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Fascinating look into animal minds

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Animal Wise

The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

By Virginia Morell

Crown, 304 pages, $30

Losing a footrace to a cheetah would probably not be too much of a blow to your pride -- but what if a chimp could beat you at a memory test?

American science writer Virginia Morell is a regular contributor to Science magazine and National Geographic. Her articles most often deal with natural sciences, wildlife and evolutionary biology. This book, a broad ranging exploration of animal intelligence and emotion, grew from a National Geographic story called Minds of Their Own.

Animals certainly have brains -- you can buy and eat an animal's brains here in Winnipeg if you know where to shop. But what kind of minds do animals have, and could we ever really know what they are thinking and feeling?

The researchers that Morrell talks to in Animal Wise are trying to answer to those difficult questions. The partial answers they give are fascinating and disconcerting.

Research into animal minds begins surprisingly "low" on the food chain. Morrell starts with ants and bees, and then fish get a full chapter: for instance, archerfish that spit jets of water at beetles have to learn the skill, and they do learn, by practising themselves or by observing other fish.

Fish also have a structure in their brain (the amygdala) analogous to the part of our brain that would light up and cause pain if a hook went through our jaw. It's a short jump to conclude that a fish also feels pain, though a slightly bigger jump to conclude that the fish is suffering from the pain.

One great difficulty for all research into animal cognition and emotion is the inability to communicate directly, on an even keel. We can never know what it is really like to be an ant, or even a dolphin.

That barrier between us and other species was also a barrier to this type of research for many years. Many scientists were, and still are, quick to dismiss any conclusions about animal minds with the charge of anthropomorphism.

Since we can only observe outward behaviour, it is pointless to infer anything about thoughts or feelings.

These critics may help to hold more radical claims in check, but given the diverse and ingenious research described in Animal Wise, the hard position that animal minds are inscrutable, and not worth plumbing anyway, is no longer tenable.

For example, anecdotes about elephants' long memories have been passed around for centuries, but scientists in Kenya made careful observations while playing different elephant calls through a speaker.

When they played the call of a long-dead relative, the whole elephant family perked up and walk toward the noise. (The researchers later felt uneasy for possibly raising confusion, or even something like sorrow.)

Morrell refers frequently to Charles Darwin, which is fitting since he first explained how we are directly connected to the animals, and since he was much more comfortable exploring the interior lives of beetles, birds, dogs, and others, than the scientists a few generations later.

Given that all animals are literally our cousins, for we share common ancestors, it is natural to assume that some of them possess something analogous to our own higher faculties.

The mental feats of the most gifted animals described in the book, including parrots, dolphins, and great apes, are astonishing. Given their individual personalities, cultural diversity, and their ability to communicate and play with each other and with us, it is hard not to feel kinship.

To its credit, Animal Wise is very light on the guilt for how we use and treat animals. It simply points out that "like us, they think and feel and experience the world."

We know this now, but what to do with that knowledge is up to us all.

Paul Klassen is a Winnipeg engineer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J8

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