Edited by Brigid Hains. I met my first semipalmated sandpiper in a crook of Jamaica Bay, an overlooked shore strewn with broken bottles and religious offerings at the edge of New York City. Soon a flock formed, several hundred fast-trotting feeders that at some secret signal took flight, wheeling with the flashing synchronisation that researchers observing starlings have mathematically likened to avalanche formation and liquids turning to gas.
Entranced, I spent the afternoon watching them. The birds were too wary to approach, but if I stayed in one spot they would eventually come to me.
They followed the tideline, retreating when waves arrived, and rushing forward as they receded, a strangely affecting parade. When they came very close, their soft, peeping vocalisations enveloped me. I looked up their scientific classification, Calidris pusilla, conversationally known as the semipalmated sandpiper — a name derived from a combination of their piping signal calls and the partially webbed feet that keep them from sinking in the tidal sand flats of their habitat, where they eat molluscs, insect larvae and diatom algae growing in shallow, sun-heated seawater.
I learned that semipalmated sandpipers are the most common shorebird in North America, with an estimated population around 1. At that fact, I felt the sense of wonder and connection that all migratory birds inspire. Yet not once did I wonder what they thought and felt along the way.
How did they experience their own lives, not just as members of a species, but as individuals? It was a question outside my habits of thought, and occurred to me only months later, when I interviewed the American artist James Prosek. Prosek had not personally encountered many of the trout and salmon species that he painted. Instead, he accepted on faith their place within established taxonomic classifications.
The Linnaean system of classification — a hierarchical naming structure introduced by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in — might describe the world and its generalities, implied Prosek, but it could not capture the richness of an individual life. Several months after meeting Prosek, I was walking in Jamaica Bay on a bitterly cold and cloudless day when I saw semipalmated sandpipers again, running ahead of a pounding surf that caught the afternoon sun and sprayed their retreats with prisms. Simply put, did they enjoy it? Were they cold?
This oversight was not coincidental. The very history of taxonomy and attendant studies of animal behaviour is intertwined with a denial of individual animal consciousness. S cientific taxonomy began not in the 18th century with Carl Linnaeus but some 2, years earlier in ancient Greece, with philosophers who venerated rationality and the power of language.
The most rationalistic of Greek thinkers washed their hands of such sentiments.
Animal intelligence: the smartest animal species in the world
Aristotle introduced the notion of binomial nomenclature, grouping animals by whether or not they had blood, and whether they lived on land or in water, in a hierarchy with humans at the top. In his view, animals were incapable of any sensations but pain and hunger. Brutal as this sounds, Aristotle was practically an ancient Peter Singer compared with the Stoics such as Zeno of Citium, who insisted that animals felt nothing at all.
Notable critics included Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza and Voltaire, but their objections held little sway in an era of triumph for mathematics and the physical sciences. It was an intellectual moment most unfavourable to what could be felt but not quantified.
Recognizing Non-Human Intelligence
Thus beliefs about animals that would be considered psychopathic if acted out by a 21st-century child became tenets of Western scientific thought and, in this milieu, taxonomy as we know it took form. The science of taxonomy was driven by wonder and new discoveries in faraway lands, but this was not the whole of it. As Michel Foucault notes in The Order of Things , people had always been interested in plants and animals. What taxonomy satisfied was not simply curiosity but a desire for an overarching order to the world.
The great beauty of evolution, its essential profundity, is in placing humans among animals, not only in body but in mind. Linnaeus did have an extraordinary eye for detail, and combined his supreme ambition with a simple and powerful system for classification. It worked by comparing a few clearly visible, easily measurable anatomical traits: his natural history was based purely on surfaces.
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A century later, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier revolutionised taxonomy by introducing comparisons of internal anatomy, but, as far as the inner lives of animals went, this too was a superficial revolution. By the time of Cuvier, science had an entrenched species-first filter through which nature would be scientifically and culturally apprehended. Taxonomic science was far, however, from arbitrary. It was, and is, a wonderful means of describing the variations that do exist in the natural world.
Taxonomy — or modern-day systematics — provides a language with which it is possible to understand the sandpipers in that crook of Jamaica Bay as being part of a related group including oystercatchers and common terns.
Most importantly, taxonomy was a scaffold upon which evolutionary theory could be built. Although Linnaeus had believed the variation among animals was an immutable arrangement and divinely apportioned, evolutionary thinkers realised that these were family resemblances, to be elucidated more than a century later by Charles Darwin. And the great beauty of evolution, its essential profundity, is in placing humans among animals, not only in body but in mind. Just as humans shared physical traits with other creatures, Darwin argued, so we also shared mental traits.
How Can We Study the Evolution of Animal Minds?
By emphasising the kinship between animals and human beings, Darwinian taxonomy could have opened the door to thinking about the consciousness of individual animals. But, instead, the opposite happened. By the s, when the great systematist Ernst Mayr settled on a fuzzy but useful standard definition of a species — as a population with a common reproductive lineage that could interbreed — the possibility of animal consciousness and individuality, so evident to anyone with a pet dog or cat, was largely eliminated from mainstream science.
We could accept our animal bodies, and classify ourselves on that basis, yet had to avoid the implication that animals might have human-like minds. A new age of machines and industry spawned the behaviourism of the psychologist B F Skinner who, echoing Aristotle and Descartes, proposed that animals were nothing but conduits of stimulus and response as were humans. Seeming evidence of higher thought was an illusion produced by some simpler mechanism.
But the price was steep: decades would pass before scientists began to allow that some animals might be more than biological automata. In the s, Jane Goodall was mocked by her primatologist peers for speaking of chimpanzee emotions, such as a mother grieving for her dead infant. Even her use of gender-specific terms for individual chimpanzees was seen as anthropomorphic and unscientific. Caveats remain, of course. Yet even rats, it turns out, feel some empathy for one another.
A team at the University of Chicago found that rats became agitated when seeing surgery performed on other rats, and a follow-up study in found that, when presented with a trapped labmate and a piece of chocolate, rats free their caged brethren before eating. Those who study animal behaviour are still careful when talking about subjective experience — sure, Eurasian jays can guess what their mates want to eat, but who knows if they like each other?
The average person can safely speculate away: animal consciousness is a reasonable default assumption, at least for vertebrates, and not just in some dim sense of the word, but possessing forms of self-awareness, empathy, emotion, memory, and an internal representation of reality. Features such as working memory and episodic memory — keeping multiple pieces of information in mind and remembering what has happened, the cognitive fundaments of conscious experience — appear to be widespread. And the environmental challenges that might prompt the evolution of consciousness are widespread, too.
The study compares canine cognition to other carnivores, social hunters and domestic animals all groups that dogs fall into. Researchers used existing information on the behavior of several animals, including wolves, cats, dolphins, chimpanzees, pigs and pigeons to see if dogs possessed any special skills that weren't recorded in other species.
Fido's just not that exceptional. The good news is, there are a lot of different ways the study explores intelligence, which means you are free to cherry pick the parts in which dogs did as well, if not better, than other animals to make yourself feel better. For instance, while they're not particularly great at physical cognition interacting with and understanding objects around them , dogs seem to be at least average, if not ever-so-slightly above average, when it comes to social cognition, especially when they are taking cues from humans.
Still, the study concludes, "when a broad-enough set of comparison species is considered, there is no current case for canine exceptionalism.