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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.

Cat ThinkingTo 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:

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Can Animals Think?