Thursday, February 28, 2008

Animal Genius

Last week, coincidentally, the latest NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC arrived with a cover story on animal intelligence, and NOVA aired a show on “Ape Genius.” The NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC article discussed a variety of animals, including a Border Collie who demonstrates comprehension of over 300 words. A parrot featured in the article was trained to recognize a large number of English words and use them in context, e.g., to show he could distinguish objects by shape, color, or number. He didn’t just “parrot” sounds; at one point when a younger bird was having trouble learning a phrase, the educated parrot admonished him, “Talk clearly!” Elephants and dolphins, it appears, share with some apes the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, regarded as a sign of self-awareness.

NOVA’s “Ape Genius” episode explored the intelligence of apes and how their minds resemble and differ from ours. The theory was proposed that a major factor setting us apart from other primates is our capacity for teaching. While apes learn by imitating each other (and their human caretakers), and thus can even pass on elements of culture peculiar to a particular group, they have never been observed deliberately teaching anything to each other. You can read about this NOVA episode by searching “Ape Genius” at

From the Enlightenment period well into the twentieth century, the prevailing scientific orthodoxy considered animals as biological machines, with no consciousness, emotions, or even awareness of pain. (Chillingly, many authorities believed the same of newborn babies undergoing medical procedures.) Behaviorism, for a while, seemed to confirm the mechanistic position. Fortunately, that simplistic view is being discredited. Strict materialists may seize upon recent discoveries in animal intelligence to say, “See, we were right all along. There’s no fundamental difference between us and lower animals. Human beings are merely another species of animal, and any claim to a soul is a superstitious delusion.” Alternatively, however, we might say, “We now know that animals, possessing some degree of intelligence, self-awareness, and emotional complexity, are more like us than we suspected. Therefore, they deserve more respect than we’ve previously granted them. Perhaps some of them even have souls, whatever that means.”

I’m reminded of an Anthony Boucher short story (called “Ambassadors,” I think) in which astronauts discover a society of intelligent wolves on Mars. Rather than deciding there’s no way to bridge the communication gap between two such different species, Earth authorities think outside the fence. They recruit werewolves as ambassadors to Mars.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, fabulous. I'll post a reply on Tuesday. You are inspiring!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg