Jan 13 12:05

Animal Intelligence

I found these three videos on the intelligence of three very different animals: crows, octopuses, and pigs.

All three have in recent years astonished researchers by showing themselves to be significantly more intelligent than had originally been thought. All three are among the most intelligent animals on the planet.

But notice the difference in tone in the video about the pigs. Pigs are often regarded as the most intelligent non-primate and non-cetacean, but the video about them is filled with euphemism and even mockery. Somehow, their status as "food" means that we don't have to take the implications of their intelligence seriously.

It was also much harder to find a video on pig intelligence - apart from the Compassion in World Farming video.

What do you think? Is there a bias against farmed animal intelligence? Do we deliberately observe farmed animals to be less intelligent?

Nov 10 08:39

A review of "The Age of Empathy"

Last night I finished reading The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal. The book is an evolutionary examination of empathy, which de Waal finds examples of in many animals as well as humans. He breaks apart the idea that only humans feel emotions, of which empathy is one. He also argues that humans are not only linked to animals through our "negative" traits (violence, competition, etc) but also through our "nobler" traits (empathy, consolation, fairness).

To be honest, I think it's really a no-brainer to see that animals have emotions and share commonalities with humans. Humans add some complexity to these traits, but working together, communication, or politics appear in other animals as well. Really, anyone who lives with animals and tries to see them for what they are begins to see this. Being open to what animals can communicate to us helps us understand them better.

There's this idea that science teaches that animals are not like us at all, that they do not have emotions like us. de Waal attempts to turn this idea around and show that emotions have evolved through a long process, a process which began millions of years ago and well before even primates existed. To read a book by an eminent scientist talking about the emotional lives of animals is delightful, even if only because it confirms my own ideas about animals.

de Waal's comfortable and straightforward style, combined with stories, both anecdotal and drawn from his research, make the book a pleasurable read. He explains evolutionary theory in such a way that even I can sort of understand it, and he made me aware of some parts of the theory that I hadn't previously known about.

For instance, I learned that there are 2 messages of evolutionary theory. The first is "that all plants and animals, including ourselves, are the product of a single process." This is basically what I was taught in school. The second, though, is more controversial: "We are continuous with all other life forms, not only in body but also in mind." This doesn't mean that there is some transcendent connection between all life, but rather that evolution pertains to physical characteristics as well as mental or psychological. Our brains have evolved along with our bodies, and many of the mental characteristics that we like to think are unique to humans really have their roots in a much earlier evolutionary period.

de Waal puts this nicely:

For the Darwinist, there is nothing more logical than the assumption of emotional continuity. Ultimately, I believe that the reluctance to talk about animal emotions has less to do with science than religion. And not just any religion, but particularly religions that arose in total isolation form animals that look like us.... Only the Judeo-Christian religions place humans on a pedestal, making them the only species with a soul.

Later he writes:

When it comes to characteristics we don't like about ourselves, continuity is rarely an issue. As soon as people kill, abandon, rape, or otherwise mistreat one another we are quick to blame it on our genes. Warfare and aggression are widely recognized as biological traits, and no one thinks twice about pointing at ants or chimps for parallels. It's one with regard to noble characteristics that continuity is an issue, and empathy is a case in point.

He ends the book with a call to us all to build on our empathic nature: "To call upon this inborn capacity can only be to any society's advantage." I completely agree, but I would draw it out even further with a wish to extend our empathy to other animals. We are similar in many ways, and we should be very able to empathize with even animals that are quite unlike us.

This brings me to think about how humans relate to animals. I think that whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not, we know at a deep level that animals are like us and feel similarly in many ways. People who kill or mistreat animals, even if they don't realize that this is the case, suffer psychological stress - or else are deeply psychopathic. Psychopathic people are not affected by the suffering of others – they are completely lacking in empathy.

I think that our empathy for animals (and our empathy for other humans as well in many cases) is repressed, but it does still affect us. There have been books written about the links between abuse of animals and spousal abuse later in life, and quite likely animal abuse leads to other violent acts. I don't mean that violence towards animals is simply an indicator of violent tendencies, but rather that we know, at a prehensile level, that animals suffer like we do.

Most of the time most people don't do anything that directly harms animals. But as a society we harm billions of animals every year. It's reasonable to expect that we feel this harm on a deep level, a level that none of us will acknowledge.

At some point I'll try to clarify my thoughts on this, but for now I'd just like to suggest that you pick up a copy of this book and read it. It is an excellent introduction to the blossoming field of study of animal emotions. It provides useful evidence and background for any arguments against charges of "anthropomorphism" which are really so much bunk in the face of real science.

Nov 09 11:15

Remembering the hidden victims of war: the animals

Several years ago I saw a film by Emir Kustrica called Underground. The first scene of the movie depicts the bombing of a zoo.

Very often in wars animals suffer even though they have no part in our conflicts. Not only are animals killed as uncounted and unconsidered "collateral damage," but they are also often used in wars.

This Remembrance Day (November 11th for you Americans), I am going to be thinking of them.

Animal Aid, a UK animal protection group, has published a booklet detailing some of the wartime use of animals. (Download a pdf of the booklet.)

From Hannibal's historic campaign using elephants in Roman battles to 'Roborats' - rats with electrodes wired into their brains by scientists keen to harness their acute sense of smell - animals have suffered throughout history in human conflicts.

Valued for their outstanding abilities and forced into wars not of their making, animals have often been treated as little more than disposable tools, kept alive only for as long as they are useful, and then killed or abandoned to fend for themselves.

In Animals: The Hidden Victims of War, we remember the animals used as messengers, in detection, scouting and rescue, as beasts of burden and on the frontline. We remember the animals taken from the wild and used as mascots, for companionship in the trenches and all those who continue to be subjected to warfare experiments in laboratories.

Wikipedia has a page about military use of animals, which details some of the disturbing ways we have used animals as transport, communications, or weapons. It's not enough that we kill and maim our own kind, but we must force other species into our fights, battles which they had no part in making and likely have no interest in pursuing.

Animal Aid has produced a purple poppy that can be worn on Remembrance Day:

Throughout history, animals have suffered and died as a result of human conflicts. Remember the animal victims of war this year by wearing a PURPLE poppy.

War should never be celebrated - and we should be remembering those who died without choice. Let's remember the innocents dragged into conflicts that were not of their own choosing. Let's remember the victims of war.

Oct 29 09:32

Reading "The Age of Empathy"

I'm in the middle of reading The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal. So far it's really good, even though I'm somewhat struck that it takes scientific experiments to verify what many animal activists have taken as a given for so long.

I'll likely write up a more comprehensive review of the book when I finish, since I'm enjoying it so much, but for now I thought I would just offer some quotes from the book that I have found important or meaningful.

Our nobler strivings come into play only once the baser ones have been fulfilled. If attachment and empathy are as fundamental as proposed, we had better pay close attention to them in any discussion of human nature. There is also no reason to expect these capacities only in humans. They should manifest themselves in any warm-blooded creature with hair, nipples, and sweat glands, which is part of what defines a mammal.

This obviously includes those pesky little rodents.

(p. 69)

...Animal studies are now seriously lagging behind what we know about human empathy. This may be changing though, thanks to a new study by Canadian scientists, titled "Social Modulation of Pain as Evidence for Empathy in Mice." This time, the word empathy is free of quotation marks, reflecting the growing consensus that emotional linkage between individuals has the same biological basis in humans and other animals.

(p. 70)

With preconcern in place, learning and intelligence can begin to add layers of complexity, making the response ever more discerning until full-blown sympathy emerges. Sympathy implies actual concern for the other and an attempt to understand what happened.... Since this is the level of sympathy that we, human adults, are familiar with, we think of it as a single process, as something you either have or lack. But in fact, it consists of many different layers added by evolution over millions of years. Most mammals show some of these – only a few show them all.

(p. 96)

...Taking someone else's perspective is not limited to human adults. It is best developed in animals with large brains, but those with smaller brains don't necessarily lack the capacity.


Commitment to others, emotional sensitivity to their situation, and understanding what kind of help might be effective is such a human combination that we often refer to is as being humane. I do believe that our species is special in the degree to which it puts itself into another's shoes. We grasp how others feel and what they might need more fully than any other animal. Yet our species is not the first or only one to help others insightfully. Behaviorally speaking, the difference between a human and an ape jumping into the water to save another isn't that great. Motivationally speaking, the difference can't be that great either.

(p. 107)

Have a look at this photo and story about chimpanzees gathering to mourn the death of one of their own. A timely example of animals exhibiting emotions.