Educational Series: Animals Are Intelligent Beings Who Need Our Help

By Nick Engelfried
All too often, we humans are used to thinking of ourselves as the only species on Earth capable of advanced thought and emotion. However, as any pet owner has reason to know, many animals are much more intelligent and aware than we tend to give them credit for. By better understanding the complex mental lives of animals, we can fully appreciate the importance of treating other species with the respect and kindness they deserve.

One of the defining features of human intelligence is learning—including the ability to learn not only through direct experience, but by observing or receiving information from other members of our species. Every time we watch someone else perform a complex task so as to better master it ourselves, or look up instructions on the internet written by an expert, we are exercising our ability to learn from the experiences of other people. It turns out many animals also practice this type of learning.

The ability to learn, at a most basic level, is widespread throughout the animal kingdom. Even small invertebrates like insects can learn to disregard a threatening presence like that of a human, after repeated encounters show the intruder to be harmless. Learning from others is more complicated, but plenty of animals have this ability as well. For example, many birds learn at least some elements of their species’ characteristic song by listening to older birds singing. The researchers Frans de Waal and Denise Johanowiczthat also showed that monkeys like the rhesus macaque can learn new behaviors such as the ability to peacefully resolve conflicts.

Perhaps more surprisingly, this type of social learning is not limited to warm-blooded birds and mammals. In the early ‘90s, biologists Graziano Fiorito and Pietro Scotto performed an experiment where an octopus in an aquarium was taught to choose between two differently-colored balls in order to receive a food reward. Not only were the animals adept at mastering this task, but other octopuses proved able to learn which was the “correct” ball simply by watching what happened when another individual repeatedly selected it and received the reward.

A related trait long assumed to be unique to humans is the ability to develop diverse cultures—large social groups with shared sets of behaviors which individuals learn from one another. For culture to form, new behaviors adopted by a small number of individuals must be able to spread throughout larger society. Among animals, species like monkeys and whales are known to have culture. For instance, researchers have discovered that preferences for a certain color of food can spread throughout a troop of vervet monkeys, until the whole group begins choosing the same color and teaching this learned behavior to their young. New monkeys who join the troop quickly pick up the group’s preference as well. Meanwhile, innovative food-hunting techniques developed by individual humpback whales have been shown to spread throughout an entire population as these intelligent animals learn from one another.

It is one thing to learn from trial and error—or even from copying the behavior of others—and another to be able to predict future causes and effects by reasoning out the likely outcome. This arguably more advanced type of intelligence is known as logical reasoning, and it presupposes an ability to understand certain properties of the physical world. For example, to predict that a piece of wood will float in water while a rock will sink requires knowing something about the ways different kinds of matter behave in relation to each other, and applying that knowledge to predict future events. Some animals have shown themselves to be fully up to this challenge, too.

In 2014, a team of scientists from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and University of Cambridge in the U.K. announced that New Caledonian crows (a species closely related to the crows and ravens of North America) had succeeded in solving a series of problems using logical reasoning. The researchers placed a floating peanut in a transparent, cylindrical tube with an open top, partially filled with water. The challenge confronting the crows was to get at the tasty peanut—a goal best accomplished by dropping rocks into the tube to displace the water until the peanut rose to a height where the bird could reach it with its beak. The crows solved several variations on this challenge, showing an ability to predict how a sinking object will interact with water.

As impressive as learning from others and predicting the future using logical reasoning are, recent studies on animal intelligence have revealed even more remarkable findings. For centuries, at least in Western culture, scientists and philosophers have considered self-awareness—the ability to conceive of oneself as a distinct entity whose experience is different from that of other individuals—to be a defining trait of human beings. In fact, since ancient times this awareness has often been considered the hallmark trait that separates humans from other animals. This needs to change in light of recent evidence.

One of the most obvious ways to test for self-awareness in other animals is to see if they are able to recognize their own reflections in a mirror. This experiment is more difficult than it sounds, though; if an animal fails the test it could mean it truly doesn’t have self-awareness, or simply that it doesn’t understand how mirrors reflect objects placed in front of them. A team of researchers announced in 2017 that they had demonstrated self-awareness in rhesus macaques by first teaching the monkeys how mirrors work, then allowing them to study their own reflections. The intelligent macaques used a mirror to identify and wipe away small, colorful dye marks on their own faces.

Neither is self-awareness limited to our fellow primates. Bottle-nosed dolphins have also passed the mirror test, as well as providing additional evidence to indicate they are conscious of themselves. In captivity, dolphins can learn to respond to complex commands that involve remembering an action they performed in the recent past—something that requires seeing oneself as a distinct individual.

To sum up, it is now abundantly clear that animals have the ability to learn through trial and error or from each other, develop cultural traditions, reason their way out of challenging situations, and even possess awareness of themselves. In light of this overwhelming evidence of animal intelligence, how can we continue to act with the disregard and cruelty that has so often characterized human society’s treatment of non-human species? Every animal slaughtered in a factory farm, subjected to painful experiments in a research laboratory, or caught up in the blaze of a burning rainforest is in fact a sentient being with the ability to suffer.

For people who care about animals, the knowledge that monkeys, birds, dolphins, and even octopuses–not to mention countless other species–are far more intelligent than we once thought should be an added incentive to continue pushing for better treatment of other species both in the wild and in captivity. Knowing what we do about the intelligence of these non-human creatures, we can no longer treat them as if they were merely inanimate objects to be used and discarded at will.

Photo credit: Andie Ang

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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