Delving Into the Murky Minds of Animals

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Delving Into the Murky Minds of Animals

[Ed. Note: All-Creatures.org believes that measuring "animal intelligence" by human standards is not only arrogant, but also demeaning to animals. I wonder how well you or I would do if dropped into the middle of a rainforest or a desert or frozen tundra, whereas millions of animals have been "intelligent" enough to thrive for millenia. Please also read Empathic Chickens and Cooperative Elephants: Emotional Intelligence Expands Its Range Again, One World, Many Minds: Intelligence in the Animal Kingdom.]

From The National Humane Education Society (NHES)
March 2011

What is the point that researchers should take from these tests? Are self-aware animals more important than others? Should animals that pass be excluded from our exploits in areas such as food, captivity, and research? So far they haven’t.

Marc Bekoff: "...a test that uses sight to determine self-recognition is unfair to animals that depend on their noses."

An animal’s self-awareness is often assessed with the mirror-test. Researchers make some sort of mark on the animal, generally with a marker, and then present the animal with a mirror. If the animal reacts to the mirror as if it is another animal, that species is considered not self-aware. If the animal touches himself where the mark is—or if he is lacking the necessary appendages for touching, seems to pay careful attention to that part of his body—showing that he understands the mirror is an image of himself, his species is generally considered self-aware. Animals who have passed this test include chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, magpies, and humans. Dogs generally do not show self-awareness with the mirror-test.

Researcher Marc Bekoff "thinks a test that uses sight to determine self-recognition is unfair to animals that depend on their noses." Bekoff devised a test based on urine-smelling and humanely tested his own companion dog, Jethro, on their regular walks. Unsurprisingly, the tests showed Jethro smelled his own urine samples far less than those of other dogs. Are dogs self-aware? We will probably never know for certain, scientifically speaking, but as anyone who ever had a close relationship with a dog would argue, they just may be.

So, if Bekoff argues dogs need a different type of test to fairly assess their cognition, then surely there are many other species who would also perform better with a specialized test. The problem is that humans are a bit too self-aware to the point of self-centeredness. We have devised a mirror-test which makes perfect sense to our vision-centered and vain minds, but we have failed to consider the perspectives of other species. We are the Narcissus of the animal world, stuck on ourselves—it is no wonder we devised a mirror-test! Sight is of much smaller importance to many animals, who rely on smell and sound as much if not more than sight. Scientists also fail to think, what if an animal doesn’t care that he or she has a mark? What if the animal assumes the mark has always been there?

Are cognition tests bad? No, especially not the type performed by Bekoff. However, they do bring up many more questions, as much about us as about other animals. Also, what is the point that researchers should take from these tests? Are self-aware animals more important than others? Should animals that pass be excluded from our exploits in areas such as food, captivity, and research? So far they haven’t. Pigs, whose status is undetermined but leans toward self-aware, are still confined to gestation crates and slaughtered en masse. Elephants still pace back and forth in tiny enclosures. Chimpanzees are still subjected to vivisection. And if we do decide that these animals deserve special treatment, above other animals, is that fair? Does that mean we torture other animals because we have not yet found a way to allow them to prove their "worth"? Perhaps what we should take from these tests is that we know far too little about how animals think, but what we have found hints at a much more sophisticated mind than many want to admit. When it comes to passing or failing animals, it might also be helpful to remember that humans younger than 18 months cannot pass the mirror-test and are not considered self-aware.

An animal’s self-awareness is often assessed with the mirror-test. Researchers make some sort of mark on the animal, generally with a marker, and then present the animal with a mirror. If the animal reacts to the mirror as if it is another animal, that species is considered not self-aware. If the animal touches himself where the mark is—or if he is lacking the necessary appendages for touching, seems to pay careful attention to that part of his body—showing that he understands the mirror is an image of himself, his species is generally considered self-aware. Animals who have passed this test include chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, magpies, and humans. Dogs generally do not show self-awareness with the mirror-test.

Researcher Marc Bekoff “thinks a test that uses sight to determine self-recognition is unfair to animals that depend on their noses.” Bekoff devised a test based on urine-smelling and humanely tested his own companion dog, Jethro, on their regular walks. Unsurprisingly, the tests showed Jethro smelled his own urine samples far less than those of other dogs. Are dogs self-aware? We will probably never know for certain, scientifically speaking, but as anyone who ever had a close relationship with a dog would argue, they just may be.

So, if Bekoff argues dogs need a different type of test to fairly assess their cognition, then surely there are many other species who would also perform better with a specialized test. The problem is that humans are a bit too self-aware to the point of self-centeredness. We have devised a mirror-test which makes perfect sense to our vision-centered and vain minds, but we have failed to consider the perspectives of other species. We are the Narcissus of the animal world, stuck on ourselves—it is no wonder we devised a mirror-test! Sight is of much smaller importance to many animals, who rely on smell and sound as much if not more than sight. Scientists also fail to think, what if an animal doesn’t care that he or she has a mark? What if the animal assumes the mark has always been there?

Are cognition tests bad? No, especially not the type performed by Bekoff. However, they do bring up many more questions, as much about us as about other animals. Also, what is the point that researchers should take from these tests? Are self-aware animals more important than others? Should animals that pass be excluded from our exploits in areas such as food, captivity, and research? So far they haven’t. Pigs, whose status is undetermined but leans toward self-aware, are still confined to gestation crates and slaughtered en masse. Elephants still pace back and forth in tiny enclosures. Chimpanzees are still subjected to vivisection. And if we do decide that these animals deserve special treatment, above other animals, is that fair? Does that mean we torture other animals because we have not yet found a way to allow them to prove their “worth”? Perhaps what we should take from these tests is that we know far too little about how animals think, but what we have found hints at a much more sophisticated mind than many want to admit. When it comes to passing or failing animals, it might also be helpful to remember that humans younger than 18 months cannot pass the mirror-test and are not considered self-aware.