October 27, 2006
Wall Street Journal has article "What Your Pet is Thinking."
The article, by Sharon Begley, actually focuses not on "your pet" but on nonhuman intelligence.
It opens with the description of a dog who hated the sound of the ringing telephone so would pick up the receiver and put it back down again to shut it up.
We read about research animal intelligence are told:
"The research is also coloring thinking about everything from science labs to farms and food-production facilities."
I will share the passage on the test of primate awareness:
"At the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Robert Hampton, who has made some of the field's most significant findings, studies whether rhesus monkeys know if they know something.
In one series of experiments, he gave the monkeys memory tests over a period of weeks. After seeing four images on a monitor, the monkeys would be asked to choose which one they had seen before.
But before taking the test, the monkeys had a choice of pressing one of two icons whose meaning they already knew. One meant, 'Yup, I'm ready to take the test.' The other meant, 'No test for me, thanks.'
They had an incentive to take it only if they remembered the target image: Failing the test brought them no reward, passing it got them a handful of peanuts, and declining to take the test got them monkey-chow pellets, which they don't like as much as peanuts but are better than nothing.
"When the monkeys chose to take the test, they passed more than 80% of the time, apparently declining to take the test when their memory was poor. When they weren't given a choice and Prof. Hampton gave them the test anyway, they chose the correct image much less often.
That suggests they knew the contents of their memory and assessed it before deciding whether to take the test -- a sign of self-reflective consciousness. 'The monkeys know whether they remember something,' says Prof. Hampton, who reported his latest monkey findings in May in the journal Behavioural Processes."
It is disturbing to read about monkeys held captive in facilities nothing like their native jungles, just so that we can perform tests that satisfy our curiosity about their thinking.
But given that primates are still used in lethal tests for new household products, or for studying illegal drugs such as ecstasy, perhaps we have to be willing, for now, to accept the tests that bring knowledge that we hope will make those lethal tests illegal.
The article also shares evidence of animal emotions such as compassion, looking particularly at elephants.
Then as usual we hear from the critics who don't want to believe that animals have consciousness or emotional life. They don't want to believe that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is probably a duck -- and that it might have a reason, other than "instinct," for quacking.
Begley, while presenting their viewpoint, makes her own feelings about their stance clear in her final paragraph:
"The trouble is that all sorts of animals -- from those in the African bush to those in your living room -- keep acting as if they truly do have emotions remarkably like humans.
Last month, Ya Ya, a panda in a Chinese zoo, accidentally crushed her newborn to death. She seemed inconsolable -- wailing and frantically searching for the tiny body. The keeper said that when he called her name, she just looked up at him with tear-filled eyes before lowering her head again.
The conventional view is that these were instinctive, reflexive reactions, and that Ya Ya didn't know she was sad. As the evidence for animal consciousness piles up, that view becomes harder to support."
You'll find the full article on line at:
As the article notes, what we are learning about animal intelligence should have repercussions. Please consider sending letters to the journal expressing appreciation for the story and commenting on the way our society currently treats other animals and how that should change.
Please make sure not to use any of my language in your letters.