Monday, March 8, 2010

Of wolves (and parrots) and men (and women): research and reflections on animal intelligence

For many years science and common sense were totally at odds when it came to the abilities of non-human animals. In recent years a slew of popular memoirs, not to mention philosophical texts, have testified to the deep bonds that can exist between us and our non-human friends (who hasn’t heard of Marley and Me, now a Hollywood film?).

Science has slowly caught up with the instinctive understanding of many that animals are sophisticated, intelligent beings with complex needs. It has destroyed one by one each treasured illusion about what humans alone are capable of; we’re not the only ones who can make tools, use language or think about the future, for instance. But its findings also pose a threat to our view of ourselves as the pinnacle of creation – if we’re not fundamentally different from other animals, who are we, and where exactly do we fit in the scheme of things?

Lupine philosophy

Research is showing that dogs, the ancestors of wolves, have complex inner lives, experience a range of emotions and possess a moral compass. The implications of this are beautifully explored in The Philosopher and the Wolf, a memoir-cum-philosophy text by Mark Rowlands.

For over a decade Rowlands, once one of those intellectuals who could abuse his body with impunity – he admits to having been drunk while writing his best-selling popular philosophy books, although he seems to have since calmed down – flitted from one philosophy post to another accompanied by his wolf hybrid, Brenin, purchased as a puppy.

Knowing Brenin would trash the place if left at home, Rowlands took his young wolf to his philosophy lectures. Brenin would lie quietly in a corner and snooze, but would sit up and start howling ‘when the lectures became particularly tedious’.

In what is now a well-established and almost cliched tradition, but one he injects with originality, Rowlands reflects on the close ‘brotherly’ relationship he shared with Brenin. He uses it as a basis for philosophising on humans’ attitudes towards and ethics regarding non-human animals; good and evil; and our obsession with finding happiness. There’s some autobiography thrown in but the focus is always on the central relationship. The book is very deliberately written for a general audience but the philosophising is original and although it’s mostly easy to understand, it doesn’t seem to be watered down.

I adored this book. The thing I liked most about it was that it explained to me why I am a bit dog-crazy. Rowlands has a beguiling theory about why so many of us love and need dogs. It apparently harks back to our being a species of ape. At some point in evolution, apes began to live in large and complex social groups. In order to survive in such groups, we developed a Machiavellian streak – the ability to hide our true feelings and motivations from the world, to scheme and dissemble to improve our social standing. Rowlands attacks the idea of the social contract, the theory that we submit to the rule of law to avoid chaos and bloodshed. He asserts that it simply reveals how calculating we apes are; it’s ‘a deliberate sacrifice for an anticipated gain’.

Wolves, in contrast, didn’t take the Machiavellian path, although they are just as dependent on the pack as we are on the clan. And it’s because of this inability to dissemble that we love dogs, the ancestors of wolves – we crave that lost simplicity, we long to escape from our evil ape selves, to be ‘the wolf we once were’ who ‘understands that happiness cannot be found in calculation’.

This makes perfect sense to me on many levels. We can’t be dogs, although we’d like to live in the present and not hold grudges like them. But it’s refreshing to be around that kind of honesty, to be in a world where the appearance matches the reality, and to experience that level of loyalty and affection. The beautiful and classic example of canine honesty is, of course, the dog’s involuntarily wagging tail.

We are frequently humbled by the noble qualities of dogs and other mammals. A few years ago animal researcher Marc Bekoff caused controversy when he claimed that in some respects animal morality might be ‘purer’ than that of humans.

This may be true. But perhaps humans, simply because we live in a world set up for our species, often have many more choices to make, and more freedom, when it comes to morality than do non-human animals. Well-socialised dogs (and wolves) may not have to work at being good in the way that John Ames did in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, for example.

Could the term ‘bird brain’ be a compliment?

Dogs are not the only ones who amaze, delight and nurture us. Alex was an African Grey parrot who revealed startling abilities during the course of 30 years working with researcher Irene Pepperberg, despite having ‘a brain the size of a walnut’ (Alex and Pepperberg are pictured above).

Pepperberg’s findings radically altered the scientific consensus on the intelligence of birds, and showed that the brains of birds are much more similar in structure to human brains than was previously thought. Her work also helped to challenge the long-held dominance of behaviourism in science, which assumed that animals were basically automatons. Pepperberg tells the story of her relationship with Alex in her touching memoir Alex and Me.

Pepperberg is a gifted scientist. She is a currently an adjunct professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and a lecturer at Harvard. With a PhD in chemistry, she came to animal communication belatedly and, hampered by gender as well as her then-controversial research area, struggled for years in cramped corners of university labs with tiny funding grants. But eventually she and Alex won through, and indeed he had become something of a celebrity before his sudden and unexpected death in 2007 at the age of 38. Pepperberg was still teaching him new skills at the time and remains convinced that he hadn’t yet reached his full potential.

Over his career, Alex learned ‘object labels (words), categories, concepts and numbers’. He could distinguish whether an object was the same as or different from another object in terms of colour, shape or material (‘matter’), a sophisticated cognitive task that was beyond what primates were being tested for at the time.

When presented with a tray showing objects of different shapes and colours, including blocks in more than one colour, he could say, for example, how many green blocks there were. He could also tell whether one object was bigger or smaller than another object. He learned to count, and could distinguish between a higher number and a larger object. He learned parts of words – phonemes – and, when presented with refrigerator letters in different colours, could tell what colour a particular sound was, and which sound was a particular colour.

Pepperberg is committed to the scientific project and that’s one thing that makes reading the book so worthwhile. It also means that the most stunning examples of Alex’s intelligence didn’t make it to the scientific literature because they sometimes got in the way of the experiment to establish intelligence; although the tests were effective, they were too reductive to limn every aspect of Alex’s abilities. Simply, he sometimes got bored with the experiments and joked around. Here’s a wonderful example, which occurred when Alex had already successfully passed many tests confirming his knowledge of colours, and had answered such questions ‘dozens of times’:

… we would ask him, “What color key?” and he would give every colour in his repertoire, skipping only the correct color …We were pretty certain he wasn’t making mistakes, because it was statistically near to impossible that he could list all but the correct answer. These observations are not science, but they tell you a lot about what was going on in his head …

Earlier, Pepperberg relates that Alex once made up a new word combination. He had just been given a piece of apple for the first time and been told the name of it. But he stubbornly refused to repeat the word apple, calling it ‘banerry’ instead because it reminded him of banana and looked like a large cherry. When Pepperberg didn’t at first get what he was trying to do, he patronisingly spelt it out to her in the way she carefully pronounced new words to him: ‘he said, very slowly and deliberately, “Ban-err-eee”’.

Let’s be clear, Alex didn’t merely copy phrases – he held conversations. However, Pepperberg wasn’t going to buy into what was then a controversy over whether animals were actually speaking, ie using language as humans do; she called her area of study animal communication. But her accounts of some of the conversations are incredible. This doesn’t mean that Alex necessarily knew the meaning of every word he used, but he understood the effect of the phrases.

One example is his use of ‘I’m sorry’. He frequently yelled it out when he’d been uncooperative and the researchers were angry with him. Pepperberg never knew whether he understood it only as a means of defusing others’ anger or whether he was actually sorry – probably the former. In that way he was very like a young child who seeks to restore favour with her parents. And indeed he was shown to have the intelligence of a five-year-old human (astoundingly, he also seems to have had greater numerical ability than chimpanzees).

During their years together, Pepperberg had tried to maintain scientific objectivity and so had not let herself get too close to Alex, but when he died she was engulfed by a powerful grief. She stills continues to work with African Greys, however, and Griffin, a Grey she now works with, also shows considerable ability.

Parrots and apes are not the only animals to possess high levels of intelligence. Dolphins are able to think about the future and crows have been shown to use ‘multiple tools in complex sequences’. These kinds of findings are leading some animal advocates to call for animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins to be given some rights that are equivalent to human rights.

Earth rules, okay?

For my own part I don’t find these testaments to the closeness between human and non-human animals either surprising or comfortable. I still eat free-range chicken because of an extremely limited diet due to allergies. I imagine that if I tended free-range chickens I would bond with them and come to know their separate personalities. It’s the brutality of the human world that is the subject of a book with a very different focus to those described above, John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.

Straw Dogs is a philosophical slap in the face to humanism. It seems to be advocating an extreme form of Darwinism mixed up with James Lovelock’s revolutionary concept of the earth as Gaia, a living, self-correcting organism.

Gray believes that humans have overrun the Earth and are set for ruin; that our lifestyle won’t destroy the Earth, but instead will ultimately lead to a vastly reduced human presence.

Gray mows down a number of cherished philosophical assumptions. For example, he disagrees with Richard Dawkins's belief that humans will ever be able to control science and technology and use them only for progress. Instead he insists that they will continue to be used to wage war and cause widespread destruction, death and suffering.

Mark Rowlands, the wolf-owning philosopher, believes that humans show true goodness only when we act morally towards ‘those who have no power’ (including animals), because only in that situation do we act without thinking of what we’ll get in return. Gray, in contrast, insists that we must accept the fact that humanity is essentially evil and self-serving, and that good will never prevail. For Gray, Humans are not just evil but foolish; they are in love with abstract thinking and always trying to seek a purpose in life. The only goal in life, he believes, should be ‘to see’.

It’s a curious argument, and indeed I found much to disagree with. What I was most impressed with, though, was Gray’s ability to dismiss human delusions about our superiority to nature, particularly in relation to animals. He’s very positive about hunter–gatherer societies, not because he romanticises them – they are capable of causing the extinction of particular species, for example – but because they do not populate to the extent that settler societies do, and they live more harmoniously with nature through sheer necessity.

Gray believes that the development of farming has caused all the current environmental problems we face, and he insists that we would have been better off if we’d never done it. Anyone reading Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River might agree: the main character, William Thornhill, an English settler in colonial New South Wales, decides that, unlike in Western society, Indigenous people live so well in their own environment that they are all ‘gentry’.

Gray’s daring thesis is despoiled and cheapened by his failure to even mention feminism – not once. If that theory doesn’t represent genuine social progress, what does? Sure, it’s progress for only a tiny percentage of the world’s population, but if its ideas were to spread, that would affect for the good the population explosion that is one of Gray’s central concerns (he talks about this in a disturbingly abstract way, as if it has nothing to do with actual female bodies that often have no choice but to reproduce).

This glaring omission doesn’t destroy his argument, although the inclusion of feminism would have added nuances and complexities that are missing. Nor does Gray bother with the research that shows that doing good (even if it’s done in a world in which evil prevails) leads to greater contentment. It’s as if Gray is ever so slightly succumbing to the modern requirement that opinion-makers be shocking and controversial, even when that means ignoring the inconvenient grey areas (no pun intended).

But what makes this book worth reading is its provocative challenge to humans’ assumption that we are the centre of the universe. Darwin’s daring theory of evolution remains as vulnerable to dangerously retrograde interpretations as any religion – look at eugenics – but it also provides the basis for a much greater respect for the natural world, and this is where the main strengths of Gray’s argument lie.

While these three books differ greatly from one another, they all come to the conclusion that, in Pepperberg’s words: ‘We are not superior to all other beings in nature. The idea of humans’ separateness from nature is no longer tenable.’


  1. Dogs are NOT the ancestors of wolves. Wolves are the ancestors of dogs. Otherwise, I really like what you write (tho I already knew the info and have read the books).

  2. Hi and thanks for commenting. I did a quick search and couldn't find anything to the effect that wolves are the ancestors of dogs (Wikipedia says that dogs are the descendants of wolves), but I'm no biologist. I'm wondering if you mean that wolves are themselves descended from species that were smaller and perhaps more dog-like than wolves are now - this website has some interesting info about one of the ancestors of the Gray Wolf, Cynodicits, which it describes as being much smaller than the wolf of today 'with short legs and a flexible body'