Dumb beasts? Hardly

Virginia Morell, MA’73, believes that animals have rich and complex inner lives and she says that science is firmly on her side. A widely published science journalist (National Geographic, Smithsonian, Science) and the author of three previous books (including one co-written with famed anthropologist/conservationist Richard Leakey), Morell explores the research surrounding issues of animal cognition and emotion in her new book, Animal Wise. She introduces readers to African gray parrots, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, ants, and other animals whose astounding social, linguistic, computational, and spatial skills have given scientists a firmer sense of how the minds of other species work. Indeed, these animals are convincing many sceptics that nonhuman minds exist in the first place. Louise Fabiani, BSc’80, spoke to Morell during her recent publicity tour.

Author Virginia Morrell, MA'73, with
her dog (Photo: Michael McRae)

When Jane Goodall first observed tool making in wild chimpanzees, Louis Leakey wrote, “Now we must define ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man,’ or accept chimpanzees as humans.” Why do we keep redrawing the line that allegedly separates human from nonhuman animals?

Because it allows us to use animals, and not in the best ways. We can do a lot of testing for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics on animals if we believe they don’t feel pain. And it affects how we look at wild animals. We can drastically reduce their habitat, for instance, because we think we know what they need. There are now facilities around the country for retired chimpanzees—from labs, circuses, and so on. I think there’s a growing recognition that some animals, at least our closest relatives, are capable of thinking and feeling, that we share many abilities. So we owe them a better life.

Does our idea of consciousness interfere with our understanding of animal minds?

Yes. The definition of consciousness is vague to begin with. We have some sense that it involves self-awareness and the ability to reflect, and maybe also the idea of being “wakeful.” The problem is that there are no biologically based terms for consciousness. It is more of a philosophical or religious concept. Until we can pin down which of the brain’s structures and processes are necessary for consciousness to occur, we won’t be able to do comparative studies in different species.

Someone said that if Descartes had owned a dog he never would have thought animals were just living machines. Could it be that when people fail to notice the way animals think and feel it’s because they just haven’t looked the right way or asked the right questions?

Only adult humans seem to have this problem. Children recognize the feelings and thoughts of animals. We seem to lose this ability as we mature, and eventually may regard people who perceive animals as sentient beings as sentimental and childish. But science is on the side of the children. By recognizing that our cognitive and emotional abilities also evolved, and have a biological history, scientists are making great strides in understanding the minds of other animals.

In your opinion, what is the strongest evidence that other animals have minds comparable to ours?

Whenever we decide on some particular cognitive or emotional quality that separates us from other animals, inevitably, someone comes along who shows that some animal has this talent, too. Tool use, culture, numeracy, syntax, empathy, friendship, grief, love—at one time each of these was declared unique to humans. Now, they’ve been found in numerous other species. Currently, language is regarded as something peculiar to humans. But the discovery of signature contact calls in parrots and dolphins—sounds which function as names—suggests that this distinction, too, may fall to the wayside. I think that Charles Darwin said it best: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”

You write about several fascinating species in your book. Which ones were your personal favourites?

The archer fish—they were really curious about us. One squirted me in the eye! We don’t usually think of fish as being intelligent, but those archer fish were waiting for the experiment to be set up. They wanted to interact with us. Alex [an African gray parrot who died in 2007]. He kept an eye on the other parrots, pointing out their mistakes. “Talk clearly!” he’d tell them. And when Alex wanted something, he’d ask. Like being able to go to the window that gave him a glimpse of a tree outside. “Wanna go tree,” he’d say. There was a real sense of a mind there, with feelings and needs.

You studied English at McGill, yet you became a science writer. How did that happen?

While at McGill I had a truly remarkable professor, Benjamin Weems. He taught a course titled “Analogy and Metaphor” and although it was about literature, he also discussed science’s role in society. I really think that opened my mind to the way science works. There’s this mistaken belief that the arts and sciences are two very separate realms. Both actually require us to form connections, and notice how and why things relate to each other. By pointing this out, Weems changed the way I think, and I’ll always be extremely grateful to him for that.

What is the main message you want to leave with your readers?

We live in a world of sentient beings—animals with minds. It’s our good fortune that scientists have discovered new ways to explore these minds. Through their work, we now know that rats laugh, ants teach, and whales have regional dialects. We also live at a time when we are re-evaluating our relationship with other animals. How should we treat these other creatures that have thoughts and emotions? What actions can we take that will protect the other animals and ensure that they, too, have a place in the world?

This interview has been condensed and edited.