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Can Animals Think?

It's always been obvious to me that they do, at various levels. I've always found bizarre the notion of some scientists that only humans are capable of cognition. As this long but interesting article points out, it makes no sense in evolutionary terms. The cognitive traits that we have had to have their origins somewhere, though what's even more interesting is that it seems to be a parallel development (that is, like the eye, intelligence has evolved more than once). And it's not anthropomorphizing to recognize clear thoughtful and volitional behavior in cats and dogs. I don't understand the thinking of these modern-day Descartes (he didn't believe that animals were capable of feeling pain) who believe that animals are simply automatons. But then, some of these loons didn't believe that newborns were capable of feeling pain, either, and used to (and perhaps still do) perform major surgery sans anesthesia, ignoring the screaming.

[Via Geek Press]



Paul F. Dietz wrote:

You seem to be missing a link there.

kayawanee wrote:

I think what separates humans from other animals is meta-cognitive abilities. Humans possess the ability to examine their own thinking processes.

I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing though!

Bob wrote:


If you didn't have meta-cogntive abilities, what would you be like? Could you talk? Could you learn to read and write? Could you learn to build a spacecraft and go to the moon? (For that last question, I mean, to the extent that you can learn to do that now?) Could you make analogies? Could you remember past failures and learn from them? Could you be skeptical of yourself? Could you think about thinking, even if you couldn't think about your own thinking? Would you feel "conscious"? I'm leaning toward answering yes in all cases.

Ed Minchau wrote:

video of an elephant painting a self-portrait:

kayawanee wrote:


Meta-cognition also does something else. It provides the ability analyze the statements of others and to distinguish between what is serious versus what is said with irony, sarcasm, or jest.

The exclamation point should have made that clear. Next time I'll try to remember the [/sarc] tag.

Bob wrote:


No, no, I got it -- your last sentence made me chuckle!

Many people also believe what you said about meta-cognition is true.

Rand, if you are reading this, this is why Obama is right about the usefulness of summit meetings -- Kayawannee and I can't figure out how seriously to take each other, because written communication often doesn't cut it -- too many cues are missing.

(Now, did I need meta-cognition to write the above sentence or not?)

Bbrewer wrote:

It seems that cognition has poor definition or at the very least, categorized levels.

Paul Breed wrote:

I'm thinking about thinking
I'm thinking about thinking about thinking
I'm thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking

Argaaaahhh recursion, stack overflow....

Sgt. Detritus wrote:

I fink, derefor I am ... I fink.

What separates humans from animals is that humans can comprehend things that have no physical existence.

Ethics is the best and easiest to explain example of this. Physical observation can reveal what will injure or benefit a creature, but not that we have any obligation to value that creature's well-being - or, conversely, to value its suffering.

Art is another abstract concept. Physical works of art certainly exist, the oldest known artifacts being found in the caves of Lascaux, but the very notion of artistic value is pure abstract. To a chimp, a limestone model of the Sphinx is just a rock; to us it takes on a value that only a human can understand.

Humans comprehend other forms of abstract meaning, such as attaining a high score in a computer game.

Non-sapient animals also appear to have no capacity for storytelling - they appear to comprehend only physical reality, not the hypothetical.

Ed Minchau wrote:

Alan, that video of the elephant painting a self-portrait shows me that at least that one elephant handles abstract thought very well indeed (particularly at the end of a video, as it paints a flower being held in the painted elephant's trunk). It isn't the only elephant that paints either; the practice is becoming quite common at zoos around the world, as zookeepers seek ways to keep their elephants mentally engaged.

You are talking about something very different - the ability to record a crude image of what one sees. (The elephants aren't even doing that - they are trained to manipulate the brush in certain patterns - see Snopes.)

I am talking about the capacity to comprehend something as art, to place aesthetic value on something. Animals show no sign of thinking in terms of aesthetics. Dogs especially - they tend to be slobs :-)

Habitat Hermit wrote:

Considering how smart dogs are being proven to be I guess at least some people must wonder how far ahead of us cats are ^_^

Jokes aside I agree completely with Rand.

Not directly related but rats laugh when tickled (although we can't hear it because it's so high-pitched) and according to the experiments they both tickle each other other and enjoy it the way most human children (and at least some adults) would. Makes you wonder if perhaps they share jokes too ^_^ (in my defense rats are known to be fairly intelligent).

Great article (that Alan doesn't seem to have read) however there's indication that other life than mammals and birds also have a lot of intelligence (various squid and octopuses, some amazing crustaceans, even arachnids)

Common songbirds have been shown to have regional dialects in Britain and I've heard (or read somewhere but failed to find it later) reports of city songbirds imitating among other things mobile ringtones. Makes me wonder if it's not just humans that are trying to communicate across the boundary between species.

Great article (that Alan doesn't seem to have read)

The article doesn't address the type of intelligence I'm talking about. I was responding to the earlier statement about what separates humans from other animals.

Josh Reiter wrote:

I think one of the things that sets us apart from animals is the ability to work together as a team on a higher order. In fact all that we know and take for granted on a daily basis was built upon the successive efforts of other individuals before us whom contributed their work hours to the greater good of humanity as a whole. Animals can accomplish to a limit extent when they build hives or burrow intricate structures beneath the ground that are used by later generations. But that doesn't approach the complexity of a football team, or a Hadron collider, or a War.

Mac wrote:

I would agree Josh if you left the big picture of building on that which our ancestors left. Pack hunters of the animal kingdom use effective tactics to achieve their goals. Some of those tactics have been successfully used by humans in warfare as well.

Anonymous wrote:

I think that animals can things and that they have the same abilities that humans have

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on April 4, 2008 6:35 AM.

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