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March 19, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Super Science Trends | [ssba]

Communication with the Animal Nation

Science is the method by which we try to understand our place in the natural world. When our ability to comprehend something exceeds our ability to observe it, science allows us to bridge that gap. Build a telescope to observe a planet. Create a collider to bring a theoretical element into existence. Develop a spectrum to better understand a psychological condition, and so on. But historically, the study wherein we fail to bridge the gap of understanding is one closer to home: animal intelligence.

In his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, primatologist Frans De Waal argues that scientists have to construct better experiments in order to understand what degree of intelligence animals have. To do so, he believes you should start by understanding an animal’s “umwelt”, a German term meaning “surroundings”, that refers to an animal’s particular sensory experience of the world around them. Scientists should view animal behaviour as a evolutionary adaptive trait rather than a set program that runs like an automaton. Science is based on empirical observation, but in order to gather evidence of your animal’s intelligence, you have to accommodate your animal accordingly.

For instance, a test to determine how humans, chimps, and gibbons can use tools to overcome a problem, such as grabbing a treat separated from them by a barrier with a low opening and being offered a tool that would extend their reach, was stymied by the fact that the tool had to be picked up off the ground. This is something humans and chimps can do with no issue, but gibbons have difficulty with, so it was naturally assumed that gibbons could not use tools. But if we take its “umwelt” into consideration, we know that being an animal that spends all its life in trees, a gibbon’s hands are adapted to an arboreal (tree-dwelling) environment, and thus their sensory experience of grasping only relates to suspended objects, such as a branch from which to swing. When the tool was raised slightly off the ground to enable the gibbon to grasp it properly, it could complete the test just as well as its fellow apes.

It becomes more difficult when this approach is applied to animals that display cognitive capacity but with a morphology and sensory experience completely different to our own. An elephant’s sensory experiences of touch and smell are united in their trunk, so the aforementioned tool test doesn’t work with them because picking up a tool cuts off their ability to detect the treat. As such, scientists conducting the study had to invent a new test in order to disprove if elephants weren’t capable of using tools to overcome a challenge. And that’s not even getting to animals like dolphins, crows, and octopuses*, the latter of which I learned have a brain in each arm and taste buds in each sucker.

Der Waal’s book is a fascinating read, as it demonstrates that animals being inventive and aware in a way that we thought only humans could be. The shock at this is something that has been baked into natural science since its beginnings, with Aristotle and his scala naturae, which places humans above all other animals due to believing we had the monopoly on cognition. Science is as much about unlearning old attitudes as it is embracing or testing new ones. The separation between “human” and “animal” intelligence creates an arbitrary barrier to our own understanding of nature.

*Yes, that is an acceptable plural, clunky though it may sound. ‘Octopi’ is wrong because it puts a Latin pluralization on a Greek word. Stop using it (don’t @ me).


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