Animal Cognition: Who is Really “Top Dog”?

Though Descartes insisted that any thinking being must have a soul, and hinted that animals did in fact think, he refused to take a public position on the issue because the Catholic Church – the ruling entity at the time – taught otherwise.

The Catholic church has since changed its position. In a public audience on January 19, 1990, Pope John Paul II said, “also the animals possess a soul and men must love and feel solidarity with smaller brethren”.

Unfortunately for Descartes, it’s too late to go public. Not so for the rest of us, and proof of animal cognition is everywhere.

Why, then, do we persist in viewing animals as lesser beings, subject to our will? Why are we not able to perceive that animals may be as important to the cosmic scheme of things as we are? Is a mouse less necessary to the universe than a man, and if so, why? Because of its size, its inability to vocalize, its failure to use tools or technology, or is it simply because we humans deem it lacking in the same kind of intelligence we imagine we possess? What is intelligence, anyway? For that matter, what is a soul?

In Loring Park, Minneapolis, the crows have funerals. They surround their fallen brethren in silence, occasionally touching the stilled, black feathers with a beak, as though to breathe life into what was once animate. Sometimes they caw softly, a melancholy sound that perfectly fits the palpably funereal atmosphere. These funerals can last up to half a hour, and then the living silently take wing, filling the sky with inky shadows. If this is not sorrow, and the morbid curiosity that accompanies death, I don’t know what is.

Elsewhere, Friederike Range from the University of Vienna demonstrates that dogs are able to learn the complex classifications for a series of color photographs and place them in categories in exactly the same way a human would. In other words, the dogs don’t merely perform the task by rote, but actually interpret and process information to arrive at the sorting methodology. If that isn’t intelligence, I don’t know what is.

In Florida and California, scrub jays have been observed hiding food from their fellow birds, all of whom are notorious thieves. In the wild, they appear to know the “expiration date” on these stashes, and eat the perishable ones first. In captivity, they hide food supplies in areas of the compound where no breakfast is provided. My butcher still hasn’t mastered the former skill, nor my son the latter.

Rio, a 7-year old sea lion who lives at the Sea-Lion Cognitive Laboratory in Santa Cruz, California, can work out that if A equals B, and B equals C, then C equals A. This understanding of mathematical transitivity is remarkable. I consider myself relatively intelligent, but I gave up on these kinds of equations in high school. Rio can also pair symbols, letters and pictures with equivalent values, proving that he understands the concept of symmetry. A fair portion of adults taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) do not do as well as Rio.

Hob, a male falcon owned by Paul Gillott, once solicited his owner’s help in getting prey out of a rabbit hole. This behavior is singularly unheard of, and few humans with the gift of speech are as articulate in asking for help. Shigeru Watanabe of Japan’s Keio University has demonstrated that pigeons can recognize artists, and artistic styles (pointillism, for example) even in paintings they haven’t seen before – and even when the paintings are hung upside down. Ninety five percent of humans don’t know the difference between Chiaroscuro and Cubism. Sheep recognize faces, and avoid an overly rough shearer based solely on his features. Bees also apparently recognize faces. Most adults can’t remember a face unless they see it regularly over a two or three day period. Parrots, and their smaller cousins the parakeets, can converse intelligently. Parakeets are difficult to understand because their speech is so rapid, but Alex, a grey parrot, can not only talk in a relatively human fashion, he has proven cognitive abilities. That is, he recognizes the concept of zero. Alex died recently.

Unfortunately, psychologists refuse to attribute intelligence to an animal if its behavior can be explained away in simpler terms, and people – ever “aping” those they perceive to be superior – have largely adopted this attitude. When pet owners describe their pet’s intelligent behaviors, naysayers call it anthropomorphism (the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to nonhuman beings). Just the definition rankles; animals may not be human, but they are clearly sentient and capable of a wide range of emotions. Before you frown in disbelief, consider the fact that not very long ago scientists believed animals couldn’t feel pain and performed surgical procedures without anesthetic. We now know that even plants feel pain, and can communicate at great distances with one another. and with members of the insect world.

Mirror neurons make evolution and language possible. Human vocal cords make language feasible, but verbalization is not the only form of communication. Animals possess telepathic powers, which we humans apparently surrendered with the advent of language, but who is to say which is the more effective form of communication, or which demonstrates more intelligence?

These discoveries of animal cognition (and twenty first century science as a whole) are leading us back into a world we once inhabited, where all creatures lived in harmony and respect for one another and the sublime mystery of life. If the planet is to survive, with all its species intact, we must make this move willingly, recognizing that we are not the only relevant life-form on earth, and perhaps not even its most intelligent member, but part of a biosphere where all creatures interact to create a balanced ecosystem.

Before all the birds and bees and whales and bats are gone, it’s time to realize that we cannot live without them, but they can live without us. So who is really “top dog” here?

Carolyn Ehrlich LCSW, CGP specializes in Relationship Counseling Tribeca. I increase your self- awareness and help you gain more insight into your inner-life. We’ll work together so you can get more out of every day and meet any challenge life throws at you.