It was an uncharacteristically pleasant spring evening as I joined the waiting crowd for the evening’s event, Thinking Through Animals, a discussion panel on what we know about how animals think and behave. As we filed into the venue, I was struck by the relaxed on-stage atmosphere. The speakers for the night sat on a sofa and armchairs, chatting between themselves in a friendly, laid-back manner. I was there to see a discussion panel with three research fellows from the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), which was set up in 1969 to promote interdisciplinary research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. One of the institute’s main aims is to provide a space which fosters collaboration and communication. This must have been a success, as the speakers were undeniably friends, and were supported by many of their colleagues in the audience.
[…] how do animals think, and is it similar to how we think?
Our host for the night was Dr Niki Vermeulen, a senior lecturer from the school of Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She began by detailing Edinburgh’s unique history of the special relationship between humans and animals. Of the many statues in Edinburgh, two in particular stand out. The first is the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a skye terrier who famously guarded his owner’s grave for more than a decade after he died. The second is of Wojtek the bear, who was found as a cub by Polish soldiers during world war two and enlisted in the army to carry rations. He was moved to Edinburgh zoo after the war ended, where he would live out his days until his death in 1963. Dr Vermeulen went on to discuss the place of animals in expanding human knowledge through research in Edinburgh. She mentioned Dolly the sheep, who was cloned by scientists at the Roslin Institute, and as the first clone of an adult mammal became “the world’s most famous sheep.”
Up next, was Professor Peter Graham, a specialist in philosophy and linguistics from the University of California. In his current project on animal minds, Professor Graham is interested in epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and how this relates to non-human animals. Simply put, how do animals think, and is it similar to how we think? One way humans think is through reasoning, or logical inference, which describes how we draw conclusions using the information we are given. Imagine you’re making a cup of tea, and ask your mum where the biscuits are. If she tells you they’re either in the tin or the jar and you find the jar to be empty, then you know the biscuits must be in the tin. Animal cognition researchers have conducted many experiments to determine whether non-human animals reason in this way.
[…] these experiments are perhaps more telling of our own biases. We test animals against our own standards of thinking and intelligence, which may miss the point entirely
In 1994, David and Ann James Premack studied logical inference in chimpanzees and human children. Similar to the biscuits in the jar, they showed the subject two cups with a different treat in each. They placed a barrier between the subject and the cups, whilst an experimenter entered and removed one of the treats. They then raised the barrier so the subject could see the which treat the experimenter was holding. If the subject was reasoning through logical inference, they would move towards the cup with the treat left in it, as they would know the experimenter had removed the other treat. The Premacks found that whilst the children were capable of logical inference, similarly aged chimps were not. Interestingly, an older chimp appeared to be capable of logical inference, suggesting they acquire this ability with age.
So does this prove that primates think like us? Not quite. The older chimp may have just learned to associate the image of the experimenter holding one of the treats with receiving the other treat at the end of the experiment.
The difficulties in interpreting the results of studies, like those conducted by the Premacks, highlight the complexity of trying to get inside the heads of our animal counterparts. However, these experiments are perhaps more telling of our own biases. We test animals against our own standards of thinking and intelligence, which may miss the point entirely. Just because an animal reasons through association and not logical inference, that does not mean they’re less intelligent, just that they think differently. This point was raised by the next speaker, Professor Jane Desmond, who specialises in anthropology, gender, and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She highlighted a quote from Frans de Waal, a Dutch-American primatologist, who asked in his 2016 book: “are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?”
These discoveries have forced us to redefine our human-centric ideas of things like language and culture, and ask more questions about the inner lives of animals
It is a valid question. Every time we have believed a characteristic to be uniquely human, animals have demonstrated this is not the case. We thought tool use was unique to us, but then we discovered primates that could use a rock to bash open a nut, or a stick to fish termites from a nest. Crows have been shown to design their own tools, such as hook-shaped sticks to retrieve nuts from a bottle. Surely we’re the only species capable of language? Nope – Koko the gorilla learned how to communicate using American Sign Language, and Kanzi the bonobo can ‘speak’ to researchers using a series of lexigrams, which are pictures and symbols that represent words. Culture? Again, no. This has been observed in a group of Japanese macaques that have learned to wash sweet potatoes in brackish ponds, which not only cleans them but gives them a nice salty taste. This practice is learned and passed down over time, and unique to this particular group – much like human cultures and traditions.
These discoveries have forced us to redefine our human-centric ideas of things like language and culture, and ask more questions about the inner lives of animals. Professor Desmond told a particular story of an intriguing animal behaviour we can’t explain. Lawrence Anthony was the director of conservation at the Thula Thula wildlife park in South Africa. Under the care of the park is a herd of elephants that Anthony was very close to – he was known as the ‘Elephant Whisperer’ in reference to his unique bond with the animals. When he passed away in 2012, the elephants gathered at his house from all over the park, and stayed there for two days before they dispersed. Was this the herd mourning his death, or just aberrant behaviour? We still don’t know, and maybe we never will. But this reveals that animals do have an interior sensibility which we’re yet to understand. It is our responsibility to try though, as the more we know, the better our relationship with animals could be.
We benefit greatly from our relationships with animals, be it through the comfort and friendship they bring as pets, or through the research that expands our knowledge of the world
This theme was picked up by the next speaker, Dr Cheryl Lancaster from Durham University, who spoke about animal ethics, and how we regard animals in our laws. She explained that there are two legal categories: persons or things. Persons are the subject of rights and obligations, and cannot be used as a means to an end. This means they have inherent value and importance which does not come from their use to achieve an aim. Things, however, are to be owned as property, for use as a means to an end. Currently, animals are not granted personhood, and are therefore classed as things. This seems incredibly unfair, but classifying animals as persons is not necessarily appropriate either. In 2015, animal rights organisation PETA sued a British photographer, David Slater, whose camera had been used by a crested black macaque to take a selfie. They argued that the monkey, called Naruto, owned the rights to the picture, and should receive any money generated from it. Slater later settled in court, but the legal costs have left him struggling. Clearly the simple bifurcation by the law into persons and things is not sufficient to encompass the complexity of the issue of animal rights. We need a new legal classification for animals that values and protects their welfare, but does not attempt to moralise or anthropomorphize them.
Overall, the panel event was incredibly interesting. The different perspectives brought by the speakers complemented each other well, and highlighted the importance of the interdisciplinary approach that is taken at IASH. I thought that the panel would have been better for the inclusion of an animal behaviour researcher to delve more into the science behind animal cognition. As the event was about our relationship with animals, and how much more we have to learn about their inner lives, the science of animal thinking and behaviour would have been a welcome perspective. Nevertheless, I came away from the event with a revived appreciation for the special bonds we share with our furry and feathered friends. We benefit greatly from our relationships with animals, be it through the comfort and friendship they bring as pets, or through the research that expands our knowledge of the world. We owe it to them to try and understand them a little better.
This post was written by Tom Edwick and edited by Karolina Zieba.