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Furry, Feathery, and Finny Animals Speak Their Minds


Much research on animal minds is rooted in Darwinian naturalist assumptions — a long slow continuum of intelligence from somewhere just north of cytoplasm to humans. These assumptions may have set us back.

Animal Minds 1221.jpegFirst, just being a life form includes a drive to survive and an ability to adapt for that purpose, which we do not find in rocks. Many life forms can also communicate for those purposes. But, so far as we know, they lack consciousness or sentience, the ability to feel things. There is no slow ascent; there is a steep cliff.

At the other end of the spectrum are apes, who belong to the same order of life as ourselves. Discussions of their intelligence often assume that they are entering a “Stone Age” (such as the Lascaux cave artists lived in, 20 000 years ago). However, while apes tend to be more intelligent than most mammals, they are not becoming like humans. And smart birds give apes serious competition, when tested.

So what can we learn from other vertebrate life forms, forms that show intelligence but are not closely related to us, do not seem much like us, and are not apparently heading in our direction?

Can Animal Mind Be Explained by “Instinct”?

At one time, it was supposed that most animals were simply born with instincts about what to do. The term is not used much now because it mainly meant that we do not know the source of the animal’s information. We are now learning many of these sources.

We have recently discovered, for example, that migrating birds can use the mineral magnetite, embedded above their beaks, to use Earth’s magnetic fields for direction.

We learned in recent decades how young birds “know” that they should follow their mother: As Spark Notes explains, following the work of animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989):

Johnson and Bolhuis identified two independent neural systems that control filial imprinting in precocial birds. Newly hatched chicks will follow almost anything that has eyes and moves. After the chick follows something, another part of the brain, analogous to the frontal cortex, recognizes and imprints on the individual being followed. These mechanisms are independent. There is an instinct for chicks to follow, and then they learn what they are following.

But the “follow her” system is not strictly genetic:

It might seem odd that being able to identify and follow a mother does not have a genetic mechanism. Yet with a neural rather than genetic mechanism, the chick gains flexibility that might help in survival. If a chick’s mother dies, the chick can then be adopted by another family member or conspecific.

Yes indeed. Famously, the young bird may follow a psychology student, a stick, or a cat, with varying results. Bird rescuers use hand puppets of bird faces when caring for nestlings, to return them later to a natural setting. Clearly, not all we need to know about an organism is in its genes.

How then does the male weaverbird know how to build a nest? That’s apparently not simply a genetic program either; the birds must learn some of the techniques by experience.

Genetics, neural networks, and experience all make animal learning much more complex and information-rich than the concept of “instinct” implied. But we are not yet in the realm of “intelligence.” The migrating and nest-building birds access existing solutions to longstanding problems; they do not come up with new ones.

Both birds and mammals can learn to solve new problems presented to them. Let’s look at some recent finds in mammals first, bearing in mind that we have only really begun to look at their intelligence seriously. It is early days yet, so some sketchiness is inevitable.

Mammals’ Unexpected Intelligence

We find intelligence where we did not expect it. Pigs, for example (despite their reputation), are “socially complex as other intelligent mammals, including primates” (Natural History Magazine). That is surprising because pigs don’t usually form close relationships with humans, as dogs do. And hog farming operations don’t encourage intelligence.

We know more about the intelligent animal we are close to. In terms of communication, horses’ surprisingly varied facial expressions are more similar to those of humans on one measurement than those of chimps are:

The Equine Facial Action Coding System (EquiFACS), as devised by the Sussex team in collaboration with researchers at the University of Portsmouth and Duquesne University, identified 17 “action units” (discrete facial movements) in horses. This compares with 27 in humans, 13 in chimps and 16 in dogs.

That might account for the human-horse bond (there seems no similar chimp-horse bond).

Horses’, dogs’, and cats’ tail communications are also easy to read (they are intended to be). So just as dogs can understand finger pointing even though they don’t have fingers, humans can understand some dog messages even though we don’t have tails. The habit of co-operative communication can overcome physical barriers.

Thus, one understudied question is whether and when mammal intelligence changes on account of association with humans. Let us say that an indoor domestic dog or cat is freed from the need to hunt, protect herself, or raise offspring. Consequently, she enjoys a vastly increased life expectancy. Some such animals focus on status issues with respect to people and other dogs/cats, etc., generating layers of social complexity that are unlikely in a wilderness environment. She shows no progress toward human intelligence, but her human environment may determine how much canine or feline intelligence she lives to display.

“Feathered Primates” without Primate Brains?

Ravens can match or beat chimpanzees on some accepted tests of animal intelligence. Some researchers call crows “feathered primates.” New Zealand crows’ causal understanding (within limits) is said to rival that of 5-7 year old children. Or 7- to 10-year old children.

Some New Caledonian crows can use three tools in succession to reach food, and can also enact Aesop’s fable by dropping stones into a jar of water till floating food rises.

It’s not just crows. Pigeons’ ability with numbers up to nine is “indistinguishable from that displayed by monkeys.” Even the intelligence of the chicken “startles,” according to Scientific American (“communication skills on par with those of some primates”).

But how do we understand bird intelligence, given that bird brains show significant differences from mammal brains? And we can hardly fall back on common ancestry.

Language ability is an uncertain guide. Some birds are popularly held to be intelligent because they can imitate the human voice. This ability may be related to structural features of those bird species’ brains:

In addition to having defined centers in the brain that control vocal learning called “cores,” parrots have what the scientists call “shells,” or outer rings, which are also involved in vocal learning.

That “shell” structure may be related to some parrots’ ability to dance to music as well. But these birds probably don’t know what they are saying or doing apart from the fact that, like the bicycling cockatoo, they are typically rewarded for doing it.

Alex the parrot (1976-2007), possibly the most famous “intelligent bird” personality, could use human language to communicate needs. However, he had only typical parrot needs. Alex was not achieving more human-like intelligence–as his researcher and patron Irene Pepperberg acknowledged:

“I avoid the language issue,” she said. “I’m not making claims. His behavior gets more and more advanced, but I don’t believe years from now you could interview him.” She continued: “What little syntax he has is very simplistic. Language is what you and I are doing, an incredibly complex form of communication.”

Put another way, if an intelligent dog had “vocal cords” (a syrinx) like a parrot, he could tell a human in words that he needs to go outside or have his water dish refilled. But he does not go on to express interest in things that do not naturally concern a dog.

One interesting thing we learned recently about smart crows is that they don’t depend much on learning from each other (social learning):

Logan and colleagues found that the crows don’t imitate or copy actions at all. “So there goes that theory,” she said. …

Even if one crow is at an apparatus and tries unsuccessfully to open the door, if he or she sees another crow on the second apparatus actually solving the problem correctly, the first crow doesn’t use that information. “The social learning attracts them to a particular object and then they solve it through trial and error learning after that,” Logan said.

The crows’ pattern of learning seems different from human learning, and may be related to an inability to grasp or convey abstract information. Which brings us to the recent claim that crows fear death because many crows purposefully avoid places where other crows have died:

And this fear of a potential deadly situation stays with them. Even six weeks later more than a third of 65 pairs of crows continued to respond this way.

But, like the claim that chimpanzees mourn their dead, this one is founded on a misunderstanding: “Death” — unlike danger or loss, which are experienced viscerally — is a pure abstraction, like the number 23. An intelligent life form must understand not merely nature but the nature of nature to know what “death” means.

So we come to a culturally unexpected conclusion: Bird intelligence is a respectable competitor on a continuum with primate intelligence. But, like theirs, it is on a different track from that of humans.

Then There Are Those Cold-Blooded Reptiles and Fish…

A number of recent marketing strategies promise sales through appealing to a customer’s “self-centered” reptilian brain. But that piece of business folk wisdom is based on a myth:

It is the idea that we have three brains: a reptilian one, the paleomammalian one and the mammalian one. The story goes that these were acquired one after another during evolution. The details differ with the writer. But it is all a myth based on an idea from the ’70s of Paul MacLean which he republished in 1990. Over the years in has been popularized by Sagan and Koestler among others.

The brain is hardly so simple. Reptiles lack certain brain structures found in mammals, but like birds they sometimes use the ones they have for purposes that apparently display intelligence: Crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles) are reported to use sticks as decoys, play, and work in teams. Tortoises may well be smarter than once believed, though here we rely mainly on anecdotes, not formal studies, for now.

Even fish have shown signs of what seems like intelligence. We are told that pairs of rabbitfishes “cooperate and support each other while feeding”:

While such behaviour has been documented for highly social birds and mammals, it has previously been believed to be impossible for fishes. … “We found that rabbitfish pairs coordinate their vigilance activity quite strictly, thereby providing safety for their foraging partner,” says Dr Simon Brandl from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Why don’t reptiles and fish appear intelligent? Here is a possible clue: Anole lizards were found as capable as tits (birds) in a problem-solving test for a food reward. But the anoles, being exothermic, don’t need much food — which hinders research. When reptiles and fish need to solve problems, they often use the brain structures available to them quite effectively. The rest of the time they may be comfortably inert. If so, the relationship between brain structure and intelligence is more complex than we have supposed.

Factors That May Promote Intelligence in Vertebrates

We have seen that, while brain structure is not the absolute limitation once supposed, cold-bloodedness (exothermic metabolism) may reduce the need for intelligence without actually preventing it. Conversely, living with humans may promote intelligence by creating systematic rewards for achievement. Nature, it is true, rewards intelligence, but not systematically, like a dedicated trainer seeking a response. So there are rough general trends in intelligence, as in evolution, but they appear to be patterns, not laws.

Do the patterns relate in some way to anatomy? Can we say, for example, that intelligence requires a multicellular life form that has a spinal column and a brain? What can the vast world of invertebrates tell us about that?

Editor’s note: Find the full “Animal Minds” series to date here.

American crow, by Julius Bien [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.



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