Animal Intelligence

Alex the Parrot

Alex the Parrot performs a numeracy task

Many of the arguments against the abuse of animals draw on conclusions or anecdotes from the field of animal cognition studies. The idea is that evidence that animals have inner lives of thoughts, desires, emotions, and beliefs is also evidence for animals having moral value. This kind of argument makes sense because not only does it provide a reason to respect animals as individuals, but it also makes it easier for the average person to empathize with animals. The problem is that it’s really hard to figure out what an animal is thinking.

The Situation:

Because humans are creating the experiments, there is always some level of anthropomorphism, or assuming that a nonhuman animal thinks in a similar way to humans. This is a problem all the way from defining intelligence to designing the experiment to interpreting the results. The field has gotten pretty good at removing human interpretation and bias from the picture, but it’s impossible to get away from it completely. And there are cases where it is useful to make comparisons, since we all evolved on the same planet from the same ancestors by the same process. It makes sense that there would be similarities between the mental states of humans and other animals. Anthropomorphism can go both ways, but it’s an important thing to be aware of in this context.

It’s still true that humans are the gold standard when you’re talking about intelligence. When we find something that humans can do but other animals can’t, the animals are labelled unintelligent, and we get a little ego boost. But if we find something that an animal can do that we cannot (usually a perceptual ability), our own level of intelligence is not questioned. There’s certainly a double standard, where humans are assumed to be an intelligent species (according to humans) but other animals have to prove their intelligence or lack thereof on human-set tasks. We are essentially judging an animal’s intelligence on our ability to understand their motivations and behaviors.

Clearly, all animals do not have the same cognitive abilities. Each species has a unique evolutionary history that shapes not only its physical characteristics but its mental capacities as well. Therefore we could see just as much diversity in cognition as we do diversity in physical traits. We’re not at the stage where science can really evaluate this claim. Currently we are only trying to catalogue and compare different species. Unfortunately, this is in the context of studying intelligence, where almost universally, more human-like means more intelligent. I don’t think this is the best way to approach the problem, but that’s what the field does.

With that disclaimer, animals do not perform very well on tasks that are designed to test overall indications of intelligence, such as conceptualization, applying specific learned knowledge to general novel situations, planning ahead, episodic memory, theory of mind, or self-control. Many of these have been tested on humans using the same experiments, and humans, even very young children, greatly outperform animals. Of course, there could be biases implicit in the tasks that favor human cognition, but these results occur over and over in different studies. They also tend to be correlated with larger and more complex brains. When reading the actual results, it’s hard not to think of these abstract abilities as indicators of rationality. It really does seem to be the case that humans understand the world and their place in it at a level that animals simply don’t.

This is a very new field, and there is an incredible amount that we do not know (and may never know) about an animal’s inner life. Questions about animal emotions and inner experiences are much more difficult to study behaviorally. Studies that use neuroscience methods to study these problems are starting to be performed, but again, the results are compared to what we know about human brains and experiences, which is not a whole lot. However, there are certainly pertinent results on animal experiences that are quite convincing. For example, contrary to the popular belief that fish do not feel pain, the same chemical receptors thought to be responsible for the human experience of pain are present in fish bodies, and fish respond to painkillers in similar ways to humans. To varying degrees, the same results have been found in everything from lobsters to fruit flies to octopi.1 This still does not mean we know anything about what pain feels like to each of these animals, but the evidence is there that it does feel like something. This should already be enough to question our practices, but studies and anecdotal evidence on emotion and relationships between animals provide a great deal more.

The Ethical Questions:

What should define intelligence?

Should human cognition be considered the highest level of intelligence?

Is cognitive ability a good reason to treat some species differently than others?

What are the morally relevant aspects of cognition?


There are certainly problems with the way we study animal cognition and label some species as intelligent and others as not. However, I think we are not able to approach the problem any other way at this point. Perhaps in the far future, we will be able to come up with a less-biased definition of intelligence and more effective ways of measuring it. In the meantime, I strongly believe that we should continue studying animal cognition, as long as we keep these limitations in mind.

An underlying principle in the field is Morgan’s Canon, a variant of Occam’s Razor. It states that any behavior should be attributed to the simplest possible explanation. So if something could be caused by a low-level function like associative learning/conditioning, then we cannot attribute it to higher level cognitive processing. This means that many behaviors that could be attributed to conceptualization, planning ahead, or other sophisticated cognitive abilities end up being attributed to less complex processes. I actually think this is a good way to approach the problem. It leads to a great deal of care in designing experiments and a very critical eye when evaluating them. These are good scientific practices. In fact, I think the human psychology field could learn a lot from this principle. It seems that human behavior is automatically attributed to higher level processes, probably because those are the processes that are consciously available to us. I think if scientists studied human cognition in the same way that they study animal cognition, we would find that we have much more in common than people might think, and animals would be the main beneficiaries of this paradigm shift.

As I’ve hinted at above, rationality does not seem like a good rationale for our use and abuse of animals. It leads to contradictions and ends up as simple speciesism. This is where the idea of sentience comes in. As often happens in discussions of mental phenomena, the definition of sentience has not been entirely agreed upon, but it generally refers to a being’s ability to experience, feel, and perceive the external world. Scientific study has a long way to go before it can clearly draw lines between what is sentient and what isn’t, but there is evidence for sentience in mammals, birds, reptiles, certain fish, and certain invertebrates. The example I described above about fish and pain receptors is an example of scientific study on an aspect of sentience. Contrast this with plants or bacteria, studies of which have revealed very little evidence toward calling them sentient.

The other candidates for morally relevant cognitive faculties might be things like ability to suffer, strength of inter-animal relationships, or capacity for mental illness and its possible effects. These are unfortunately not as studied as typical measures of rationality, but I would argue that this is where the field of animal cognition should focus its resources in the interest of improving the lives of animals. That is a lot easier said than done, because these are very difficult to measure in an experimental setting, or even observationally and anecdotally.

Based on what we know, there is plenty of reason to change the way we deal with animals. Just as in the philosophical situation, there are fuzzy edges to all of these claims, but even if you stick to the middle cases, what we do is not justifiable using this evidence. There is every reason to believe that animals do feel some form of  pain, boredom, hopelessness (read up on learned helplessness), grief, joy, and other complex and morally relevant emotions. To assume otherwise doesn’t make any sense, not only because of the evidence, but because the moral ramifications of being wrong are huge. As we understand animals more and more, we generally find that these mental faculties of animals are more similar to us than what we previously assumed. So it makes sense to air on the side of attributing complex, morally relevant mental lives to non-human animals.

1 Wikipedia on animal pain


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