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Rats Who Giggle

The new world of animal cognition

Attila Kisbenedek /AFP /Getty

Two capuchin monkeys are sitting in separate chambers where they can see each other. Researchers have asked each monkey to do the same task, and they both earn a reward for performing it correctly. But one gets cucumber slices and the other gets grapes—a much tastier treat. At first, the monkeys do the task and get their respective rewards, no problem. But then the monkey getting cucumber slices glances over and notices her companion’s grapes. She throws a huge tantrum, tossing away her cucumber slices. The researchers conclude she is willing to give up perfectly good food because she’s upset that her companion is getting something better—an unequal reward for equal work. Monkeys, it seems, have a sense of fairness. “To see it so vividly on display in a monkey helps us understand that our own sense of fairness, rather than being a product of our vaunted rationality, is rooted in basic emotions,” writes primatologist Frans de Waal in his newest book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. Studying the primate mind, he argues, helps us understand the biological roots of our own.

That de Waal can draw any conclusion about human minds from the study of animal minds without being hooted down by a chorus of angry voices is a rather new and noteworthy development. In the past few years, popular books about the science of animal cognition, such as Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz or The Dolphin in the Mirror by Diana Reiss, have begun claiming territory on bookstore shelves, but, until recently, talking about animal minds at all—much less what they might teach us about our own—was considered taboo in most scientific circles.

This taboo has roots that reach as far back as Aristotle’s Scala Natura, a “ladder of life” that placed humans on a rung above all animals (Aristotle wasn’t thinking “other animals”). This hierarchy was later reinforced by Augustine, Aquinas, and the Scholastics, who added the concept of soul—humans have one; animals don’t. But perhaps the most influential (and damning) view of animals came from the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes, who argued that animals are unthinking, unfeeling automata. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin argued that mental traits such as consciousness and emotion have evolved across species, but that part of his revolutionary theory was basically ignored. The view of animals as biological machines with no inner life persisted in mainstream science well into the twentieth century and was bolstered by the growing influence of “behaviorism”—which held the minds of animals, humans included, can’t be directly observed or measured and therefore can’t be studied scientifically.

In the 1960s, the “cognitive revolution” ushered the human mind back into the realm of research, but resistance to studying animal minds remained. A few intrepid researchers, such as Jane Goodall, were collecting data that showed animals live in complex social groups and have rich inner lives, but it wasn’t until the ’80s and ’90s that the science of animal minds began to be taken seriously.1 Rather than being dismissed as anthropomorphic flapdoodle, animal cognition has now emerged as a vibrant field of respectable scientific inquiry.

Findings from the burgeoning field of animal cognition have dovetailed with recent findings in neuroscience to place us in a unique historical moment. Researchers have begun to identity the neural machinery required for cognition, emotion, and consciousness, and to recognize that iterations of this machinery occur across all vertebrates. Fish have pain receptors and an amygdala, a brain structure known to process basic emotions, such as fear, in humans. Chimps have a prefrontal cortex, once considered to be uniquely large in humans, that rivals the relative size of our own. As the trickle of findings becomes a steady stream, the question becomes: What will we do with our expanded understanding? How will we choose to live with all these intelligent, feeling creatures whose minds are sometimes familiar and yet always alien?

The Bonobo and the Atheist and Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow Creatures suggest two distinct possibilities. Animal Wise is all about animals—what we can learn about animal minds from the people who study them. The Bonobo and the Atheist is about what animal minds can tell us about ourselves. Morell opens a window, and de Waal hands us a mirror.

Animal Wise explores how scientists try to understand animals. Each chapter focuses on a particular species and the work of a scientist who studies that species. We meet Stefan Schuster and his sharp-shooting archer fish, Karl Berg and a flock of wild parrotlets who have more domestic drama than most soap operas, Jaak Panksepp and his laughing rats (they “giggle” on a frequency inaudible to humans while playing together). We learn that dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror and elephants mourn their dead: “Often, when an elephant has just died, other elephants will back up to touch its carcass gently with their hind feet, then cover the body with dirt and sticks, and stand guard.” 2 Nearly all the scientists profiled here tell stories about how other researchers have dismissed their work, called them crazy, or accused them of anthropomorphizing. But Morell shows how they are amassing evidence that cognition, emotion, and consciousness appear in dizzying variety across the animal kingdom.

Morell lets the scientists speak for themselves without offering much comment. In this way, the book is an act of generosity toward these researchers and the animals they study, an invitation for readers to identify with these scientists and to see animals through their eyes. But this approach is also a little disappointing, if not downright problematic. Her respect for these scientists and their work seems to short-circuit her critical apparatus, leaving readers stranded in this strange new world, wondering what to make of it all. What does it mean that the first chapter shows ants “teaching” each other, and the second chapter states ants “are not sentient and do not experience feelings and emotions”? How are we to think about the muddy relationship between cognition, thinking, and consciousness? Morell is not without strong opinions. The book ends with a brief plea to halt the massive extinction currently decimating our planet’s biological diversity, but this entreaty does not make her an active guide throughout the rest of her book.

De Waal’s book is a different beast altogether, saturated with opinions and arguments that have been brewing for nearly four decades. The Bonobo and the Atheist is a work of cultural criticism about the role of religion in society, in which de Waal calls on new evidence—from biology, ethology, animal cognition, evolutionary psychology, and an extended meditation on a Hieronymus Bosch triptych—to support the old idea of secular humanism. This is a writer marshaling the evidence of his life, particularly his life as a scientist, to express a passionately held belief in the possibility of a more compassionate society.

Those familiar with de Waal’s previous books, such as Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (1996), Our Inner Ape (2005), and The Age of Empathy (2009) will recognize many of the same arguments resurfacing here, including the idea that human morality has biological origins. “Fairness and justice are … best looked at as ancient capacities. They derive from the need to preserve harmony in the face of resource competition.” De Waal uses the bonobo—a peaceful, sex-loving primate who may be as closely related to us, or more closely related, than the more Machiavellian chimpanzee—to attack the prevailing notion of human nature as selfish and violent, and that we are constantly battling to suppress our terrible “animal nature.” “Everything science has learned in the past few decades argues against this pessimistic view that morality is a thin veneer over a nasty human nature.” 

What’s new here is that de Waal wades directly into the atheism-versus-religion debate, which he claims is often mistakenly cast as a science-versus-religion debate. He argues that a biologically evolved “bottom-up” morality obviates the need for the “top-down” morality imposed by religion. And yet, he sees science (and himself) as aligned with secular humanism, which is not necessarily anti-religion. He would like to see the influence of religion fade, but acknowledges that a moral code is not all religion provides: “The question is not so much whether religion is true or false, but how it shapes our lives, and what might possibly take its place.” The reader is left wondering much the same thing.

Taken together, these books leave no doubt that whether we use our growing understanding of animal minds to open a window or a hold up a mirror, new discoveries will inevitably force a reevaluation of our relationship with the teeming mass of sentient life on this planet. Neither author explicitly offers us a set of tools to think about the tough decisions on the horizon, but as de Waal points out, we have already learned to extend moral consideration beyond the intimate, local sphere from which it may have evolved. So should we extend this moral circle to include non-human animals? A footnote in Morell’s book points out that, already, some European nations have granted Great Apes the status of “personhood” and have banned or severely limited primate research. This sort of protection, however, is only likely to ever extend to animals that somehow seem like people. The great challenge we face is not to extend human concerns to other animals, it is to respect them as different from us and yet also deserving of our moral consideration. 

Meehan Crist is Writer-in-Residence in biological sciences at Columbia University, where she is working on a book about traumatic brain injury. 

  1. Jane Goodall’s early papers were met with skepticism from the scientific community.

  2. For more on the incredible inner lives of elephants, see Love, Life and Elephants by Daphne Sheldrick.