My sister-in-law Tiffany came to dinner last night. She brought me an issue if the PARADE Sunday newspaper supplement from July 29th. The front page story is an article by Eugene Linden entitled “How much do animals really know?” This short piece does a fabulous job of summarizing the current state of research into animal intelligence. Here’s a severe abridgement of the piece:
Scientists are seeing evidence of higher mental abilities in a wider range of animals than previously imagined. They’ve also observed unexpected traits and skills, like empathy and the ability to fashion weapons.
Empathy—being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—is important because it is the basis of morality. But empathy is very difficult to prove. Actions don’t always imply intent. […] Empathy relies on self-awareness. Only an animal that recognizes itself can understand another’s plight. So there’s the gauntlet: If you can prove that an animal knows it is a separate creature from others, the case for animal empathy becomes stronger.
A widely used test for a sense of self is to see whether an animal recognizes itself in a mirror. Experimenters will put a mark on an animal’s forehead, then place the animal in front of a mirror. […] Last fall, Joshua Plotnik, an Emory University graduate student, published the results of a mirror test he’d done with elephants. […] The results were fascinating. The three females seemed to recognize right off the bat that the image was not another elephant. […] It may not sound like much, but this means that [elephants have] a prerequisite for recognizing that another animal—or human—needs help.
Actually, examples of animal empathy have long been noted. What’s new today is that scientists seem ready to accept the idea that animals may be conscious or smart.
The use of tools—and weapons—is considered a mark of higher intelligence. In the 1960s, the idea that animals might fashion weapons was the stuff of science-fiction films. Then, in 1999, a team led by Richard Wrangham of Harvard observed chimps using sticks to beat other chimps. Even more stunning were reports published this spring by Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University about chimps in the savannas of Senegal fashioning sticks into spears, which they used to hunt small primates called bush babies.
These chimps may have been hunting for a very long time—there’s evidence that they pass on such expertise from generation to generation. The primatologist Christophe Boesch has observed chimps using granite stones to crack panda nuts in the Ivory Coast’s Tai Forest since the 1980s. But this year, Boesch and Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary uncovered nut-cracking stones in that same forest dating back 4,300 years—even before early Africans started using agriculture. This means that, unknown to science, the chimps have been doing something in close proximity to humans for thousands of years.
You can read the entire piece on the PARADE web site. It’s a wonderful introduction to the subject, and is going to become the one article I point people to when I try to explain my fascination with animal intelligence.
[PARADE: How much do animals really know?]