Mark Twain once said, “It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.” So, perhaps measuring animal intelligence by comparing it to human intelligence isn’t the best litmus test.
But, in the just-released Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, a prominent group of scientists has declared that humans are not unique in ways that matter. Stand on their toes or tentacles, snatch their offspring from their arms or their arboreal nest, and any animal will feel the same way about it as would you or I. The question is, knowing this what do we do about it?
Hundreds of studies have already shown animals’ logical, mathematical, linguistic, and emotional intelligence. For years we blithely believed that humans were the only species to use tools, until researchers documented that octopuses carry coconut shells as portable hiding places, crows use sticks to dig in the ground for grubs, and many other examples. Fish’s mathematical abilities are on par with those of monkeys, dolphins, and bright young human children.
We know that Elephants flirt with each other, cows shed tears, and monkeys have refused to pull a chain to access their only source of food if doing so caused another monkey to suffer a painful electric shock. In that famous study, one monkey starved and went without water for nearly two weeks to avoid hurting his fellow. A similar study done with human subjects showed that 65 percent of people continued to give other people increasingly strong electric shocks if an experimenter told them to do so. It’s not the monkeys who need their heads examined!
One of the Declaration’s signatories is Irene Pepperberg, whose work with a parrot named Alex showed that birds can learn meaningful English. Alex could even communicate his feelings in English.
Can any human speak even one word of another animal’s language? No, but perhaps it’s better that way, because if we could speak to them, how would we explain our systematic use and abuse of all the other species?
It’s interesting that one of the definitions of the word “human” is “sympathetic.” More and more people are beginning to show that they understand why that is important.