Book: Animal wise

Virginia Morell writes about the exciting cutting edge of animal cognitive science. Kevin Orrman-Rossiter reviews.

Animal Wise: The thoughts and emotions of our fellow creatures
Virginia Morell, Black Inc Books RRP $29.99

Laughing rats, name-calling wild parrots, archerfish with a sense of humour and educated ants: Charles Darwin would have loved this book. The philosopher Rene Descartes, on the other hand, would have found it deeply troubling.

In Descartes’ dualist philosophy, the mind and body are separate entities – the material body and the immaterial mind or soul, linking humans to the mind of God.

He reasoned that animals are composed only of material substances and therefore have no capacity to reason. An animal, being material only, could never have a mind or a concept of “I”.

Darwin, on the other hand, attributed emotions to many animals and even argued that earthworms are cognitive beings. In his classic The Descent of Man he argued that we and other animals differ only in the degree of our mental powers, not in the nature of them.

Today researchers still debate whether animals’ abilities reflect human-like cognition, a debate brought beautifully to life in this book.

Each chapter focuses on an animal in a particular observational or experimental setting. Virginia Morell introduces us to the scientist and the animals, explaining the studies, the results and some of the trials and triumphs along the way. In some cases we have preconceived notions – captive dolphins, elephant memories, chimpanzees and language, dogs and humans. But with the more novel animals – ants and fish, for example – we don’t. I had never thought about the ability of ants to teach, for example.

The book does not claim to be an encyclopedic, academic or “balanced” presentation of the entire field, but a lively non-fiction tour of the cutting edge of animal cognitive science.

Morell translates the scientific jargon of the field into words that all can engage with. Each chapter is a separate story, some adapted from previously published articles, giving a rare glimpse into the scientific process and personality that is often missed in science writing.

Consider the archerfish and neuroscientist Stefan Schuster, for example. I learnt that Schuster has spent more than 40 years investigating how fish think and make decisions. The story is more than just his careful experimentation on fish behaviour. The idea of seeing life from the mind of a fish was something that grabbed Schuster as a child. Along the way he has made key discoveries about the sophisticated mental abilities of the archerfish.

Schuster and his students discovered that archerfish learnt how to shoot at difficult targets by watching other skilled fish perform the task. That means they had taken the viewpoint of the other fish. Did they copy or imitate? Either way, it involves cognition, and while we do not understand the relationship between cognition and sentience, scientists know that one informs the other.

Each chapter has great stories, good science and probing philosophy. It is unlikely to leave you viewing animals in quite the same way.

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