Do non-human animals have minds? This paper explores the possibility of the validity of the philosophical viewpoint that suggests that humans are not the only animals on our planet that have minds; that other animals are capable of conscious thought. It attempts to determine the consensus of informed opinion on the subject, in order to arrive at what might be considered to be the majority and hopefully correct answer.
Mountain (April 2013) published a feature entitled “Scientists Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious” which clearly came down on the side of deciding that those creatures do have minds. In his opening remarks, Mountain reported that leading scientists had reached agreement that in addition to the human race, other fellow Earth dwellers such as various mammals and birds also possess consciousness. He also noted that although the man in the street readily concludes that actions by animals, especially our domestic pets, can “correctly” be interpreted as conscious acts, the scientists adopt a more cautious approach before reaching any such conclusion. However, an official decision supporting the concept of animal consciousness was announced in July 2012 at the conclusion of a conference at Cambridge University in the UK.
Mountain reported that although the announcement did not try to offer a precise definition for consciousness in that regard, it did include statements that supported “near human-like levels of consciousness” in certain parrot species, and that other bird species possessed “neurophysiological patterns” with strong similarities to humans and other mammals such as apes, elephants and dolphins. Mountain regarded this announcement as particularly relevant in terms of encouraging efforts to establish better relationships with other animals For example, the concept of experimenting on animals is perhaps less palatable if they are not considered as mere biological devices, but as thinking, conscious beings.
An earlier research paper by Penn & Povinelli (2007), published by the Royal Society, discussed the apparent lack of consensus on whether “non-human animals understand anything about the unobservable mental states of other animals or even what it would mean for a non-verbal animal to understand the concept of a ‘mental state’.” They tabled four specific questions that they stated need to be answered to provide confirmation:
- What is meant by a non-verbal creature being able to understand or represent the mental state of another?
- What should be considered as compelling evidence to that effect?
- Why has experimentation to date produced no such evidence?
- What sort of experiments might conceivably provide such evidence?
Throughout their paper the authors used the term Theory of Mind (ToM) to describe this possible capability of non-human animals, in other words whether it can be said that they have a mind. Beginning with the basic assumption that “cognitive agents – biological or otherwise – can learn from their past experience” the authors accepted that other factors affect the behavior, such as sensory perceptions, the physical limits of capability of the animal’s body, and more.
Penn & Povinelli discussed a number of elaborate experimental procedures – predominantly involving chimpanzees – seeking to prove or disprove the theory, but ultimately offered no conclusive evidence of animals having minds, stating in closing that “the problem is that there is still no evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling one” (a mind).
Morell (March 2008) offered a more positive view in her article “Animal Minds” published by National Geographic, opening with a phrase “Animals are smarter than you think.” The first subject of her article was an African gray parrot (one-year old in 1977, and that lived until the age of 31). His owner, Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard graduate, taught her parrot (who she named Alex) to talk. She had planned to teach Alex the English language sounds with the objective of communicating with each other. As Morell pointed out, this was at the time when “animals still were considered automatons.” She noted that pet owners would not agree with that view, although recognizing that what we perceive in our dog’s eyes as love does not in any way constitute scientific proof. It was with that in mind – finding such proof – that Pepperberg claimed to have begun her experimenting with Alex.
Morell mentioned that key indicators of possession of a higher mental capability include memory, an ability to recognize symbols, as well as “self-awareness, understanding others’ motives, imitating others, and being creative.” She reported that researchers have progressively identified and documented these abilities in various animal species, including scrub jays, sheep, chimpanzees, dolphins, and even the archerfish, which learns to hunt by observing another more experienced “colleague.”
As far as Alex the parrot is concerned, he did progress remarkably well with not just talking but in demonstrating signs of innate intelligence. He was able to vocalize answers to questions like “What is the same? – Answer: “Color.” “What is different?” Answer: “Shape” and much more, even asking for a grape or to be taken to his nearby tree. Pepperberg was also training other younger parrots and Alex would occasionally utter “Talk clearly!” if one of his fellow parrot trainees was obviously mispronouncing a word. Overall, Pepperberg was convinced that Alex possessed cognition, which she also saw as being an inherent requirement of his species as a long-lived creature that normally functions in a relatively complex society.
Morell recalled that Darwin had ascribed intelligence to even such lowly species as earthworms, but that his theories had been “cast aside” at the beginning of the last century, though there are signs of a slow return to his ideas. Morell suggested that Darwin’s theories support the idea that human intelligence evolved, a concept that she believes can apply equally to other animal species, and which as a result of new studies is gaining credence in the scientific community.
Morell also reported intelligence tests with chimpanzees and certain species of birds including scrub jays and the New Caledonian Crows, all of which were able to demonstrate cognitive abilities and learning capabilities, albeit some in quite different ways. She also recounted how dolphins could be trained to imitate human movements, indicating that a dolphin possesses self-awareness in order to be able translate the movement of a human body structure into equivalent movements of its own quite different body shape. Those who conducted the described dolphin experiments were so convinced of their intelligence that they described the dolphins as “colleagues” elevating them way above the status of mere experimental subjects.
Science News published another relatively recent article (Smith et al., March 2012) entitled “Do Animals Have Reflective Minds Able to Self-Regulate Perception, Reasoning, Memory?” In some respects it offered the same view as the article by Mountain mentioned earlier; i.e. that the non-human animals – like humans – can reflect on their “mental processes” and can “guide and optimize them.” The research team evaluated the way standards have historically been applied in the areas of scientific interpretation of “animal metacognition” and described how the more recent studies with dolphins and later with monkeys, have led them to support the growing view that “animals share with humans a form of the self-reflective, metacognitive capacity.” (Smith et al., March 2012).
In yet another article “Evidence that animals can think about thinking” (Sep 2009) it was stated that there is “growing evidence that animals may share humans’ ability to reflect upon, monitor and regulate their states of mind.” This article also referred to studies by David Smith in the field of “animal metacognition.” Describing how humans are able to have feelings of uncertainty, research has been undertaken to determine if non-human animals have that same capability, and can “think about thinking.” Various species of animals were studied in this quest, including a dolphin, macaque monkeys and others. Using tests carefully designed to see if animals had these capabilities, it was found that in some species, there was evidence of equivalence to human qualities of consciousness and of self-awareness; although in other species (including pigeons and certain monkey types) those qualities were not found.
De Waal (March 2013) claimed that “New research shows that we have grossly underestimated both the scope and the scale of animal intelligence.” In his article for the Wall Street Journal: The Brains of the Animal Kingdom” he described what he saw as clear evidence that non-human animals have greater intelligence than we have previously assumed, and sometimes in surprising ways.
The first example he described concerned Ayumu, a young chimpanzee at a Japanese university who – in tests in 2007 – demonstrated remarkable memory capabilities. Shown the numbers 1 to 9 on a screen in random order, but for “just a fraction of a second” Ayumu was able to unfailingly recall them every time. Tested against humans, he was best in every case.
DeWaal maintained that the problem with earlier tests on animals was that in many instances the tests were designed by humans (of course), but were not designed to test the animals on their terms.
An example with elephants was that experimenters tried to make elephants use a stick to reach for food that was located out of reach, not realizing that the elephant’s trunk is its organ also used for smell, with vision being only secondary, and that as soon as it grasps a stick in its trunk, it can no longer smell. Instead, a more recent experiment provided the elephant with a number of sticks and a large box. In order to reach the food, suspended out of reach, the elephant did not use the sticks, but instead kicked the box progressively into position below the food, then stood up onto the box so that the food could be retrieved. This showed the researchers that elephants can use tools, but tools that suit their anatomy and physique. The same experiments were successful even when the box was initially placed some distance away and out of sight of the elephant, showing that the elephant could recall how the problem had been solved previously, but would have to first head away from the prize to achieve success. Another recent elephant experiment described was a “self-awareness” test. Researchers placed a white cross on an elephant’s forehead, then allowed the elephant to see its own reflection in a very large mirror. The elephant rubbed the cross with its trunk several times, demonstrating that she saw the reflection as just that, in other words she was looking at herself.
Other recent experiments with chimpanzees showed they were capable of recognizing individual faces when shown pictures of other chimpanzees, though earlier experiments had failed because those used pictures of humans – faulty experimental technique!
The more recent research has shown – partly due to recognizing that better techniques were needed – that many species of non-human animals do possess minds, in the sense that they have intelligence, they can learn, they can demonstrate good memory capabilities, and in some species can show evidence of self-awareness. For many years, we have been aware that some animal species are capable of using tools. In the case of the New Caledonian crows, they can even fashion tools from basic materials.
Earlier experiments had mostly failed to demonstrate evidence of animals having minds, perhaps in part due to a generally held assumption that they did not, and in part due to inadequate or faulty experimental techniques. No doubt further work is still needed but results so far are encouraging to say the least.
De Waal, F. (March 2013). The Brains of the Animal Kingdom.” Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323869604578370574285382756.html
“Evidence that animals can think about thinking.” (Sep 2009). European Science Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.esf.org/media-centre/ext-single-news/article/evidence-that-animals-can-think-about-thinking-590.html
Morell, V. (March 2008). Animal Minds. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/animal-minds/virginia-morell-text
Mountain, M. (Jul 2012). Scientists Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious. Earth in Transition. Retrieved from http://www.earthintransition.org/2012/07/scientists-declare-nonhuman-animals-are-conscious/
Penn, D., C, & Povinelli, D., J. (2007). On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’. The Royal Society, 10.1098/rstb.2006.2023 Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 29 April 2007 vol. 362 no. 1480 731-744. Retrieved from http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/362/1480/731.full
Smith, D., Couchman, J., J., & Beran, M., J. (March 2012). Do Animals Have Reflective Minds Able to Self-Regulate Perception, Reasoning, Memory? Science News. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120322131504.htm