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Do animals think?

February 12, 2015

The likelihood is that you are of the opinion that animals don’t “think” as we do. The first error to point out is the assumption that “as we do” is a symbol of intelligence. There are some aspects of human thought which are symbols of intelligence and some which are not. Superstition is not especially a sign of intelligence, even if it is unique to intelligent beings – it is more of an unfortunate by-product of increased intelligence, whereby we over-interpret the insignificant. On the other hand, ability and willingness to communicate is certainly a sign of intelligence, and we share this trait with many other species. So, there is a difference between to “think” and to “think as we do”. Of course, as humans have defined the word “think”, if one claims that animals do, their thoughts must bear a passing resemblance to our own. I will later argue that they do. However, the thought processes need not be identical, any more than human thoughts are identical to each other.

Another reason that we assume animals don’t think is because we assume they cannot think. There is no precedent for this conclusion; it is merely passed down to us from adults when we are children and few of us have gone back to examine it since. In my experience, those who talk about how obvious it is that animals don’t think, those who are convinced of it, have considerably less experience with animals than your average person. If anything, zoologists and other animal experts have a tendency to theorise more complexity in their chosen subject, be it snakes, cows or magpies, than your average sceptical onlooker is willing to accept. We should not take that as proof of anything, but rather evidence of a society that feels most comfortable considering itself superior to others (of which “other species” is only one of many kinds of alienated groups).

Our observation of animals certainly shows them to be without written word and without “culture”, in the artistic sense of the word. However, we now know that they communicate at length using a variety of signals and we are still figuring out the complexity of this. You may know that dolphins communicate with a series of complex sounds; you may not know that prairie dogs are now considered by experts to be one of the animals with the most advanced levels of spoken communication, able to describe the size, colour, species and location of a predator within just a few short squeaks. We also know that animals have social lives and groups and we know they have emotional complexities we have before overlooked; observations show that elephants travel to visit the bones of their ancestors, something that wasn’t commonly known a few years ago.

We may have to consider the possibility that, despite the fact that we all come from the same planet and are made up of the same elements, that doesn’t mean we are predictably similar; certainly, those who believe there is intelligent life on other planets expect these beings to be more similar to us than single-celled organisms on Earth. We now know there are creatures here who see parts of the light spectrum invisible to us: infra-red and ultra-violet. We have seen that neurology is so complex, we have not by any means cracked every process of the human brain – by far the most studied of all living brains – let alone the brains of other species. When we look, we can see “activity” in the brain, but can only make intelligent guesses as to what the stimulus is, and hypothesise what the activity means.

In short, assumptions persist even when we realise how little we know about everything. That animals don’t think is a major assumption that might be unfalsifiable. It has certainly been tested inconclusively, with some tests tending to indicate mental processes like recognition of individuals, and others suggesting loyal friendships. These small parallels to our own world ought to be enough to open our minds to unexpected complexities in the animal kingdom.

It may be the case that when we see animals standing idle, we assume that they are not thinking. It is easy to accuse people who imagine that animals are thinking of unwarranted anthropomorphism, but it is possible to do this and draw the opposite conclusion; to see what we, with our human features, could think of as a blank or goofy expression in an animal, and assume that this means it does not think. All it means is that the animal looks different, and precious few of us have learned to tell what is really being indicated by those features. Creatures that express emotions in different contexts for different reasons have no reason to display exactly the same facial expressions as we do; though, that said, there are some striking resemblances in the ways that grief, fear and anger are expressed, and some more complex emotions such as boredom in other primates.

Evidence does not support the idea that animals that stand around for a long time, doing nothing, are less intelligent than ones that are constantly busy. Consistently across the spectrum, it is actually the animals with the larger brains that tend to lay or stand about for long periods of time, particularly mammals. An animal’s intelligence is usually estimated by the size of its brain compared to the rest of its body, and for the most part brain sizes between species grow proportionally larger with the body as the body gets larger; that is to say, larger animals are typically more intelligent, with notable exceptions. We, and other great apes, are smaller but more intelligent than blue whales, while crows and rats are smarter than a great many larger animals. For now, let’s put aside creatures that have been bred by us, as their development is atypical in this respect – pigs and dogs are unusually intelligent in ways we rank highly as humans. I will return to the question of domestic bred animals later.

Insects constantly move, eat, breed, look for food or otherwise work, whereas elephants often stand in groups, doing very little. Dolphins play, chimpanzees and gorillas groom, lions and other big cats sleep and sunbathe all the time – it is theorised that a large amount of sleep is required for large brains, for the purposes of mental restoration and development, hence why we and particularly our infants sleep deeply for so long. Some grazing animals, like goats, jump about because they must be agile to climb trees and eat the leaves up there – the jumping is usually play, valuable practice for later. Admittedly, this is not as starkly inactive as standing around in a field, but consider that a creature which must graze constantly on the ground and chew cud cannot expend energy running about for no reason, but instead must stand still as much as possible, chewing and/or digesting.

Our current understanding of nature is that more advanced creatures generally need motivations for any necessary behaviour, in order that they will continue doing it, and thus live. Nature’s best motivation for anything is pleasure; see the goats’ and dolphins’ play, and the grooming. The reason why eating, reproduction and practising climbing, running and jumping are often pleasurable is because without this motivation, we wouldn’t seek to do these things often enough. Those who enjoy doing what they must do in order to survive have a greater tendency to do it reliably to the required degree, and thus live long enough to breed and pass on their genes.

I perceive that this could be true for animals that stand around endlessly. These creatures are usually herd animals. If they were to wander off, not only would the expend energy uselessly, but they would also break up the group, exposing themselves to danger. Newborns of these species seem to “know” this, without having any way of actually knowing it from experience. So, instinct is the driving force behind standing still, and creatures of that brain size require enjoyment as motivation for behaviour. There must be enjoyment, or comfort, in standing in the group.

Often, however, there is no visible interaction going on. Whatever comfort they are deriving from being in numbers, they aren’t acting as though they are part of a large number, but rather as if they’re oblivious to each other. Perhaps they are happy just with the presence of other bodies, perhaps they are communicating in ways we don’t yet know, or, it’s just possible that some further motivation is needed for standing around, not doing anything. Could that motivation be the pleasure of experiencing one’s world – that is to say, thinking?

I have often wondered where we humans get some of our universal feelings from – why we are awed by the sky, enjoy being by water, on grass, or around trees. Appreciation of nature doesn’t especially serve any purpose – it can’t be a survival strategy, since no creature needs encouragement by nature to enjoy being in it; in our evolutionary past, we would have had absolutely no alternative but to be in nature.

Appreciation is imaginative. It involves looking at the world you live in and interpreting it, in order to derive positive feeling. We surely appreciate art for the same reason; our imagination is such that shapes that have no obvious relevance to us are interesting to look at. Certain types of animals have a similar response to shape and colour. This interest could come from the curiosity that allows creatures to explore, grow and exploit a niche. In that case, animals with large brains could not be entirely without the ability to appreciate, even things which serve no obvious purpose.

I consider the possibility that when animals stand still for long periods of time, apparently without motivation, they have the ability to appreciate their surroundings. I have only one reason to think it: it better fits with what we know about people and animals than the alternative. Research has never conclusively shown that animals don’t think. That may be impossible. It has, however, shown that keeping animals in plain, artificial, dull or cramped spaces, or spaces too distinctly different to their natural habitat, has a strange effect on their behaviour. This matches changes to human behaviour wherever we are subjected to insufficiently stimulating conditions, such as total darkness, or rooms that are too quiet. The implication, then, is that under-stimulated animals are unhappy animals.

Stimulation comes from outside the self and within, and these parts are co-dependent. We can’t imagine much for long without input and we cannot process input without imagination. So, input and the ability to process it seems integral to the well-being of animals. Following this, it makes little sense for a large-brained animal, like a horse, to stand stock still in a field for hours on end and not process any of its surroundings; it makes less sense to assume that horses do not think than it does to assume that they do, albeit in a way less advanced than our own mental processes. It should be noted that domestic horses are a special case. They are intelligent enough to be trained, to accept circumstances in return for rewards (be these in food or in social connection to humans). The result is that they are more commonly put in situations of this sort and their capacity to accept them is increased. “Capacity” is an important word here, and we will return to it later.

It is generally felt that animals raised in tandem with humans have grown tendencies that help them relate to humans better. It is possible that a horse’s tendency to stand around contentedly in situations that render no obvious benefit is increased by relating to humans. Our assumption is that we have selectively bred horses for docility and thus made them stupid. I see no reason for this assumption. If there is no precedent to do so, we should not apply between species what does not occur within species (since by the process of natural selection, the two are related); more docile human beings are not proven to be less intelligent than more aggressive or highly strung ones. Thus, just because we have bred horses to be docile and accepting of their situation, which we have similarly done with dogs, this is no reason to imagine that they are also too stupid to respond to their situation.

If we think about it, it is odd that horses put up with what we have historically put them through; heavy loads, long hours, danger, stress, injuries. Horses’ trust can be broken, yet they and other equine put up with extraordinary things from humans. Why do they do it? It looks like stupidity to us because we have the benefit of a broader understanding of circumstance and human nature; we know wars lead to death, pre-war conflicts led to mass horse death and that warring humans won’t try to spare horses’ lives in battle. In addition, we are self-interested (often with good reason), unlike creatures we might call loyal, such as dogs, which stay when told to stay more reliably than horses; yet, unlike when horses wait around, we praise dogs and their intelligence for waiting when instructed. It could be loyalty that keeps a horse sitting placidly under a member of the cavalry, or it could just be the standing-around ability of horses. The ability, you’ll recall, I attributed to the ability to think.

No doubt, this hypothetical horse-thought isn’t following the logic of human thought; obviously, they are not philosophising at length over the futility of war, or there would have been an unmanageable mass of equine deserters. But, as stated earlier, there is no reason to imagine that, if they existed, advanced equine would think in exactly the same way as advanced primates. What’s frustrating about that idea is that it makes it very unlikely that those two sets of people would ever understand each other; thus, we are cursed, in all likelihood, never to know what animals think. In any case we can guess that, if horses do not think as we do, they will not behave as we do.

That said, it is not true to say that only horses and other lesser mammals put up with conditions that are unfair to them or undesirable without good reason. Throughout human history, we have repeatedly weathered oppression by stronger forces than us, accepted their authority and made little attempt to challenge it. Indeed, attempts to challenge the established order have often been met with disapproval if not outright aggression by members of the oppressed group themselves, who crave order and familiarity so much, they are able to convince themselves that something unjust is just.

I am not suggesting that the psychology of a horse is this complex, merely that an apparently unintelligent tendency to stand about in the middle of wars – when it makes more sense to swiftly bugger off – is not necessarily a sign of an absence of thought. If anything, I would think it takes a remarkable level of self-control to face terrifying danger and not buck your rider off and disappear into the woods, as all horses are undoubtedly capable of doing. Since this is surely the natural reaction, it is strange not to assume there is some motivation for not doing so, and consider that perhaps this motivation is reasoned, albeit in a basic way. Reasoning ability is, of course, a type of thought.

Earlier I said we should discount pigs and dogs from discussions of brain size in relation to intelligence because they have been raised alongside us, as have horses. This is interesting in itself, for it says something about the potential of animals. Whereas dogs may well have been bred to be more intelligent, as we find their intelligence appealing, pigs have certainly not been purposefully bred to be intelligent. If pigs are more intelligent in the human world than in the wild (not easy to test), is it because our influence has rubbed off on them? Other creatures that relate to humans indirectly are intelligent, too; I mentioned crows and rats, consider also foxes and grey squirrels.

They rely in large part on humans, without being given free hand-outs, so they have altered their behaviour to compliment not only our habits but our complex technologies. Every time a company brings out a new anti-squirrel bird feeder, the little blighters find a way around it within a relatively short amount of time. This suggests that, not over a number of centuries or millennia, but over a mere few generations, some animals at least have the capacity to learn how to deal with with new, complex systems of our invention. This suggests a potential of thought – problem-solving abilities that we use to define intelligence, well beyond what is laboriously given by natural selection.

Potential is an important part of the discussion about animal intelligence. What a creature routinely does, and what it can do, are evidently different. Some are required to act beyond what we might consider typical, thus they must have the framework within them, as individuals, to change behaviour. I suggest this is the difference between consciousness and lack of consciousness, and I suggest that, when we discuss humans at least, “thinking” and “consciousness” are closely related. While we may say a computer “thinks”, we silently recognise that this process is fundamentally different to our own thinking processes. Those who discuss consciousness generally agree that computers don’t have it. They do not “experience” their world as we do – they don’t feel, they don’t question, they don’t explore because they have no interest.

I would add that an integral part of consciousness is the ability to think outside the box. If you give a computer a problem it is not programmed to solve, it will either fail to respond, or else respond erratically or dysfunctionally. It can only do what is within its pre-set programming parameters. Animals, on the other hand, have a surprising tendency to react to things completely outside their realm of experience. They may react with fear, they may react with curiosity, they may utilise the situation to their advantage. They may respond in entirely the wrong way, not cautiously enough for example, and this may bring them to an early grave. But ultimately, they all react. They do not, as a computer does, just instantly cease to function at all – effectively, die. They have the capacity to respond to things they have never seen and deal with them accordingly.

I believe that this consciousness is the essence of thought, and intelligence as we define it when we are not talking about man-made machines. If you can react to the unpredictable, that means you are not a machine drawn from a schematic, but apparently more than the sum of your parts. It suggests that you can analyse a situation, understand it to some degree, and respond accordingly. It is a type of adaptation clearly integral to the natural world, since without the ability to do this, no creature would be equipped to take part in an “arms race” with its predator or prey.

One assumption of natural selection is that the arms race is the war of the genetic mutations, that when a foe develops an advantageous mutation, the only way around it is to coincidentally posses a defensive mutation specifically able to combat the offensive one. But there is one universally applicable trait I can think of that would win an animal its fight more consistently than random, rare, advantageous genetic mutations, which really, are about akin to superpowers. That trait is thinking – the ability to analyse, understand, and make necessary adaptations to one’s response in order to evade death. It would involve the ability to predict (i.e., imagine) the movements of the opponent and react accordingly. This, plus the memory capacity to recall the encounter for future reference, would serve to save this creature’s life reliably, multiple times.

I suspect strongly that being able to think is essential to the survival of animals who do not make up for number losses simply by breeding endlessly – that is to say, more intelligent animals, of which there are typically fewer compared to less intelligent animals. Thus, the fittest are the most adaptable individuals, the ones that can react quickly, instinctively or intuitively to the unfamiliar. It is easier to observe thinking power in fights between predator and prey than it is even to observe the correlation of physical adaptations, because it happens over seconds and minutes, rather than over decades. Stand-offs in the animal kingdom are common to behold.

What are those creatures doing, when they are sizing each other up, if not thinking? This analysis and understanding can only be described as thought, regardless of whether or not the thoughts take on the same form as our own. A creature that speaks no language (where language is defined by complex, grammatical systems) cannot verbalise thoughts in its head, so its ability to think abstractly is limited. But we know that they feel enjoyment and experience other emotions. These emotions, and imagination, are other integral parts of what we consider thought. We know also that animals can construct visual images from their brains, as we have observed that they have dreams, a sort of subconscious imagination that takes visual imagery from life and regurgitates it. Much as we mystify imagination, it is just the creation, re-creation or restructuring of things which cannot currently be experienced in the real world in that exact form.

Further evidence that animals imagine is the response of certain animals to certain cues; cues that sound like prey, or like predators, can be used to trick them into thinking there is prey or predator nearby – the same is true of mating calls. The creature does not know for a fact that another animal is out there. Instead, it must imagine that it is. If it did not imagine this, it would have no reason to react; a sound without context is just a vibration. Context is provided by experience or instinct.

The association between sound and danger seems a simple equation, but involves a translation by the brain of information into meaning, a skill that not even all humans have to a functional degree. Autism, the disorder in part characterised by limited imagination, involves a literal-mindedness that inhibits translation of information into meaning – correct meaning, likely meaning or even what we might call obvious meaning. The result is that severely autistic people do things that make no sense to neurotypical people, such as one young man who put clothes wet from the washing machine straight in the drawer without drying them out. The inability to imagine what would happen if he did this stopped him understanding fully the meaning behind the instruction “put the clean clothes back in the drawer.” This is a more complex, human example of the importance of imagination in correctly determining meaning.

Interpretation is a rudimentary form of imagination. We hear a sound or see a colour and interpret, sometimes inaccurately, what it is, using our imaginations. It’s hard to see how or why an animal would respond to any sound or sight at all if it was unable to make this connection. Therefore, the ability to imagine something exists in the simplest creatures.

Imagination is restructuring things which cannot currently be experienced in the real world in that exact form. The sound of the predator is not the predator and does not represent it in full; the predator cannot be seen or smelt. It can only be heard, and the rest of it is imagined. If not the visualisation of the predator, then at least the abstract concept of it, occurs to the prey animal – this, if anything, is arguably even more advanced a process than simple visualisation. If the prey could not imagine its predator in response to the information of just one sense, it would be dead. Like with all imagination, this leads it to sometimes draw inaccurate conclusions on incomplete information. But this better-safe-than-sorry approach saves its life, so over-active imaginations are a survival must for many animals.

How else could we define these processes, if not as thought? Experiencing the reality of one’s world and imagining what is not there are perhaps the only ways of defining human thought. We routinely blend these things, throwing up odd results and drawing wrong conclusions, but the important thing is that we do it and many other creatures do it too, with less abstract ideas than the ones we are capable of imagining.

In her book Sex in History, Raye Tannerhill theorised that it was humans’ [/ men’s] increasing inactivity that caused us to further develop our brains, so that we might become the advanced beings we are today. She suggested that agriculture – less labour intensive with better, more consistent results than hunting and gathering – left us enough leisure time to work through problems slowly, solve them, and develop into the thinkers we are. There are developments that survival of the fittest cannot explain, and human intelligence is one; our collective intelligence has preserved the genes of people who are individually incapable of the science responsible.

Yet, year on year, we get more intelligent. This is considered to be in response to education and thought, considered in itself to boost intelligence. Once again, this generational change is much faster than the millennia required to significantly change animals physically for the purposes of adaptation. Year on year, our intellectual achievements increase in smaller and smaller spaces of time, following the things that have been discovered before and our ability to focus our learning to understand in four years what it took predecessors centuries to solve. This accelerated growth points strongly towards the old argument that human brain capacity stretches far beyond what it is generally used for and that the upper limit may beyond beyond the boundaries of our current imagination.

This in mind, it is possible that the same is true of other creatures – that we needn’t look for evolutions of current species, but advancements within strands of certain species. Tannerhill’s theory on increased thinking time leading to greater development suggests that, rather than the fittest animals being the ones that must constantly fight for their survival, it is actually those with less to do and least to lose that develop the best. We seem to be living proof of this, entirely separate as we are from most natural dangers. If it is the case, animals that stand around in the field looking a bit vacant could, without our realising, be developing skills and thoughts we can’t predict.

The last assumption about the thoughts of animals is the idea that animals have silent periods in their thinking. When there is a predator or prey, we can conceive of them thinking “Argh, danger!” or “Oh, food!” We can conceive of them thinking similar things about potential mates and perhaps specific friends, for the species that have them. However, what about when none of these things are obviously present? There are some moments where an animal isn’t looking at a friend, mating, eating, hunting or under threat. What we know of brains tells us that they are active all the time, and what we know of ourselves tells us that we think all the time, albeit mostly in the background.

I say again, we have no reason to assume that animals standing idle in fields do not do something similar. Horses are complex. Domestic horses can tell other horses by each others’ whinnies, shown in one experiment where one horse responded with confusion when the wrong horse’s whinny seems to be coming from one of their horse friends. On a human, this is easily characterised as a thought. On a horse, this is our last assumption, somehow.

Having established that a species of animal thinks; that it obeys commands, learns tricks, communicates with other members of its species, responds to members of other species, can learn its name and responds to calls, waits for its master to return to it, learns by ear to recognise the calls of its friends – is this creature likely to suddenly stop thinking? In our experience, does a creature that thinks once ever cease to think? I think the most obvious assumption based on our understanding is that it does not, and it is this assumption that must be refuted, not the alternative – however commonly held that alternative view is.

When we can’t answer a question easily, there is no reason to decide the question is invalid. The question we should still be asking is “What might animals be thinking?” rather than effectively making the statement “I cannot think what they might be thinking, so therefore they must not be thinking anything.” This, indeed, is a failure of our own imagination.

Our problem is that we tend to assume as little as possible of non-human animals, and as much as possible of ourselves. This is species arrogance. If we were to look at evidence and research into the topic, we would be constantly reminded that we are in no position to decide the potential of other creatures. I look forward to the day, should it ever come, that we cease to make assumptions about the thought processes and capacity of non-human animals, when we scarcely have scratched the surface of our own, let alone theirs. We should look instead at the evidence of what they can do, and marvel how much it is they can do that we cannot, and think about the possible implications of it.

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