Monday, September 9, 2013

Animal Cognition Science Ruffling More Than Feathers

What do science writer Virginia Morell and animal scientists Frans de Waal and Brian Hare all have in common?

They each took time out of their busy schedules to speak in my home town at the Decatur Book Festival.

Each of them also had a bit to say about changing perspectives in the field of animal cognition. These changes involve more than just which species are of particular interest and what specific questions scientists wish to investigate. The very language we use to describe scientific discovery is undergoing transformation.

Anthropomorphism — attributing human characteristics to non-humans — has typically met great resistance. Some philosophers and older scientists may still balk at a scientist using the words teach and learn to describe specific interactions between — for example — ants.

Instead, they might favor a vaguer description of the action, semantically separating the human act of teaching from the ant’s transference of information — whether intentional or not — through exhibition in the coincidental proximity of at least one individual who previously had yet to demonstrate possession of (but may very well have already possessed) said information.

Studying the capacities of animals seems to have been a means of reinforcing the misconception that we humans are evolution’s masterpiece. It was the science of isolating exactly which features of humanity make us so special. It was the data we needed to justify a generous pat on the back.

But the pinnacle of progress we are not.

Ms. Morell’s book Animal Wise attempts to summarize the great wealth of cognition research that covers a huge variety of species across the animal kingdom. In her talk, she touched upon laughing rats, border collies with expansive vocabularies, and the aforementioned ant pedagogy.

Our “uniquely human” capabilities (if I may use quotation marks ironically) surface again and again — in related species and in species so distant our common ancestors would’ve likely resembled some sort of worm.

Intelligence does not exist on a continuum, a point Dr. Hare emphasized in his talk. We humans don’t preside at the top of the animal kingdom because there is no “top.” How would you even quantify something as broad as intelligence? Sure, you can devise a test of memory, or a test of empathy, or a test of communicative ability. But how do these intelligent traits stack up against each other?

Hare instead proposes that each species — even individuals within a species — have their own cognitive profile. Depending on its environment, a species may favor and rely upon certain flavors of intelligence while others are diminished.

At the book festival promoting, The Genius of Dogs, which he co-wrote with his wife, science writer Vanessa Woods, Hare spoke predominantly about his canine research. Historically scientists regarded dogs as artificial, the circumstances in which they evolved unnatural. But, again, the perspective of the field has changed. Scientists are no longer studying animals so we can put the fragile human ego on a shelf overlooking the kingdom, now they are studying animals so they can see how we fit in among them.

Now, studying animals can truly help us understand the evolutionary path of our own species. For Hare this means dogs are fair game. What better animal to provide a window into human evolution than that which has co-evolved with us? If we can understand how they became like us, said Hare, we can understand how we became like us.

In the last decade animal cognition research has really branched out. Our primate relatives are no longer the center of attention, with dogs, birds, dolphins, elephants, and a host of invertebrates stealing some of the limelight.

Still, renowned primatologist Dr. de Waal — arguably one of the driving forces behind the changing field — has had no difficulty pushing primate work into new territories. His more recent work has focused on emotions, empathy, and morality.

If likening an insect to a teacher causes a stir, imagine the kind of opposition a claim for ape morality would meet.

De Waal — whose newest book is called The Bonobo and the Atheist — drew attention to the changing opinions on morality’s origin. Initially the belief was that God gave us morality, said de Waal. Then it was reason, then it was science. He rejects even this third view, claiming instead that morality isn’t given to us at all. It comes from within.

We humans have evolved to be moral.

And it’s unlikely that we’re alone. Among our animal friends there is evidence of emotional contagion, fairness, cooperation, self-awareness, even consolation and reconciliatory behavior — all basic tendencies underlying our ethical and moral systems.

What about religion, you ask? Well, at this point, scientists have yet to observe its existence in any species outside of our own. Unlike those basic moral tendencies, on the timescale of evolution, it’s a much more recent phenomenon. For these very reasons, it’s hard to imagine that religion is the father of morality. The more probable relationship casts religion as an engineer and morality as the material at its disposal.

Taken together, scientists studying animal cognition are making it harder than ever to disregard our common identity as animals. My opinion, this is a good thing. All too often, the upper limit of human self-identification stops short at a nationality. I’m more than an American. I’m a human. A human animal.


  1. Great blog post, Dan.
    It has always bothered me that the study of animal behavior has had this hierarchy. I'm glad it is finally starting to change.

    1. Thanks Peggy! Glad you found it.
      Yes, I'm also glad this perspective is changing. Hope you and Fran are well!