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Monday, January 18, 2010
Smarter Than You Think
Smarter than you think (Sunday Times Article 17/01/10)
The animal kingdom is home to much greater intelligence than has been previously acknowledged, with scientists seeing evidence of human-like traits everywhereJonathan Leake and Georgia Warren
It was the sight of a diminutive Diana monkey attacking a giant crowned eagle in the treetops of the Tai forest in Ivory Coast, west Africa, that gave Klaus Zuberbühler his great insight into the language of monkeys.
As the animal charged the bird it emitted screams that Zuberbühler, a psychologist at St Andrews University, knew he had heard before.
“When we analysed our recordings we realised it was different to all the other monkey alarm calls — except for when they were fighting off eagles,” said Zuberbühler.
The implication was a powerful one. Jungles such as the Tai forest are a cacophony of monkey shouts and screams. Researchers had assumed they were just simple markers of territory, distress or a desire to mate. What Zuberbühler’s findings suggested was something much more exciting: the monkeys were communicating with each other, in this case passing on complex information about a specific threat and its whereabouts. In other words, they had developed a rudimentary language.
Over the following months Zuberbühler and his colleagues recorded thousands more monkey calls and spent hundreds of hours listening to the animals. Slowly they learnt the language of the apes.
They found that the Campbell’s monkey, another species, has the ability to add suffixes to its calls, changing the meaning to tell one another of different threats or opportunities. When they saw a leopard, for example, they gave a “krack” alarm call, but when they were just repeating calls made by other monkeys they added an “oo”.
The males had another refinement, emitting a “boom boom” sound to call other monkeys towards them, but sometimes appending an “ooo” sound to warn of a falling branch or tree.
“We found they have six call types, three of which can take a suffix. It means they can put the sounds into sequences that convey complex meanings,” Zuberbühler said.
Perhaps most exciting of all was the discovery that the calls could be understood by other species of monkey — and even by birds such as hornbills.
It means, said Zuberbühler, that animals and birds can communicate complex ideas not just to their peers but also across species.
Zuberbühler’s research is exciting and by no means unique. In the past few years researchers have been finding similar examples of sentience and self-awareness across the animal kingdom in species ranging from elephants and dolphins to crows and parrots. Even sheep, cows and pigs appear to be far more self-aware and to lead more emotionally charged lives than we have previously understood.
It means that humans, used to regarding ourselves as unique in our ability to think and feel, are not so special. Increasingly scientists believe we are merely at the top of a spectrum of intelligence across the animal kingdom, rather than standing apart from it. We may be better at thinking and more able to articulate our feelings — but animals can do all the same things.
AMONG scientists, the idea that animals and birds might be sentient has been around a long time. Charles Darwin suggested there were good evolutionary reasons for complex organisms such as mammals to develop self-awareness. However, he had no evidence for it.
A prescient Darwin thought social animals that lived in groups would be the most likely to show signs of intelligence. It is a prediction that scientists are confirming over and over.
Dolphins, for example, were recently proposed as the world’s second most intelligent creatures after studies showed they had distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and could think about the future.
This was backed up by MRI scans showing their brains were second in mass only to those of humans when adjusted for body size.
Chimpanzees are perhaps the most obvious species for comparisons with humans, but their abilities can still surprise, as when researchers at Georgia State University’s language research centre in Atlanta taught some to “speak”.
They taught the animals to use voice synthesisers and a keyboard to hold conversations with humans. One chimp developed a 3,000-word vocabulary and tests suggested she had the language and cognitive skills of a four-year-old child.
Perhaps the most surprising signs of intelligence have been found in birds — whose tiny heads and small brains were long assumed to be a complete barrier to sentience. All that is changing fast, however, with many species showing powerful memories and reasoning power. A few years ago Irene Pepperberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology taught a parrot to recognise and count up to six objects and describe their shapes.
Last year that was topped by Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioural ecology at Oxford, who discovered that crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences, the first time such behaviour had been observed in non-humans. In an experiment seven crows successfully reeled in a piece of food placed out of reach using three different lengths of stick.
Crucially, they were able to complete the task without any special training, suggesting the birds were capable of a level of abstract reasoning and creativity normally associated only with humans.
Last week it emerged that researchers from Padua University in Italy had found that birds were able to read numbers from left to right, as humans do, and count to four even when the line of numbers was moved from vertical to horizontal. They also showed that birds performed better in tests after a good night’s sleep.
All this is powerful evidence against the idea that people are unique and, some argue, also undermines the idea that humans should have “dominion” over animals, as the Bible puts it.
This has traditionally been the justification for the exploitation and abuse of animals in many different ways, the most emotive of which is animal experimentation, particularly involving primates.
In terms of sheer numbers, though, it is farming that inflicts the most misery with about 60 billion animals farmed worldwide for food each year, most of them in intensive systems.
Recent campaigns by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the celebrity chefs, against battery-reared chickens highlighted how large poultry farms can cram up to 50,000 chickens into one shed, forcing the birds to live in their own faeces. Similar conditions are inflicted on other livestock such as pigs and cattle, again once thought of as dumb animals but which research has shown to be highly sentient.
John Webster, emeritus professor of animal husbandry at the University of Bristol, has studied the group dynamics of cows, finding that apparently peaceful herds are actually heaving with complex emotions. Cows can form intimate friendship groups of a few animals — or develop grudges that last for years. Sometimes they even turn lesbian, grooming, licking and trying to mount each other.
Research by Professor Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at the government’s Babraham Research Institute in Cambridge, looked at what goes on in the brains of animals such as sheep, suggesting remarkable similarities to humans.
In one experiment he showed that sheep are able to recognise the individual faces of at least 50 other sheep for up to two years. He also found that the electrical activity in the brain associated with recognising other individuals was similar to that seen in people.
“People see sheep as grass-eating robots but they are complex social animals. Their brains works in similar ways to our own,” he said.
Webster believes such complexity and possible self-awareness create a moral obligation to treat farm animals better. “What’s clear is that the animals we use on the farm, in the laboratory or in the home are able to experience emotions ranging from comfort and pleasure to pain and suffering,” he said.
“Our aim should be to keep them fit and happy: to create a physical and social environment where they can achieve a sense of wellbeing. This applies whatever may be our intentions for the animal: to love it, eat it, or to find a cure for cancer. Animals under our protection deserve a fair deal: a sense of wellbeing in life and a humane death.”
Such an approach has already been incorporated into law — but only for pets. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 said that humans have a duty of care for companion animals and cannot maltreat them for fear of legal retribution. Farm animals are excluded, which some say is based not on science but on the financial interests of the farming and food industries.
Joyce D’Silva, of Compassion in World Farming, said the research supported the idea that animals were sentient and had complex emotional needs and lives “not so different to our own”.
“Industrial farming ignores all those needs,” she said.
“We can see their physical distress but this research tells us it goes much deeper than that and affects their emotional health, too.”
ONE fascinating aspect of research into animal cognition is the insights it offers into how early humans might have developed intelligence.
There have been 15-20 species of human in the past several million years but modern humans are the only survivor. Why is this?
Some researchers suggest that from about 3m years ago early humans had to deal with a series of sudden changes in climate that could be survived only by co-operation and teamwork.
These would have placed a premium on skills such as rapid reasoning, communication and other social skills. Hominids such as Neanderthals, who were intelligent enough to produce jewellery and wear make-up, could not adapt fast enough and so perished — while we survived.
Such ideas suggest that the cognitive abilities of animals and humans lie on a spectrum. The skills of humans may be at the top end but they are no different in kind from those of many animal species.
Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, believes that some animals are bright enough to merit human rights. He suggests that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”.
Hyperbole, perhaps, but at a simpler level Zuberbühler has good reason to be thankful for the ability of animals to communicate complex information. Walking back to camp in the Tai forest he heard a group of monkeys screaming the warning call for a leopard.
That was nothing special but a few minutes later he passed a second group who took up the cry — and then the same happened with a third.
He said: “By then I had been listening to monkeys for long enough to recognise what the cries meant — I was being stalked by a leopard.”
Zuberbühler picked up a stick and ran for the camp, wishing he could thank the monkeys for their help.