Sometimes I think I should have been some kind of wildlife biologist/animal behaviorist. But not one that performs experiments or has to kill its research. I’d rather just watch and observe. In Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (2013), Virginia Morell answers the question of whether animals are able to think and feel by describing studies done with a number of different animals.
If you asked me when I was in kindergarten whether animals had thoughts or emotions, I would have said ‘of course.’ I had a dog and a cat at home. For quite a while, scientists could not accept this. Any suggestion that animals could share these human characteristics was seen as unprofessional anthropomorphism. This opinion was based more on arrogant ignorance than science. When Jane Goodall began studying chimps, she was told not to even assign gender to the individual chimps. But how can you learn personality, thoughts, and emotion, when you never look at an animal as an individual?
Morell generally takes one chapter per animal, starting with the simple ant and working her way up to dolphins and elephants. Having already read Jane Goodall’s biography and research on chimpanzees, as well as Alex and Me, Irene Pepperberg’s study of African Grey parrots, I knew animals were smart. Yet this book still surprised me.
Ants are unexpectedly smart and adaptable creatures. When their home is destroyed, scouts are immediately deployed to find another suitable location. When it’s found, the scout will come back, find another ant, and teach it the way to their new home. The scout will lead the way, slowing way down and giving the other ant a chance to process where it is. The scientists were able to discover this by painting tiny dots onto their tiny ants in order to differentiate individuals.
Did you know that rats laugh? Another study described in the book had two groups of rats. One group had play time prescribed every day at the same time, while the other rats lived solitary lives in their cages. The rats expecting their play time would be awake and alert, waiting to be put in new cages with their partnered play rats. The solitary rats were usually sleeping. The rats given play and companionship had more complex brains. Also, their play time was recorded and it was discovered that rats actually laugh when interacting with each other. In fact, the scientists could instigate rat laughter by tickling their subjects. I felt bad for the solitary rats in this experiment. This is where I would turn out to be a bad scientist because I would not use a control group.
Scientists believed that elephants were not capable of using tools to solve problems. This assumption occurred when scientists hung food above an elephant’s reach and gave them a stick. When the elephant didn’t use the stick to get the food, scientists concluded that elephants were too stupid. However, the problem was that the scientists conducting the experiment did not fully understand elephants. Elephants use their trunk to smell and find food. If they have their trunk wrapped around a stick, they can’t use it to smell food anymore. When another scientist used a similar experiment but put a stool nearby instead of a stick, elephants dragged the stool over beneath the food and were able to grab it.
Finally, I learned that dolphins are like the bonobos of the sea. If you don’t know much about bonobos, dolphins use sex as social lubricant. Male dolphins like to violently corral female dolphins, gathering their own little harems (it sucks to be a female dolphin). But it’s hard to corral things in the sea. There are too many possible directions to run away. In order to succeed, male dolphins must coordinate with other males. So, they swim around in little gangs with constantly shifting alliances, having homosexual dolphin sex along the way.
One idea that struck me with this book was the idea that evolution wasn’t necessarily a hierarchy. Animals’ minds that had similar evolutionary pressures were often more similar to humans than those that were “closer” to us genetically. For example, dolphins, parrots, and chimpanzees are all very social creatures, needing to plan, socialize and scheme in order to succeed. Their brains are much more similar than their varied and drastically different bodies would suggest.
The other idea that struck me–and frustrated me–was the constant, ignorant grandstanding of the old school scientists. The book is littered with stories of scientists saying that animals can’t feel, think, use tools, or communicate. One by one, these assumptions are proven wrong. The problem isn’t what the animals can’t do. The problem is that we as humans are unable to discern what it is the animals are doing. The chirps of parakeets in South America sound like random chatter to humans. It isn’t until a scientist finds individual birds, records them, and makes visual audio clips that he discovers that parakeets have something akin to a name they use to identify themselves. The same thing happened with whales, dolphins, and elephants. Sure, they were making noise, but since we couldn’t understand it, they wouldn’t call it communication.
This book was right up my alley. It’s thoughtful and well-written and helps us to appreciate how much we are learning and still don’t know about the rich lives of many different kinds of animals.
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