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Newsletter - Animal Writes © sm
26 September 1999 Issue

All Animals Have Intelligence, Studies Find
By John Yaukey

Porpoises that trick their handlers by hiding pool toys.

Apes that escape captivity.

Chimps teaching each other sign language.

Feats of animal intelligence were once routinely written off as tricks of conditioned behavior or the anecdotal displays of a few precocious individuals that didn’t signal anything deeper.

But a groundswell of new research suggests that animals have much higher development than previously thought.

Studies of everything from chimps and elephants to whales and porpoises indicate they are capable of untrained thought well beyond mere instinct and can often communicate in high levels of detail.

It’s not so much that animals are performing more elaborate tricks; rather they're showing signs of reasoning rather than conditioning, such as playing tricks and hiding tools.

And, just as important, scientists are more aware of these signs. Animals are being given the opportunity to display untraditional forms of intelligence by scientists who are ditching the staid old maze-and-cheese testing paradigms in favor of more natural criteria designed to ferret out the kind of problem-solving tactics animals would develop to hunt, hide and survive.

“In the 1970s and ‘80s, the test was ‘Do they have language capabilities?’” said Herbert Terrace, who is conducting research on animal intelligence at Columbia University. “It’s apparent that was just a foolish oversimplification of a very complex problem. Now we’re looking at the extent to which animals can represent the world, not necessarily with symbols, but being able to use memory and abstraction to solve a problem without the guidance of stimulus.”

New testing, for example, has shown that chimps are capable of abstracting their self-image from carnival mirrors that grossly distort body forms, suggesting they have even more developed sense of themselves as actors in an environment than previously thought.

Even pigeons have demonstrated limited memory in tests where scientists delayed the time between a stimulus and a reward long enough for the memory to emerge.

Scientists say this mounting evidence suggests intelligence evolves through various species like any physical trait, and that it’s not something animals either possess or lack altogether.

In short, according to some theories, there is no definitive line between those animals with intelligence and those without.

The social and political implications of this research are already rapidly taking shape.

Lawyers creating the fledgling field of animal rights law have been quietly notching victories in court, citing studies that show animals are more aware of their own suffering than previously thought.

One strategy has been to make it increasingly more uncomfortable for the legal system to declare that animals lack legal rights because they are mere property.

Can the courts, for example, justify common but arguably cruel farming practices, such as confining veal cattle or chickens? Cases may soon test those practices in court.

Meanwhile, state legislatures across the country have upgraded animal cruelty from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Indeed, there are now legal conferences, books, committees devoted to the study and development of animal law. This summer, Harvard and Georgetown universities both turned heads when they announced their prestigious law schools will teach animal rights law.

Scientists are feeling the pressure of the increasingly legal and political climate surrounding animal intelligence research and fear it’s affecting the way their results are being interpreted.

“Sometimes these studies are used to perpetuate the wrong ideas,” said Mark Blumberg, who studies animal behavior at the University of Iowa. “Some of this clearly the politics of the animal rights movement.”

Animal rights advocates argue the recent trends in animal intelligence research raise legitimate, compelling questions that warrant serious ethical contemplation.

Reprinted with permission from the Courier Post.

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