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Not-so dumb animals
March 24, 2013 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Frans de Waal argues that animals are smarter than we might think. "Experiments with animals have long been handicapped by our anthropocentric attitude: We often test them in ways that work fine with humans but not so well with other species."

He also mentions the Clever Hans effect and suggests that we might suffer from it when evaluating the intelligence of children.
posted by Athanassiel (67 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read an article that asserted that we think sheep are dumb because a) they mostly communicate via scent and touch, which we can't really take advantage of, and b) sheep don't have any interest in doing anything we want them to do. They are not so much stupid as alien. On the other hand, I have met some pretty dumb-seeming sheep, so....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:05 PM on March 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have known instinctively since I was a child that animals are just as smart and capable of emotion (though these aren't one and the same thing, of course) as humans, but in different ways, and am always surprised that it is even a matter for discussion. Whether or not this instinctive subjective knowledge ever reaches a point where it is revealed as scientifically true is completely irrelevant to anybody with any love or respect at all for non-human animals.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 6:15 PM on March 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


I did a post once on whether chimps could make a sentence, and one of the chief investigators of that question was Herbert Terrace who called his experiments a failure, citing Clever Hans for what seemed to be language acquisition in the chimp Nim. The more I thought about that experiment, the more I thought the reason for the failure was more likely due to a not-so-clever Herb.
posted by Toekneesan at 6:16 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've never understood the mirror self awareness tests. I remember arguing with my cognitive psychology professor about this in college. The test correlates self awareness with an animal recognizing itself in a mirror. Since a rat doesn't show obvious signs that it recognizes itself in a mirror the thinking goes, and therefore has no "self awareness" it can't possibly "feel" pain because it would not know that it is itself that is "feeling pain". I don't know where to begin to describe my difficulty in understanding this logic. First off, maybe animals don't recognize themselves the way humans do. Second, what does recognition have to do with self awareness?
posted by pallen123 at 6:16 PM on March 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


I once had a conversation with a sheep farmer, who was describing some individual sheep as "stupid". I asked, what made them stupid - like, what is stupidity when referring to sheep? And she told me it was because they kept escaping through a fence, kept working out how to get out. Of course I said, that kind of thing would be "intelligent" if it was any other animal, and she actually agreed. Maybe sheep being dumb is just one of those things everyone knows; or maybe animals doing what we don't want them to, is "dumb".
posted by thylacinthine at 6:18 PM on March 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


Maybe sheep being dumb is just one of those things everyone knows;

I remember a National Geographic episode on sheep in Scotland, and how in a blizzard, they'll shelter in the lee of a stone wall to get out of the wind. Unfortunately, the snow also builds up there, and over time the sheep will become buried. Having stood still long enough to be buried by accumulating snow, they'll be stuck there, and will eventually die of thirst. If you're a Scottish shepherd, your immediate job after a blizzard is to walk along the drifts beside a stone wall, poking a stick into them to find the sheep and haul them out bodily, then spanking them to get them moving again.
posted by fatbird at 6:33 PM on March 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


Well the stupid sheep didn't realize how many hazards it was being protected from. It was trying to escape its nice wolf-proof enclave for the predator infested wilds. Stupid!

Anyone who has kept animals for any length of time knows they have personalities, emotions, feelings, and some degree of cognition comparable to, if not as vast as, our own. Science has borrowed Christianity's tendency to marginalize other life, without realizing that this attitude is an anomaly in human history.
posted by localroger at 6:36 PM on March 24, 2013 [11 favorites]


Lapham's Quarterly: One Of Us
These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:39 PM on March 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Domestic sheep are pretty stupid; they would all die in a week without human intervention. Of course it's possible we bred them that way on purpose because wild sheep are pretty wily little dudes and it's a lot easier to kill and eat a stupid animal.

Plenty of other animals are demonstrably not stupid at all though. I'd like to see a 10 year old human survive in the wild alone.
posted by fshgrl at 6:42 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Since a rat doesn't show obvious signs that it recognizes itself in a mirror the thinking goes, and therefore has no "self awareness" it can't possibly "feel" pain because it would not know that it is itself that is "feeling pain".

Yeah this has always seemed ridiculous to me. The parsimonious way to look at things, surely, is to assume similarity rather than difference. What is common to all mammals? What would provide evolutionary benefits? Surely, pain would. Pain has a purpose. If a human doesn't feel pain (for example, leprosy) this has severe consequences to their fitness and ultimate survival. What evidence do we have that this isn't also true of rats?

I've often felt there has been a drive to avoid "anthropomorphising" animals at all costs, to assume that thoughts, emotions, awareness are basically human properties, and that extraordinary evidence is needed to show animals also experience them. This seems convoluted - we are mammals. Our physiology, developmental processes are all part of that continuum. I've had self-professed "dog experts" tell my my dog isn't really happy to see me, that my dog doesn't really miss me when he sits by the window all day looking for me...that it's just some kind of innate behavior that doesn't deserve emotional labels. This line of reasoning seems to defy Ockham's razor, as far as I can see.
posted by Jimbob at 6:42 PM on March 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


I remember a National Geographic episode on sheep in Scotland, and how in a blizzard, they'll shelter in the lee of a stone wall to get out of the wind. Unfortunately, the snow also builds up there, and over time the sheep will become buried. Having stood still long enough to be buried by accumulating snow, they'll be stuck there, and will eventually die of thirst. If you're a Scottish shepherd, your immediate job after a blizzard is to walk along the drifts beside a stone wall, poking a stick into them to find the sheep and haul them out bodily, then spanking them to get them moving again.

I remember an NPR episode on how, when humans get in a tiff, they will often start to believe the most inaccurate, incredulous things about each other - and will accelerate those inaccuracies to a place where they begin to believe the most preposterous things from people called "leaders" who will egg their followers on to a place where they are willing to die by the millions, for something that was never true, in the first place.
posted by Vibrissae at 6:54 PM on March 24, 2013 [25 favorites]


Since a rat doesn't show obvious signs that it recognizes itself in a mirror the thinking goes, and therefore has no "self awareness" it can't possibly "feel" pain because it would not know that it is itself that is "feeling pain".

Your professor was injecting his own weird interpretation. The mirror test doesn't directly say anything about whether an animal feels pain, and I don't think I know of any theorists who would argue otherwise.
posted by painquale at 6:55 PM on March 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


He is so right.

This is why I finally gave up on eating meat, tasty though it can be. I used to distinguish between eating "smart animals" and the rest, and then I realized how stupid I was for trying to make the distinction.

I hope no one ever proves to me that fish and non-octopi "seafood" are intelligent as well.
posted by bearwife at 7:06 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Lapham's Quarterly: One Of Us...

That interesting article by John Jeremiah Sullivan also says:

"Apart from the general point—horses feel horse joy, cats feel cat joy, etc.—Spinoza makes two less familiar but equally significant claims. The first is his lovely definition of the soul: that it is in some way wrapped up with, coextensive with, the “essence” of the creature possessing it. The particular nature in which every creature is able to rejoice precisely by being most entirely itself is the soul. That settles the matter of whether animals have souls. Of course they do. The horse has a horse soul, the fish has a fish soul. The second claim is Spinoza’s radical—but instantly persuasive— statement that one human being’s essence could be unintelligible to another. The drunkard is a different type of human being than the philosopher, but he is also a different creature, full stop. Are we so sure that species identification is proof against the canyons of misapprehension that separate us from, say, the monkey spider? This could be a frightening thought: accepting that no two consciousnesses can ever have transparency, or at any rate can never have certainty about it, leaves us on some level cosmically alone. Spinoza takes the notion in stride. He’d be more prone to say, Well, no doubt we sometimes understand each other..."
posted by ovvl at 7:14 PM on March 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


My cats have dry food out for them all the time. I've started feeding one of them wet food and made the mistake of dishing it out immediately after I got up. It took that cat less than a week to associate the clock radio turning on with food and therefor going bat shit with meowing as soon as she hears the radio. Which has made the snooze button less than effective.
posted by Mitheral at 7:19 PM on March 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


It took that cat less than a week to associate the clock radio turning on with food and therefor going bat shit with meowing as soon as she hears the radio. Which has made the snooze button less than effective.

One more week, and her cue will be the first light of dawn. A week after that, and it will be a funny feeling she gets at 4am.

This is the hell I live in.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 7:27 PM on March 24, 2013 [22 favorites]


Mitheral: "My cats have dry food out for them all the time. I've started feeding one of them wet food and made the mistake of dishing it out immediately after I got up. It took that cat less than a week to associate the clock radio turning on with food and therefor going bat shit with meowing as soon as she hears the radio. Which has made the snooze button less than effective."

Rookie mistake! If one feeds wet food, it should always be done in the evening, after one gets home from work. Then the cats begin to associate you arriving in darkneses with happy times, and will come out to greet you with many loud "MROW"s and "WHAT THE FUCK DUDE I AM HUNGRY"s and it is much cuter than having cats jump on your head at 6 AM.
posted by barnacles at 7:30 PM on March 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


My cats know that when the door buzzer rings, it is usually someone bringing takeout (most of my friends just come in with me when they come over), so they run to the door and start meowing.
Once, when I was working late a lot and getting a lot of takeout, my Matty cat started meowing as soon as the delivery guy and his bicycle appeared outside. Before he even buzzed.

But they never get any takeout, so there's that.
posted by sweetkid at 7:36 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always look forward to Daylight Savings Time so my chronometer kitty gives me another hour of sleep. But it doesn't last. He eventually adapts. And then there is the eventual horror of the fall when it all reverts...
posted by jim in austin at 7:49 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


"He's that most dangerous of animals, a clever sheep."
posted by sneebler at 7:51 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Look, we all know penguins are as smart as non-English speaking humans.
posted by stevis23 at 7:54 PM on March 24, 2013


"They eat plants, flowers and vegetables in gardens. It is soul destroying."
posted by sneebler at 8:00 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Frans de Waal is quite the character, I saw him speak at a panel on the nature of xenophobia He spoke about his pet subject, chimps (who tend to kill other chimps on sight if they aren't a part of their group), and bonobos, a subgroup of chimps that are their free love hippie cousins who have sex as often as we say hello. During his talk, he showed a video of what happens when you give male bonobos a treat like sugar cane.

The video began with one of the female bonobos laying on her back, spreading her legs, and spinning in a circle offering sexual access to each of the males in turn in exchange for the treat. The video then cut to a scene that could have been straight out of Caligula. One of the males had taken her up on the offer, and the two of them were leisurely mating while eating sugar cane with the most depraved looks on their faces. Behind them, six other bonobos had paired up and were having wild monkey sex in a variety of positions that rivaled the kama sutra. After de Waal finished his talk, the moderator got up on stage and thanked him for the education his 12 year old son in the audience had unexpectedly received. I looked around me, and realized that the audience was filled with people who had brought their children along, many of them appearing to be of elementary school age. I can only imagine the conversations some of those parents had on the car ride home.
posted by TungstenChef at 8:02 PM on March 24, 2013 [16 favorites]


Plenty of other animals are demonstrably not stupid at all though. I'd like to see a 10 year old human survive in the wild alone.

You're mistaking 'stupidity' with 'ignorance'.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:28 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


On sheep intelligence, it is true that there isn't one great monumental "sheep". Of course most sheep do seem rather dense (like the ones mentioned above) but we have carefully bred out every troublesome spark of intelligence and independence from beasts like sheep and cattle, which we prefer to be easy to handle, biddable, and not inclined to go looking for fun. The trouble making sheep I mentioned above were a breed I don't recall, maybe some kind of merino cross, and it only stands to reason that some breeds of sheep are better learners and thinkers than others, just like dogs.

On the other hand, intelligence isn't always all its cracked up to be. People act like super intelligent dogs are the only ones worth having, but as a very lazy and independent person, the care of a super bright dog is like being in hell, always having to keep it busy and engaged (this is why I prefer cats, or thick dogs). I heard a hilarious pet shop guy on the radio some time ago talking about this very thing, saying he actively encourages (particularly) families to lean more towards (generally) thicker dog breeds. He said something like, "They're not very aspirational, but they make good pets!"
posted by thylacinthine at 8:53 PM on March 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you're interested in reading more about octopus intelligence, I highly recommend this article.
posted by MetalFingerz at 9:02 PM on March 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


We adopted a bulldog that had a lot of special needs, including seizures and neurological issues. The day after we got her home, my wife took her to work to get checked out (yay for working at a vet clinic.) At lunch time, she takes Midge out of the kennel and out to the desert for a walk and bathroom break. On the way back in, one of the techs stopped my wife to chat outside the door to the kennel area. Midge started bouncing after a bit and then barking, looking at the door and pawing it. Wife walks into the kennel area, still chatting with the tech. Midge walks over to the kennel she was assigned, starts bouncing, and starts pawing the door while barking her little noggin off. As soon as she was back in the kennel, she chilled out. She had already figured out what her spot was and remembered how to get there, which was the first time in the history of ever my wife had ever seen a dog do.

Midge would learn and remember where things were. If you dropped a treat somewhere, she would come back hours later and check that exact spot. She knew what the latch the the crate did but just couldn't get the leverage to operate it. If we hadn't kept the computers on desks where she couldn't get to them, she probably would have been hacking corporate systems. My theory is that somehow she got a cattle dog brain by mistake. And that there's a really lazy cattle dog somewhere that got a bulldog brain.
posted by azpenguin at 9:27 PM on March 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Animals, like savages, seem to have gotten smarter and smarter as we've grown to recognize our kinship with them - and our merciless cruelty.
posted by Twang at 9:32 PM on March 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


localroger: Anyone who has kept animals for any length of time knows they have personalities, emotions, feelings, and some degree of cognition comparable to, if not as vast as, our own.

I think this has some truth to it, but is slightly misstated. What most animals lack is a rational mind; they are not capable, at least in most cases, of forming abstract ideas and then manipulating those abstract ideas.

But that's really a very small part of what makes us human. As I saw described once, imagine yourself yakking away on a cell phone, walking down a street in the wintertime. There's a puddle ahead, and while arguing the merits of your approach to the client with a coworker, you walk around the puddle.

If someone were to stop you, just after, and ask you why you walked around the puddle, you'd look at them like they'd lost their mind. "I didn't want to get my feet wet," you'd say. But what "I", exactly, was that? You were busy arguing with your coworker. Your conscious attention was completely wherever it is that attention goes when you're in a deep conversation. Yet, nonetheless, with no conscious intervention, the rest of you identified a puddle, realized that it would get your feet wet, realized that this was undesirable, and guided you around the puddle. That was you, as much as anything else is; that was an intelligent thing to do, but it had nothing to do with your verbal cognition, which was busy.

That's the kind of intelligence animals have. Nonverbal intelligence is very powerful. Most of what you do every day is controlled by this intelligence, and your rational mind chases along afterward, making up stories about why you chose to do X. It thinks it's in control, it asserts control over all it sees, and claims to be the driver of your fate, but it's actually just a passenger, most of the time. It simply runs too slow to make most decisions for you. Rational thought is a terribly slow process, no matter how good at it you might be.

The rational mind tries to understand the nonverbal mind, and I've seen this process described as being the beam of a flashlight, trying to see the dark. It is not an easy thing to do. This is what the monks in Tibet spend a good chunk of their lives doing; learning to see and integrate with their nonverbal components, in some cases going deeply enough into their own mental architecture that they can, in essence, 'hack' it to do what they want.

This part of our mind is what animals have; theirs are usually not as good as ours, even in this area. The human brain is a truly amazing thing. Our monkey minds are unbelievably powerful. But then we have this thin layer of storytelling on top, which drives all of science and 'rational inquiry'. It's vastly important, but because it's so slow, it has very little to do with your moment-to-moment, daily decisions.

The part of you that pets and plays with your dog, or runs in fear from a bear, or makes sure you don't step in the puddle while you're busy talking, is the part that we share with most animals. The part of you that makes up stories about these events, and then tells others about them, is the part that makes us human. Story mind wants to make this black and white, wants to separate us, and call us totally different and alien, but story mind is full of shit.
posted by Malor at 9:42 PM on March 24, 2013 [36 favorites]


I suspect that once we sit down and do some work to objectively define "rational inquiry," "story mind," and "abstract ideas," we'll find that, like all the other distinctions we've tried to draw, this one is blurry at best. And I suspect that in the end there will be little that makes us human besides hands, language, and the millennia-long accrual of technology that almost none of us have played any significant part in creating.
posted by chortly at 11:45 PM on March 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


The part of you that makes up stories about these events, and then tells others about them, is the part that makes us human.

I was at a university event where they'd brought in a hypnotist. He'd recruited a number of volunteers to come up onto stage and be hypnotized and was working on them on putting them into a trance when an acquaintance of mine got up from the chair next to me and wandered onto the stage, seemingly also entranced.

The hypnotist, unflapped, worked him into the act, and then released his volunteers back into the audience "forgetting everything that's happened up here".

My acquaintance came back to his seat, and I asked him where he'd been.

"Oh, I had to go use the bathroom."
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:53 AM on March 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


My acquaintance came back to his seat, and I asked him where he'd been.

"Oh, I had to go use the bathroom."


Yep, absolutely, the rational mind chases along after, making up stories. We all do this; there's nothing special about your friend. It was just that, for once, that mechanism was visible, instead of carefully hidden. It's still hidden, to him, it's just visible to you.

It's easy to think of that as a weakness, but everyone does the same thing, all the time. You may, in fact, be doing it right now. Are you really certain you know why you sat down at the computer?
posted by Malor at 1:36 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


This weekend, I just saw the documentary, "Project Nim," mentioned in Toekneesan's post. Oh, the excruciating incompetence - but I recommend it for anyone looking for more examples of what De Waal confronts in his article.
posted by rudster at 1:37 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Philosophy too has traditionally been utterly incapable of dealing with nonhuman modes of thought and feeling, with life's vast diversity in general. I wrote a paper about the lack of animals in philosophy recently. (Self link, and not the most academically calm text.)
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:43 AM on March 25, 2013


b) sheep don't have any interest in doing anything we want them to do.

No, but they're interested in doing things they want to do (stay alive, stay warm, stay fed, and avoid pain), so it's not hard to come up with intelligence tests based on punishments and rewards that should be effective with them.
posted by pracowity at 1:52 AM on March 25, 2013


Mirror Test:

I have a grey kitteh named Ellie...has a furry belly.

A few months ago I ran out of Ellie food. So I fed her a couple cans of tuna and turkey leftovers for a few days. I made the skin kind of crispy and everything, and left her plate on the washing machine.

Then I began giving her the usual again. And she searched all over for that plate o turkey.

She even stood up and looked in the mirror to see if she missed a room.

I guess I got her kind of strung out on that stuff. "Don't be an a**hole give it to me!"

When we eat turkey it makes everyone sleepy, including me.
posted by sirlikeitalot at 2:06 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's totally unsurprising that we should find more and more examples of intelligence in animals. On the other hand, it seems equally reasonable to me that humans are actually just a lot less intelligent than we think. I mean, the same instinctive knowledge that tells a wasp what shape to build a nest or a spider to wait on a flower to ambush a butterfly probably accounts for 95% of our intelligence. We just have some extra 5% that lets us rationalize what we do as something we thought of ourselves.
posted by snofoam at 2:59 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Counterpoint: our cat does this an average of once a week. Loves him the idea of water; hates him the actual, y'know, substance water. He also has not figured out that you cannot climb up a material that is not tethered at the top, so every now and then we'll hear desperate scrabbling at the bottom of the bed as he tries to climb up the sheet and into the bed, but the sheet is just lying loose so it falls down under his weight, and I picture Wile E. Coyote desperately trying to climb the ladder fast enough to outpace gravity. So maybe we're using the wrong axis to judge intelligence, but let's not convince ourselves that we're surrounded by hidden Rhodes scholars, eh?
posted by Mayor West at 4:58 AM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ellie's eyes are like a bright yellow asterism.

'try to leave a light on when i'm gone (or on your porch as the case may be)

'shine bright like a diamond'

cole lampin'w/flavor

I know it sounds crazy. I know that. It is.

Ellie's getting up there but she can still fight, run real fast and climb trees.

She's told me so many things. I was reading about how Stalking Wolf's favorite bird was the Chickadee and I open up the front door and what's on the front porch?

A Chickadee.

She read it a long time ago.
posted by sirlikeitalot at 5:08 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, not Rhodes Scholars. I know what you mean. She's willful. Not like the dogs. When I was more poor I fed her 'Special Kitty'. I don't know it balances the PH in her Urinary tract. I can afford a little bit better dry food now.

Sometimes I borrow a broad spectrum antibiotic from my neighbor...mix it with tuna.

But she's 'elite'. She's the best at what she does. You wanna be the best at what you do you gotta make sacrifices.
posted by sirlikeitalot at 5:34 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


What most animals lack is a rational mind; they are not capable, at least in most cases, of forming abstract ideas and then manipulating those abstract ideas.

Not so sure about that. My younger cat, whose name Susuwatari was aptly suggested by a friend (soot sprite, those little black soot puffs in Studio Ghibli films, especially "My Neighbor Totoro"), and sprightly ever she is, knows that she is not supposed to go into the dirty clothes hamper.

For weeks, I thought that, indeed, miss zoomy squiggletail had finally learned that the hamper was off-limits. Then I came down with the flu last week.

She had learned how to get in the hamper, which is covered with a metal-bar-weighted cloth, by not pushing aside the metal bar, so the cover didn't seem tampered with. I couldn't nab her on it, though, since she was so quiet and careful about it that I never caught her red-pawed; only saw that the hamper was indeed askew after careful not-askewing it on my part.

Then, one evening, I heard her – not saw her, heard her, it was put together by my human brain post-discovery – playing with a toy of hers that I'd put in the hamper for washing. I walked in, heard claws zooming across my ceramic floors, and saw a "perfectly innocent" black furball mewing perkily and oh-so-guilelessly, a respectable, non-incriminating distance away from her dirty-ensockened toy (a sock got out with it) on the floor next to the barely-mussed dirty clothes hamper.

Now you tell me. Did my cat, or did she not, form the following abstract ideas and manipulate them:
- fraula gets angry voice when she sees I've been in the hamper
- I like the hamper, it has concentrated fraula-scent and is nice and secretive, kind of like being under the bed but better (human fraula does not understand why hamper is better than under-bed or under-covers...)
-> get in hamper without fraula noticing I've been in!
- fraula put my favorite toy in the hamper
- take it out using secretive hamper entry and exit skills
- BUT, fraula knows toy was in hamper and so if she sees me next to toy she will understand what I've done and I will get angry-voice again
-> pretend I wasn't playing with my favorite toy that I always play with openly but not this time because it was in the angry-voice hamper
posted by fraula at 5:45 AM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


That was a good one fraula.

"Keep an eye out for the lustres" It's something Harold Bloom said in his book, Genius.

Animals are geniuses I think. They have that spark and they help us reveal stuff!

It's minerology. They're trying to help us figure out this planet. Whether they understand it on that plane or not.

There was an AskMe post not long ago. About this cat that ate toys.

They really like birds. The feathers help their digestive system. It's a strong instinct in my cat.
posted by sirlikeitalot at 6:03 AM on March 25, 2013


The argument seems less "animals are smarter than we think" than "humans are dumber than we thought".
posted by klarck at 6:06 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not claiming animals are brilliantly doing calculus when we're not looking, but they are kind of... smarter than we usually give them credit for being. Case in point... There is a field with animals (cows, horses) in it. Outside the field but next to the fence is a lightweight plastic food trough, placed perpendicular to the fence. If an animal inside the pasture stood AT the fence and carefully snaked its head through the fence, he or she could put a nose in the near end of the trough and sniff around for stray food. The trough is five feet long, but, being plastic, is lightweight, maybe twenty or thirty pounds.

I was feeding my horse grain in the far-from-the-fence end of the trough. She was happily eating the grain. Having observed (or more likely heard) the feed being dumped in the trough, the Jersey cow in the field wandered over, carefully snaked her head through the fence (The cow has horns and her head won't fit through the fence without a certain amount of care... kind of a tilt, advance, tilt the other way, etc.) and put her nose in the proximal end of the trough, which had no food it it, all the food being at the distal end of the thing where my horse was eating it.

And the cow sniffed around and licked the trough and then, finding no food within reach, quite deliberately, pushed her nose down hard and HELD IT THERE so that the distal end of the trough came off the ground about two feet (and whacked my horse in the chin, and my horse freaked out about being assaulted by the trough, but that's not really the interesting thing here) and all the grain rolled down to where the cow's nose was, whereupon the cow lifted up her nose, let the trough settle to the ground again, and started eating my horse's food because it was now in reach. *sigh* I persuaded the cow to leave and rearranged the food at the far end of the trough and STOOD BESIDE THE FENCE guarding the trough so that my horse could eat in peace... but still. Kind of clever on the cow's part.

Maybe it had happened by accident once and the cow remembered it and used it afterwards. But I would not have thought that cows were that smart, to be able to remember how to get the grain from one end of the trough to the other. It did not look like the first time the cow had solved that particular problem.
posted by which_chick at 6:11 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


let's not convince ourselves that we're surrounded by hidden Rhodes scholars, eh?

Nobody thinks hedgehogs are stupid because they don't behave according to mice standards. Nobody compares deer with rhinoceroses according to who has the better horns. But when it comes to humans, this seems like the most sensible thing to do. There is but one standard of intelligence, and it is the human one, according to which others can be measured. There is but one pinnacle, and all the rest of the animal kingdom is judged by its standard.

The question isn't whether this or that animal species is intelligent or not, or how intelligent. The problem is the unacknowledged anthropocentrism lurking behind our thought patterns that prevents us from understanding life's full diversity on its own.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 6:41 AM on March 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


We had a Yorkshire Terrier who, on hearing my husband coming in from taxi-ing, late at night, would run and eat all of his dinner. He did this just in case there was Chinese takeout to be had and because if he had dinner left I would say 'You're not having this, you haven't finished your own'. Bit like kids and puddings?
posted by mandarin fish at 6:49 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


What most animals lack is a rational mind; they are not capable, at least in most cases, of forming abstract ideas and then manipulating those abstract ideas.

In general I completely agree with the sentiment of your post, Malor. But there is this pattern which is repeated often, especially when talk goes to rationality, reason, or symbolic thought. It is not precisely known what this rationality is even in humans. We don't know what it is - but we're certain that they don't have it. But what is rationality in humans? Is it just one thing (such as capacity to form abstract concepts - but that's really vague) or whether there are multiple factors to it, how is it linked to emotions (Antonio Damasio has shown rather persuasively that rationality and emotions necessarily need one another, for example), what is its evolutionary origin and development, and so on. But the belief that animals definitely do not have rationality comes quite easily to us, more easily than warranted, I think.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 6:53 AM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


sirlikeitalot: Mirror Test:
Just this week I realized why, when we're in the bedroom together, Dexter often won't turn his head to look at me when I call his name (he always looks when I call to him in the living room). The opposite wall and the closet are both mirrored; all he has to do to look at me is open his eyes.

I looked, and sure enough, he was staring intently at me in the mirror.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:59 AM on March 25, 2013


I looked, and sure enough, he was staring intently at me in the mirror.

One of my parents' cats has successfully reasoned out the following:

--hey, the other cats are in the room with me
--look in mirror
--cats in mirror = cats in the room with me
--if I plan an attack while looking in the mirror, the other cats won't notice
--POUNCE
posted by thomas j wise at 10:46 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't let my cats sleep in my room with me (one knows how to open the door, too, so i actually have to lock them out) and one of them will go hide under the bed as soon as I go to brush my teeth, because he knows that means I'll throw him out to go to bed soon. No other kitchen or bathroom action signals 'sweetkid going to bed' to him, just brushing teeth.

If I didn't remember to shut the door before brushing teeth, often I can't be bothered to get him out from under the bed and just let him stay with me, and he dances on my head all night.
posted by sweetkid at 10:57 AM on March 25, 2013


What Are Animals Thinking? Chimps, cats, parrots, dolphins, and dogs have surprisingly smart and emotionally rich minds.
posted by homunculus at 11:55 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Animal spirits: The more we learn about the emotions shared by all mammals, the more we must rethink our own human intelligence
posted by homunculus at 11:58 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


The bell was a stimulus . . . but not for the dog.
posted by stonepharisee at 12:56 PM on March 25, 2013


It took that cat less than a week to associate the clock radio turning on with food and therefor going bat shit with meowing as soon as she hears the radio.

We had a cat that figured out he could stick his paw under the bottom edge of our bedroom door and shake it to wake us up when we were sleeping. He would do that whenever he wanted to go out, say, at 2:13am, because, well, he just wanted to. I had to change the jamb so there wasn't enough room for the door to move when it was closed. Stupid cat!
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:36 PM on March 25, 2013


My cat George knows to use different methods to wake us up to get breakfast (that is, my housemate and I). I'm a light sleeper, so just a little bit of door rattling or knocking things off my bedside table will do it for me. For my housemate, he knows it takes heavier artillery : a single claw plucking at an ear or licks in the nose/mouth area, bypassing the noise-making entirely. Sometimes, he'll wake us in turn, to get two breakfasts.
posted by MelanieL at 2:07 PM on March 25, 2013


Not only are animals smart, but plants are too. How did date palms figure out how to get wasps to do their pollinating for them under very difficult environmental conditions?

How did cordyceps fungi end up using very specific hosts they could zombify to carry their spores to a favourable place for distribution? I know this is a different, slower kind of intelligence than what we're talking about above, but it often seems to me that intelligence is a bigger basket than we like to think.
posted by sneebler at 5:25 PM on March 25, 2013


The part of you that pets and plays with your dog, or runs in fear from a bear, or makes sure you don't step in the puddle while you're busy talking, is the part that we share with most animals. The part of you that makes up stories about these events, and then tells others about them, is the part that makes us human.

When my wife was a little girl her family had a bassett hound that had once been hit by a car and spent some time limping as a result. The dog healed up, but he remembered that limping was good for sympathy points when he wanted something. Problem wasn't that the dog couldn't tell a story, it's that the poor thing didn't remember which foot to limp on.

And I can tell you've never had much time with a parrot at all.
posted by localroger at 5:29 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: I can tell you've never had much time with a parrot at all.
posted by sweetkid at 5:51 PM on March 25, 2013


We had a dog who would fake a limp too. We didn't figure it out untill we noticed that the limp was changing sides.
posted by Mitheral at 5:55 PM on March 25, 2013


My cat was sick last year (he is ok!) and even after he started getting better, he still had this troubling limp. I took him to the vet, who said 'ok, let's see the limp.' I put him down on the floor and he sauntered around gracefully, no limp present.

The vet said that they often 'hide' their symptoms around strangers because they don't want to appear vulnerable.

(he is ok now! no limp, he is ok!)
posted by sweetkid at 6:00 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Our Amazon parrot Cookie stays outside when the weather is nice but comes inside to a smaller cage on the kitchen table when, as now, it's cold. We let him out to make his way to a playpen with food and water bowls, but on the same table we keep a big bowl of tumbled semiprecious gemstones. When he thinks we aren't looking Cookie likes to augment his own gemstone collection. He always has a few favorites which he will transfer repeatedly between the two dishes on his playpen or from his cage to the playpen, or just hold to eye up and lick.

He knows the stones aren't food and appears to like the way they look, just like humans do. He often holds one and looks at it for long minutes. They are of course shiny, round, smooth, and colored, a combination not matched by much else in his immediate environment.

He has preferences which change. For a long time he was collecting green stones (there's aventurine in that thar bowl, as well as malachite and bloodstone and lace agate) but lately he's switched to the red jaspers and hematite. We are kind of wondering what's up with that.
posted by localroger at 6:13 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I went out for a walk yesterday, with wet snow falling. Suddenly, I heard the complaints of a cat. Very vocal! And then I spoted it. Under a small fir tree, on a dry spot. Obviously, it seemed clear to me, complaining.

I agreed with the cat's complaint, and spoke back, saying so. Clear as a bell, to me, the answer was further complaint at being shut out of the house, and where were her people anyway? Didn't they know she was suffering?!

Never mind that I was speaking English, and the cat was speaking cat, and her people almost certainly speak German. We understood each other somehow. Cats, you see, are smarter than people.
posted by Goofyy at 4:20 AM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


sneebler: How did cordyceps fungi end up using very specific hosts they could zombify to carry their spores to a favourable place for distribution? I know this is a different, slower kind of intelligence than what we're talking about above, but it often seems to me that intelligence is a bigger basket than we like to think.
Calling the chemical triggers cordyceps has evolved that influence ant behaviors is like saying a mousetrap is smart because it knows how to tell a mouse to stop on command.

There's no decision-making going on. There's no intelligence.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:28 PM on March 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's no decision-making going on. There's no intelligence.

The conflation of decision-making with intelligence is a gross misunderstanding. This despite whatever the cordyceps does.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:24 PM on March 26, 2013


Pyrogenesis: There's no decision-making going on. There's no intelligence.

The conflation of decision-making with intelligence is a gross misunderstanding. This despite whatever the cordyceps does.
Pyro, you're welcome to apply whatever definition you please, but I'll go with what's in the books. Your books may differ; in that case I'm no more wrong (by your books) than you are by mine. Decision-making (based on knowledge acquired from previous events, not random "decision-making") sounds like a pretty decent approximation of the definition linked.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:51 AM on March 28, 2013


The Violence Of The Lambs
The greatest threat to civilization in the next half century is not nuclear arms or global warming or a super-resistant virus that will wipe us out by the millions. John Jeremiah Sullivan contemplates the coming battle between man and beast
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:54 PM on March 31, 2013


My dog growing up would fake retch to get us up out of bed in a hurry to let him outside...as soon as someone appeared, he was all smiles and tail wags. There a million of these stories. Abstract thought of cause and effect, for sure.
posted by agregoli at 8:54 AM on April 4, 2013


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