Dog Wits and Bird Brains:
Thoughts on Animal Intelligence

Animal intelligence is a controversial topic, because we are determined to maintain some absolute distinction between ourselves and all the rest of life. For centuries, the "difference" was having a soul. Souls were at a premium; not too surprisingly, only white adult males had them for a while. Then they became a bone of contention, with learned clerics arguing over whether non-white humans, including females, had souls. (You will be relieved to know it was decided, in spite of some permanent objections, that they did.) Well, letting blacks, Orientals, women, and Indians have souls opened the floodgates. Pretty soon, dogs had souls too, and now folks are speculating about fish and flowers.

With the uniqueness of souls gone, humans identified "speech" as their exclusive enterprise, calling it "communication," which sounds so much more important than "talking." Only humans can "talk." But that didn't work out, because clearly and obviously other animals, even bugs, "communicate." And the meaning of "talk" got very sticky. Parrots and mynahs talk, for example, but supposedly they don't know what they are saying. The skeptic raises one eyebrow to ask if that isn't true of humans?

Recognizing that "speech" itself is a motor skill hardly signicant enough to make mankind the crown of creation, the focus began to shift coherent noise to the thought processes that underlie talking. Chimpanzees communicate with sign language, but that's just a "motor skill," probably mere imitation, the human supremacists say. After all, chimpanzees don't really have languages skills: they misuse words, make grammar errors, and use language simply to accomplish immediate selfish ends. There goes that eyebrow again.

The controversy over primate communication rages today somewhere. This set of essays includes a list of books you can buy or get from the library to learn more about both sides of the disagreement.

I stand in the middle of the battle myself. I do not believe that humankind has any unique differences from other animals, any more (or less) than cockroaches do. Looking at how thoroughly humans have messed up the planet and their own nests, looking at the terrible things we have done in the name of Reason, I can't get too excited about "intelligence" as the pinnacle of evolution.

Descartes, a philosopher who lived at about the same time as Shakespeare, came up with the dogma that animals are "meat robots." That is to say, all their behavior is instinctive rather than reasoned. They do what they are wired to do. A vast array of scientific research excuses savagery by denying that the animal feels ("in any meaningful sense," the sage adds with a ferrety wriggle). A lot of thinking people bought this foolishness, desperate for some way to justify human uniqueness. We aren't meat robots, after all. We don't eat breakfast because we have to, we choose to eat breakfast, to scratch itches, to breathe, to wear a "Save the Vole" T-shirt and vote Green.

Utter silliness that passed for science because it stroked our egos and stoked our prejudices. My dog (and co-author, Crom) eats his hamburger meatballs first, even though they contain medicine, because he likes them. And when I give him beef and barley or chicken and rice, there is always a bit of barley or rice in the bowl, rather than chicken or beef, when he's done. He chooses not to eat the last of the grain. I've watched him stand on the trail, deciding whether to keep going or turn back. Deciding: thinking about it and choosing. If his "instincts" decide for him, the difference between his processes and mine is lost on me.

The meat robot crowd is not worth arguing with, they are science fundamentalists no more interesting than the flat earth folks. In their current club, the Behaviorists, they have taken the stance that all animals, including humans, are meat robots. Big mistake politically, and they are in intellectual disgrace. They lost track, somehow, of the point of the "meat robot" theory, which was to identify the basis for humans' uniqueness, not to "debase" us.

But they have tainted our view of animals nonetheless. I have listened to veterinarians tell me that dogs don't feel pain. Right. And blacks have natural rhythm but can't do math, and Indians walk quieter than white people and understand Nature better, too. And women: Too emotional to be in charge. The "meat robot" crowd insists that animal behavior that looks like ours is just a coincidence.

The opposition team, unfortunately, carries its arguments much too far and becomes misty-eyed with emotion, which is a bad move in debate. Their grievous sin is "anthropomorphism," which is to say, assuming that all of creation is just like them: nice, friendly, eager for cinnamon in its latté, moved by mellow folk music, uncomfortably Democratic, preferring "Progressive" to "Liberal." The behaviorist emotions (assuming they have them) tend to be grim determination and steely-eyed certainty, which are just as silly but more functional in debate.

I'm a "continualist," I guess. That is to say, I can see the foundations of speech in the sound devices animals use to communicate, and I can see the seeds of thinking in animal behavior. Middle-of-the-road, but convinced that there is nothing significant that I can do and my dog can't. And an amateur. My essays are not authoritative by any means; they are, as the behaviorists who stand in the crowd holding rocks rather than tomatoes would say, "anecdotal."

I've spent fifty years observing animals with a relatively open mind, and ten concentrating on my resident hairy genius, Crom. The essays are the result of this informal course of study.

— Mick McAllister


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