Thursday, August 26, 2010

Animal Consciousness

Here's another article about animal intelligence, from TIME magazine of August 16:

Minds of Animals

And here are some pictures that go with it:

Smart Animals

I'm intrigued by Kanzi, the bonobo who communicates with laminated cards bearing symbols of all the words he knows, because examples of his speech make it fairly clear he actually combines words intelligently rather than simply in a rudimentary stimulus-response pattern, as skeptics about earlier experiments in teaching apes language tend to believe. This article says he can use abstract terms such as prepositions and grammatical endings.

In my opinion, though, these accomplishments don't quite overthrow the uniqueness of the human species' use of speech. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos may be capable of learning a certain amount of language, but so far nobody has discovered a nonhuman animal inventing symbolic language. Our position at the evolutionary peak, in this respect at least, still seems secure. If it's eventually revealed that dolphins (for example) speak a true language comparable to ours, then we can start to worry. We would have to acknowledge another sapient species sharing the planet with us, and far-reaching repercussions in philosophy and culture would ensue.

Here's a TIME article about dog intelligence:


It turns out that dogs are the only known species besides us who can (consistently, at least) understand the meaning of a pointing finger. This ability is linked to the concept of social intelligence. Creatures who live in social groups (such as dogs, dolphins, bonobos, chimps, gorillas, and us) tend to be smarter than solitary animals. It takes more mental effort to function in a group than to live alone. Crows, intriguingly, are very smart, supposedly for this reason.

About pointing to draw attention to objects, however: Chimps in the wild don't do it. But Kanzi, the fluently communicating bonobo, does. Being raised in a human-centered environment makes a difference.

On the subject of our obligations to animals, this article quotes from bioethicist and animal liberationist Peter Singer, who maintains that the ability to suffer pain confers a right to be spared unnecessary suffering. "Similar amounts of pain are equally bad," he says, "whether felt by a human or a mouse." But does the human ability to remember past pain and anticipate future suffering with fear make a difference? Another scientist quoted in the article thinks so. And even Singer doesn't extend his philosophy to all animals; those that almost certainly have no consciousness are exempt.

But suppose we met aliens whose intelligence was of such a different kind from ours that we didn't recognize them as conscious? Could we safely apply our criteria ("theory of mind" and the mirror test, for example) to beings from a distant solar system?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Of course, I lay in bed at night considering the suffering of animals when I consider what to have for dinner the next day. It is a conundrum to be sure. Enough to make a girl go veggie.

    But there's another aspect to this and that is, are different ways of thinking recognized by our pithy human minds as just as valid as ours or do we shun them for their difference?

    I always liked the TNG episode called Darmok where Picard has a hard time communicating with the pig man because his entire language is based on metaphors.

    Now this was interesting television. It presented a real problem - one that the universal translator couldn't easily solve. One that might be more realistic when we are talking about alien species, and very tricky to write.

    In the case of animals, they do have a communication system - sometimes even a language - yet most humans would shy away from calling them intelligent since they don't speak a language WE can understand.

    In some ways, having a gadget about such as a universal translator is a detriment to human growth versus a truly helpful tool.

    Thanks for posting on this subject!

  2. I hasten to add one more speck of useless trivia -

    To test sentience (self-recognition) in apes, researchers waited until the apes fell asleep, painted a red dot on their forehead and gave them a mirror.

    When the apes awoke, they looked in the mirror, said, WTF? and rubbed the dot off their face.

    It has now been proven that elephants do this too.

  3. "To test sentience (self-recognition) in apes, researchers waited until the apes fell asleep, painted a red dot on their forehead and gave them a mirror.

    When the apes awoke, they looked in the mirror, said, WTF? and rubbed the dot off their face."

    Yes, that's mentioned in the article. Very few animals pass the test. I'm not surprised to hear elephants do.