Time to Abdicate the Throne
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
Ah, to be kings, reigning from on high, overlords of other creatures, great and small. We’re smart, and they’re not at all. So, we treat them accordingly: as commodities, for food, for entertainment, and whatever use we deem.
After all, we wear the crown.
Who crowned us? Aristotle, for one. He said nature made animals for our sake, by virtue of our superior rationality. The Romans codified these ideas into law, whereby domestic animals became “legal things,” objects owned, mere property with the rights of, say, a chair. Those beliefs and legal definitions have changed little since. All because of “limited intelligence.”
Not So Dumb After All
However, scientific understanding evolved. Investigations into the cognitive, emotional, and social capacities of animals and advances in genetics, neuroscience, physiology, and other fields now demonstrate that humans and animals share a broad range of behaviors, capacities, and genetic material. We’re more alike than not. Turns out that "human" traits, such as ability to talk and think in the abstract, aren’t traits unique to humans after all.
Wanted: Rosetta Stones
Animals communicate verbally and with body language. Unfortunately for us, we lack Rosetta Stones to comprehend what they say. However, animals can be taught how to communicate with us on a level we understand.
Take, for example, Chaser, a Border Collie, who learned over 1,000 identifiable terms associated with objects. Upon being told to “find Inky,” she retrieved a stuffed octopus toy from a pile. When told to “find Darwin,” a term she’d never heard, she deducted it must be the new toy in the collection.
Alex, an African Grey parrot, spoke English. He identified objects, counted, and discerned colors, shapes, spatial relationships, and differences, all in a human language. He combined concepts to communicate a new idea. When he tasted cake for the first time, he said “yummy bread.”
Animals also understand symbolic representation for ideas, such as we do with writing and road signs. For example, dolphins read signs and act accordingly. Baboons learn word patterning and distinguish between fake and real 4-letter words.
“I Think, Therefore I Am”
“Cognitive thinking” is a broad term for paying attention, working memory, processing information (including abstract thought), reasoning, and problem solving. Animals are capable of cognitive thinking, sometimes putting us to shame.
Sameness and difference define key abstract ideas. Pigeons and baboons demonstrate a grasp of these concepts. Animals understand the concept of numbers, of quantity, as well as addition and subtraction. Macaque monkeys do math. Elephants count better than human children. Black bears also count. Dolphins use complex non-linear mathematics to navigate the seas.
When it comes to memory, humans take a backseat. Baboons can memorize over 10,000 pictures. Ayumu, a chimp, sees strings of numbers flash on a screen for a split-second and accurately duplicates the lineup, and is yet to be beaten at this task by man.
Rats are aware of choices, reasoning and thinking before acting. They’re better than humans at learning optimal strategies and sticking to them, whereas we second-guess ourselves and embrace misguided confidence. Dolphins routinely solve difficult problems. Pigs problem solve, learning as quickly as primates. Cows understand cause and effect and enjoy intellectual challenges. Elephants argue over directions.
The list of examples goes on, and these are the animals that have been extensively studied. They topple the old beliefs. Animals think. They don’t just react by instinct alone.
We could set a higher bar, such as understanding higher mathematics and physics. That would rule me out, let alone most humans over the millennia.
However, this is also a moral question, not just one of science. Even if we’re special, say by having opposable thumbs and the ability to create technology, does that mean only we deserve moral and legal consideration and we’re justified in our treatment of animals?
Maybe it’s time to reevaluate our elevated status and remove our royal garb.
Published in Pets in the City Magazine, May 2013