Author Morell raises question of animal cognition, thinking

BY ALANNA KOEHLER ’15
Managing Editor

Virginia Morell, contributing correspondent for Science and author of four books, visited the College to deliver a lecture and to speak at the Writers House Tuesday. Morell’s previous works include Blue Nile, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Travel Book of the Year, Wildlife Wars, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and Ancestral Passions, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her most recent book, Animal Wise, was released in February 2013.

Animal Wise, a book exploring animal cognition and behavior, features F&M’s own Elizabeth Lonsdorf, assistant professor of psychology, in a chapter entitled “What it Means to be a Chimpanzee.” Lonsdorf is a primatologist who attended the Jane Goodall Institute’s Center for Primate Studies at the University of Minnesota and studied at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

Morell’s newest book covers not only chimpanzees but also ants, fish, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, dogs, and wolves, with each chapter exploring a behavioral or cognitive feat of each animal. These animals have defied the beliefs of earlier behaviorists and many other scientists who maintain animals are not capable of having the same thoughts, intentions, feelings, and personalities as humans.

In her Tuesday lecture, Morell began with an anecdote about her dog, who devised a hunt-and-chase game with a pinecone. She recalled marveling at the fact her dog had an imagination.

“Well, why wouldn’t she have an imagination?” Morell said, in response to her own surprise. “Why would we think in general that animals don’t think?”

The answer to those questions is not a simple one but one that requires the consideration of decades worth of beliefs, conventions, and practices.

“So why was I surprised when our pup invented a game?” Morell wrote in the introduction of Animal Wise. “I think because at that time, in the late 1980s — not so very long ago — scientists were still stuck on the question ‘Do animals have minds?’ A cautious search was underway for the answer, and the researchers’ caution had spilled over to society at large. In those days, if you suggested dogs had imaginations or rats laughed or had some degree of empathy for another’s pain, most people (and not just scientists) were likely to sneer at and accuse you of being sentimental and of anthropomorphizing — interpreting an animal’s behavior as if the creature were a human dressed up in furs and feathers.”

However, in her book and lecture, Morell explained how Jane Goodall, the famous ethologist who studied chimpanzees at Gombe National Park, was one of the first people to document chimpanzee personalities and take notes on their social hierarchies, thoughts, and behaviors. While Goodall knew she could not publish her anecdotal, seemingly anthropomorphized findings, she played an integral role in changing the way scientists approach animal cognition.

“Goodall wanted to understand what life is like for a chimpanzee in the natural world, and — at least to herself in the beginning — she ascribed to them emotions and intelligence enough to make decisions,” Morell wrote. “She did not realize how subversive or revolutionary her approach was until she submitted her first scientific papers. But Goodall kept at it, letting her discoveries speak for themselves, and, with each one, chipped away at the prevailing notion that humans alone are capable of thought.”

One of Morell’s main arguments is against the idea that human beings are vastly superior to animals or reside on the top rung of a linear evolution. She focuses instead on what humans and animals have in common.

“Evolution is not linear,” she wrote. “It is divergent — which means that we all sit on the limbs of a bushy tree, each species as evolved as the next, the anatomical differences largely as a result of ecology and behavior. The processes of natural selection have shaped every organism on the tree of life in response to the challenges its ancestors faced.”

To put this idea in perspective, Morell cites sharks, who have existed for more than 2,000 times as long as humans, as an example of how complexity does not necessarily equal superior adaptation.

“Our human brains are undeniably more complex anatomically than those of sharks,” she wrote. “But sharks have survived throughout the ages because they have evolved brains perfectly designed for how they hunt, find mates, and reproduce in their environment.”

Sharks are not the only animals with sophisticated brains, however. Fish, too, can have remarkable abilities, as Stefan Schuster, a neuroscientist who studies archerfish, explained to Morell when she visited his lab at the University of Erlangen.

Morell read: “‘Intelligent circuitry can be assembled in any brain; that’s my big belief,’ Schuster told me. ‘It’s not limited to those animals with large brains and many neurons. If evolution requires [this kind of intelligent circuitry], it will be assembled — even with a small number of neurons.’”

Throughout her presentation and book, Morell spoke of numerous examples of surprising and endearing animal encounters and discoveries akin to the acknowledgment of the survival and adaptive abilities of sharks. While addressing students in Adams Auditorium, she shared interesting facts, including how songbirds rehearse their songs in their sleep and how caterpillars remember unpleasant tastes when they metamorphose into moths.

“Not only do humpback whales have songs that they sing and these songs pass from the Eastern side of the Pacific to the west, but they actually have regional dialects and accents,” she continued. “But so do cows. They too have accents when they move from one region to another.”

Specific chapters in Animal Wise address teaching in ants, vocal mimicry in captive parrots, communication of wild parrotlets, and elephant mourning. The book explores dolphin social dynamics as well as human-dolphin relationships — in more detail than one can possibly imagine.

Relationships between species are another large focus of her work, as she illustrates the bonds between humans and both dolphins and dogs, providing poignant and disturbing examples to her readers and audiences. However, her point is most visible when she discusses chimpanzees.

“I also went to Japan to meet Professor [Tetsuro] Matsuzawa, who studies the chimpanzees at the Institute of Primate Research at Kyoto University,” Morell said. “He has a very unusual relationship with his chimpanzees. It’s somewhat closer than most researchers would do. You would never normally see a researcher sitting actually in a caged environment like this closed environment [in the photo] with their animals, but he and his fellow researchers treat their animals as if they are equals in a way, if not actually superior to them.”

Matsuzawa and his team allow the chimpanzees to sit in high places during studies and travel in catwalks above the lab. They also speak to the chimps like they are humans, contributing to a more amicable, respectful environment, which Morell and Matsuzawa alike seem to hold as the ideal research situation.

“‘I really do not understand this need for us always to be superior in all domains,’” Morell wrote, quoting Matsuzawa. “‘Or to be separate, so unique from every other animal,’ he said. ‘We are not. We are not plants; we are members of the animal kingdom.’”

Matsuzawa’s thinking reflects Goodall’s previous notions that to study animals effectively one must understand them and respect them. Morell and the researchers she portrays in her book all agree humans should focus on this understanding rather than waste time debasing animal thought and reworking definitions to put humans in a place of power.

“What I’m interested in is: how do we find out what’s going on in other animal minds, and what can that tell us, then, about minds in general?” Morell said. “We live on a planet where minds are all around us, and yet we are here also at a time of the sixth extinction. We’re losing them even as we’re just at the point where we’re finally acknowledging that other animals do have minds. So we want to think about our relationship with the other creatures; we want to be sure that we treat them well. We truly, truly want to find a way to make sure that other animals have the space and the resources they, too, need to survive on our planet.”

Morell ended her book and her lectures with a message regarding tolerance of the notion that animals have minds and a call to action for the animal conservation movement. Preventing animal extinction will help to preserve these minds for as long as possible so humans can learn from them and glean an appreciation for these intelligent creatures.

“What do the minds of animals tell us about ourselves?” Morell read in conclusion. “That, like us, they think and feel and experience the world. That they have moments of anger, and sorrow, and love. Their animal minds tell us that they are our kin. Now that we know this, will our relationship with them change?”

Questions? Email Alanna at akoehler@fandm.edu.

[fblike layout=”standard” show_faces=”true” action=”recommend” font=”arial” colorscheme=”light”]
print