If a lion could talk…

Around three weeks ago, a trainer at SeaWorld in Florida was killed by a killer whale (BBC News). In the following days, I became involved in an online debate about this, which quickly evolved into a discussion of animal intelligence, and the things that they can and can’t do cognitively.

The first thing to say is that it is we will probably never be able to understand what an animal is thinking. As Wittgenstein said:

If a lion could talk, we would not understand him”

However, while we are unlikely to ever know exactly what an animal is thinking, we are able to at least set some parameters, and dispel a few myths. When describing animal behaviour, there is a huge temptation to anthropomorphise, i.e. the assign them with human traits. This is purely for our benefit. It may of course benefit the animal. For example, many people form extremely close bonds with their dogs, believing them to be man’s best friend. This is an example of anthropomorphism, because there is no real reason to believe that the dog views its owner as its best friend. It is likely that its interactions with its owner are learnt through a combination of Pavlovian and operant conditioning.

My knowledge of animal psychology is fairly limited. However, in researching my arguments in the killer whale discussion, I learnt about a few important animal studies that I would like to share here. Many arose as a result of newspaper articles being cited as evidence of various human behaviours being present in animals, and in all cases the newspaper articles were gross misrepresentations of the actual study.

The first example is a story from The Telegraph, which also appeared in other newspapers (link). “Dogs can be jealous, say scientists”. Straight away the headline is a distortion of the truth. The article goes on to say that “Dogs are prone to complex emotions such as jealousy and pride, according to scientific research that sheds new light on their relationship with humans”. In fact, the paper in question is very careful not to say that. The original article, by Friederike Range et al., was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 (link). This article does not contain the words ‘envy’, ‘jealousy’ or ‘pride’ at all. Instead, it says that their results “suggest that species other than primates show at least a primitive version of inequity aversion, which may be a precursor of a more sophisticated sensitivity to efforts and payoffs of joint interactions.”.

‘Jealousy’ and ‘inequity aversion’ may seem like the same thing, but that is because humans are capable of feeling jealousy. It does not logically follow that if a dog shows aversion to inequity, it is experiencing jealousy, even though that word may be convenient for us to use. The study provides evidence for some very interesting canine traits, but it does not provide evidence that dogs “can be jealous”.

The second article concerns dolphins, noted as being one of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom. The Times, along with other newspapers, ran the story that “Scientists say dolphins should be treated as ‘non-human persons'” (link). Again, a very attractive headline that straightaway qualifies itself by saying that it comes from the mouths of scientists. Sadly, the reality is that it doesn’t.

The study that the article refers, by Lori Marino and Diana Reiss, was published in 2001 (link). Again, it’s a very interesting study. It concerns mirror-self-recognition, a phenomenon that had previously only been observed in humans and great apes. The experimental procedure used is called the ‘mark test’. A non-toxic, non-perfumed red dye is applied to various parts of the animal, such that the animal can only see it in the mirror. If the animal has never seen a mirror before, it will do nothing. However, many animals are capable of learning how to use mirrors. Even parrots are capable of using mirrors to help to guide their behaviour. Chimpanzees that have learnt how to use mirrors will touch the affected part of their body in the mark test, suggesting mirror self-recognition. Because dolphins can’t touch their body in the way that chimps can, Marino and Reiss observed the amount of time that the dolphins spent near the mirror, and found that when they were marked, they spent more time by the mirror. As they conclude, this is evidence that dolphins are capable of mirror self-recognition, which is a very interesting and important finding. Some of their conclusions may be slightly enthusiastic: for example, they conclude that the fact that dolphins show no social interaction when they look in the mirror separates them from monkeys and other non-self-recognising species, which initially respond to the mirror with social behaviour (Suarez and Gallup, 1986). This seems a bit over-simplistic, as it implies that dolphins rely solely on vision to direct their behaviour which we know is not true.

However, my intention is not to try to discredit the paper – I am happy to accept its conclusions, and I would be very interested to discuss it with people who know more about the subject than I do! What I do intend to do is to point out the differences between what the paper says and what the media coverage of it claims it says.

At no point in the paper do Marino and Reiss claim that dolphins should be treated as ‘non-human persons’. This rather media-friendly sound bite came from Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. Marino, Reiss and White all presented their findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science last month (link). Of course I wholeheartedly agree that dolphin hunts in Japan should be stopped, and it’s excellent news for this very worthy cause that The Cove won an Oscar this year. However, the idea that dolphins should be treated as “non-human persons” is not a scientific conclusion. Indeed, the Marino and Reiss paper ends with:

“The question of whether dolphins are capable of more complex forms of self-awareness, such as introspection and mental state attribution, remains unanswered. The present findings should motivate further investigation of other indicators of self-awareness.”

My final example of poor media coverage, before I attempt to do a slightly better job myself, is that of elephants mourning their dead. This phenomenon has been part of folklore for many years, with many anecdotal examples of elephants appearing to attend funerals, mourn their dead, and visit the graves of their relatives. A video of this behaviour can be seen here (link). Again, the first thing to do is to step away from the anthropomorphism. It’s wrong to automatically assume that elephants behave that way for the same reasons that humans might. As ever, the best way to gather evidence about this behaviour is throughout scientific investigation.

A 2005 study by McComb et al (link) explores this behaviour. They found that elephants investigate ivory in preference to other organic material, including an elephant skull. Once again, this is a very interesting finding, and throws up all sorts of questions, such as how and why this behaviour evolved. As the McComb study concludes, elephants’ interest in ivory makes it very likely that they will often visit the bones of relatives who die within their home range. What it does not indicate is that these visits are part of some sort of ritual, or that the elephants are in any way mourning, grieving, or remembering their dead. To assume that they are is simply anthropomorphism.

So, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what evidence doesn’t exist despite what the media tells us – so what evidence does exist? Well, entire books are dedicated to this, but I’ll give a quick run-down of some of my favourite theories and studies.

In a very famous study in 1975, Seligman (link) showed that rats show a phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’, which is used as a model for unipolar depression. Rats were given an electric shock which they either could or couldn’t escape from by jumping. Later, they were given electric shocks that they could sometimes escape from by pressing a bar. The rats which had previously been able to escape were able to escape by pressing the bar, but the rats which had previously been unable to escape became passive, exhibiting symptoms of depression such as loss of appetite. So, while I would be very hesitant to describe rats as being sad or melancholy, they can certainly be depressed in a physiological sense.

This isn’t particularly surprising, especially when theories such as the James-Lange Theory are considered. The James-Lange Theory, in summary, is that we do not run because we are afraid; we are afraid because we run. In other words, our physiological responses are much faster than our psychological responses, so if there is a causal relationship between them, it must be our physiology that affects our psychology. There are several problems with the James-Lange Theory: some physiological changes are slower than psychological changes; cutting the vagus nerve does not affect emotions in rats; different emotions can be felt despite identical physiological changes; and injecting adrenaline does not induce emotional changes. However, these problems are largely eliminated by Schachter and Singer’s 1962 two factor theory of emotion, which states that emotion is a result of the appraisal of both our physiological and our cognitive states. This was demonstrated by injecting subjects with adrenaline or a placebo, and manipulating their cognitive state using an actor.

And therein lies the crucial distinction between humans and other animals: cognition. Humans and animals are equally capable of experiencing physiological changes in response to stimuli, but our cognitive abilities are markedly different.

Possibly my favourite ever paper (and you know you’re a real nerd when you start a sentence with those words) is a 2002 paper by Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (link). They evaluate a huge range of anatomical, archaeological, physiological and psychological evidence to arrive at some theories concerning the development of language. While some animals such as parrots are capable of speech, and many animals are capable of communication, none of them appear to have the ability of recursion. Recursion is the ability to generate an infinite number of possibilities from a finite number of components, which is essential what language is. Mathematics also requires recursion, and it can be shown that chimpanzees probably do not have this ability, because while they can be taught to count, it takes a very long time, and there is no evidence that they ever realise that integer list is based on the successor function.

There have been apes that have been taught sign language, including Koko the gorilla and Nim Chimpsky the chimpanzee. However, while this is quite extraordinary, such abilities could be explained as simply being due to imitation and conditioning.

To conclude, our knowledge of animal intelligence is still very limited. There are some things that we know they can do, some that we know they can’t, many that we have no idea about, and are possibly some that we ourselves are incapable of and are therefore completely oblivious to. But I return to the Wittgenstein quote, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him”. We’re sometimes so determined to anthropomorphise and to define animals in human terms that we forget that it’s the differences between us that makes life so magnificent. Diversity is one of the great beauties of evolution. Our attitudes towards animals are sometimes shameful, and we often try to redress the balance by reminding ourselves that “We’re animals as well”, and to criticise ourselves for holding the arrogant view that we are superior to other animals. The key realisation is that we are superior to animals when it comes to human traits, by definition. Of course we’re better at language and philosophy and blogging than animals are – accepting that isn’t an arrogant view. It isn’t even arrogant to say that we’re cleverer than other animals, because the parameters of ‘intelligence’ are defined in human terms. We should celebrate our vast diversity, while continuing to further our understanding of the world, and those that we share it with.

I’ve jumped around the subject quite a lot, and I’m still getting used to this blogging thing, so your comments and criticisms are warmly invited.



One Response to “If a lion could talk…”

  1. By far your best one so far! It’s nice and linear and not overly complicated considering the subject and a lot of the papers referenced. Really good conclusion too.

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