judged).
If someday some animals develop a consciousness similar
to our own -- even with moral concepts and other higher ideas
-- what should our relationship with them be?
This question comes from having watched the most recent remake
of Planet of the Apes (which is also the best one, by the way).
One way this human-like consciousness might be accomplished is
by teaching language to those animals with the most highly developed
brains. It seems clear that most animals have had difficulty
learning to use language like we do, but there has been some
progress in this, and better methods (or smarter brains) may
be developed. When we someday have talking apes, will we also
have to recognize in them the same rights that we have?
And by the way, if you are skeptical about the analytical
abilities of our primate cousins, check out the post about the first recorded case of monkey prostitution
on my personal blog. Whether or not you approve of monkeys paying
other monkeys for sex, it does suggest that there is some conceptual
thinking going on in their brains.
Source for notes on Marc Hauser's research: