Animal Wise: the thoughts and emotions of our fellow creatures, by Virginia Morell, Black Inc. Books, 2013.
Laughing rats, name-calling wild parrots, archer-fish with a sense of humour, and educated ants; the naturalist Charles Darwin would have loved this book. The philosopher Rene Descartes would equally have found it deeply troubling. Both with good reason.
In Descartes’ dualist philosophy the mind and body are two separate entities. There is the material body and the immaterial mind or soul. The latter linking humans to the mind of God, making us, in his philosophy, different to animals. Descartes famously reasoned animals are composed only of material substances and therefore have no capacity to reason. More importantly for how we see animals, Descartes wrote that a human person, such as you or I, is something distinct from that person’s body. Therefore an animal, being material only, could in this way of thinking, never have a mind – never have a concept of “I”.
This stance was extended by the behaviorist paradigms of the mid 20th century associated with the psychologist B F Skinner.
Darwin on the other hand thought differently. He was a natural philosopher who got up out of his armchair and voyaged the world, most notably aboard the Beagle. Darwin attributed emotions to many animals and even argued that earthworms are cognitive beings. In his classic The Descent of Man he argued, most persuasively, that we and the other animals differ in our mental powers by degree, not in kind.
Today the discussion is no different, researchers still debate not only advanced claims of intelligence in animals but also how to test whether their abilities reflect human-like cognition.
This brings me to what I liked so much about this book.
Each chapter focuses on an animal in a particular observational or experimental setting. Virginia Morell introduces us to the scientist and the animals, explaining the studies, the results and some of the trials and triumphs along the way to building an understanding of what the scientists find. The animal and settings we may already have a prejudice about; captive dolphins, elephant memories, chimpanzees and language, dogs and humans, are very carefully presented to ensure that the most compelling results are well presented. The more novel animals, ants and fish for example, are also carefully presented, their novelty makes for an easier presentation. For example I had no preconceived ideas regarding the ability of ants to teach – with no mental hurdle of my to overcome – that chapter was very illuminating. The examples and researchers chosen for these chapters succinctly illustrate what we have learnt about the emotions and intelligence of these animals.
Yes I did say chosen. It does not pretend, nor claim to be, encyclopaedic, academic nor ‘balanced’ presentation of the entire field. This is a lively, non-fiction tour of the cutting edge of animal cognitive science. Virginia Morell translates the scientific jargon of the field into words that all can engage with.
Each chapter is a separate story, reflecting that some of the chapters were adapted from previously published articles from 2008 to 2012. These are neatly book-ended with chapter that frame these quite succinctly. This I think is a strength of the book. Each chapter, each story, is self-contained that you can read it, look at the references and ponder what the researchers and Virginia are conveying to you. Not only do you get an appreciation of the scientific significance of the various studies – you get that rare glimpse into the scientific process and personality that is often missed in science communication writing.
For example, consider the archer-fish and neuroscientist Stefan Schuster. I learnt that Stefan has spent more than forty years investigating how fish think and make decisions. I learnt that the idea of seeing life from the mind of a fish was something that grabbed him as a child. Stefan’s story is more than just his careful experimentation on fish behaviour. Along the way he has made key discoveries about the sophisticated mental abilities of the archer-fish. The archer-fish is well-named for it is the sharpshooter of the piscine world.
In the chapter discussing his work I learnt that Schuster owes his success to curiosity, fun and serendipity – as well as careful experimentation. Schuster and his students had discovered that archer-fish learnt how to shoot at difficult and novel targets by watching another skilled fish perform the task. That means they had taken the viewpoint of the other fish. Did they copy or imitate? Let the philosophers debate the definitions. What the archerfish do involves cognition. Although we don’t understand the relationship between cognition and sentience, scientists know that one informs the other.
Each chapter is replete with great stories, good science and probing philosophy. Morell displays her ability to write engagingly for a general audience, while presenting the science at a suitably intriguing level. If you view animals the same after reading this book – then give it a second read – it will be worth it.
I’ll leave the last words to the late Douglas Adams:
Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.