Monday, February 4, 2013

Smarter than we think

Animals are smarter than we think. More to the point, they are smarter than scientists think, or at least most scientists until just a few years ago. Science writer Virginia Morell probes the question of just how surprisingly smart animals are in her book Animal Wise.

For years science told us animals don't really think, they just act according to instinct. Animals don't feel pain or experience emotions, they said. These were the same scientists who insisted man had evolved and was thus biologically related to animals, and yet somehow people had thoughts and feelings and mental capabilities way beyond that of animals.

Jane Goodall and her study of chimpanzees had a lot to do with changing the way science views animals. She had relatively little scientific education before she began observing chimpanzees in the wild, and this turned out to be an advantage. She broke all the rules because she didn't know what the rules were. She gave names to her subjects. She wrote about them as individuals with their own personalities. She referred to them as he or she, not it. She observed and reported chimpanzees making and using tools when everyone else in the scientific community believed only humans could do this. At first, her work was pooh-poohed by the scientific community, but eventually she made converts. Today many other scientists are studying various species in much the way Goodall did and making surprising discoveries in the process.

Morell visited many of these scientists and describes their work in her book, which is written more for the average reader than for scientists. She tells why some researchers think parrots name their children, why others are convinced fish feel pain when they have hooks in their mouths, how it is known that bowerbirds have an artistic sense and how it was discovered that some dogs can learn new words in much the same way children do, and much more. She writes about studies involving ants, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, dogs and wolves, and in each case the findings are astounding.

Some scientists are still not convinced, but we amateurs with pets won't have as much trouble with Morell's book.

House cats love looking out windows, and one day I noticed my cat staring for a long time at the only basement window in our house with a ledge where he might sit and look out, but the window was high and out of easy reach. The next day, as I watched the TV that was just a few feet from the window, I saw my cat climb onto the TV and position himself to leap from it to the window ledge. I held my breath because it looked to me like a risky jump. Apparently the cat decided the same thing because he eventually turned around and jumped down to the floor.

A day or two later I noticed my cat on the window ledge, looking outside. Further observation showed me he had gotten there the best possible way. He first jumped onto the wood box and from there leaped to the fireplace mantel. After crossing that, it was just a short leap to the ledge. A small child could have figured out these steps in a matter of seconds. It took my cat several days, but he figured it out. He solved the problem. He used his mind.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your article on animals. I grew up in Mansfield and am now an author--see for more information if interested.