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The Animal Point of View
In order to truly understand and appreciate animal intelligence, Stephen Budiansky argues in his new book, we need to stop projecting our emotions onto animals

December 9, 1998

budiabk picture The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed, "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him." Stephen Budiansky sees things slightly differently: "If a lion could talk we probably could understand him. He just would not be a lion anymore; or rather, his mind would no longer be a lion's mind." Budiansky is referring to our ingrained tendency to measure animals by man's standards, and to search futilely for signs that they can think and communicate as we do. In his recent book, If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness, Budiansky examines experiments performed to establish animals' cognitive abilities, and argues that rather than trying to teach apes sign language or pigeons to count, we should study the amazing feats that animals accomplish on their own -- such as a horse's ability to keep a mental map of its surroundings or a sheep's to recognize scores of individual faces.
Discuss this feature in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Read an excerpt from If a Lion Could Talk.

Previously in Books & Authors:

"How Did Your Life Turn Out?" (November 1998)
An interview with Ethan Canin, the author of the new novel For Kings and Planets, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being.

Tell it Like it Was (November 1998)
Steven Spielberg turned to him for advice on Saving Private Ryan. Now, Stephen Ambrose talks about his new book, The Victors-- the culmination of his work on the Second World War.

Coming to Life (October 1998)
An interview with Anne Fadiman, the new editor of The American Scholar, whose latest book proves what she has always suspected -- that there is an essayist lurking inside her.

Redefining Rape (October 1998)
Alarmingly, when it comes to sexual assault, "no" doesn't always mean "no" in a court of law. The legal scholar Stephen Schulhofer talks about his new book, Unwanted Sex, and about why the laws need to change.

Body Language (October 1998)
What's behind the work of John Edgar Wideman, the author of the new novel Two Cities, is simple: if you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk.

Manifest Destiny (September 1998)
A conversation with Robert D. Kaplan, whose latest work, An Empire Wilderness, suggests that the future of the United States won't be at all what we expect.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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Budiansky is the author of three previous books (The Covenant of the Wild, Nature's Keepers, and The Nature of Horses), each of which in some way challenges prevailing views on animals and nature. Formerly the Washington editor of Nature and a deputy editor at U.S. News and World Report, Budiansky is now a correspondent for The Atlantic, which recently published his article on machine translation. He is working on a history of Allied codebreaking in the Second World War, which will be published by The Free Press.

Budiansky spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

How did you become interested in the topic of animal intelligence, and what drew you to write a book on it?

budiapic picture
Stephen Budiansky
The simplest answer is intense personal interest. I raise sheep; I keep horses, dogs, and cats. People who work with animals are always wondering about what's going on inside their heads. I had touched on the subject of animal intelligence a little bit in my last book, The Nature of Horses -- that's really what led me to writing this book. When I told a veterinarian that I'd written a chapter about intelligence in horses he said, "It had better be a pretty short chapter." But the conclusion that I came to after looking into it and talking to people who really had researched the subject was that we tend to think of horses as dumb mainly because they don't always do what we want them to. Even something that seems to us as obvious as not falling down is actually a very sophisticated cognitive feat for a large four-legged animal. If you tried to build a robot that can move over rough terrain at a high speed, you'd find that continually adapting to changes in the terrain is actually a very difficult problem. So that's a long way of saying that there's a lot more to animal intelligence than we usually think there is, and it seemed like an interesting subject to pursue.

"The premise of animal rights," you argue in your book, "is that sentience is sentience, that an animal by virtue above all of its capacity to feel pain deserves equal consideration. But sentience is not sentience, and pain isn't even pain." So where does this leave us in terms of animal rights?

One of the reasons I fundamentally disagree with the animal-rights philosophy is that it seems to be based on the notion that pain is the overriding factor in determining whether an animal has rights. There's more to life than avoiding pain, and I think that's true for animals as well as for us. The idea that because animals can suffer pain they therefore deserve equal consideration is a very limited view of the world. And even more than that, sentience or consciousness is not the same as a moral capacity, a capacity to anticipate the future, a capacity to have thoughts about thoughts, a capacity to have an awareness of oneself as an independent moral agent. These are things that result in different experiences of the world, and I think they make it perfectly valid and normal to make distinctions between us and other animals.

Do you worry that people could use the idea that animals don't feel pain like we do to justify mistreating them?

I don't worry about it, because I don't think that there are many people these days who really think that way. The animal-rights movement is always beating the stuffing out of a straw man on this. I don't know anybody who believes that animals are just machines, and therefore it's okay to torture them. Mammals and birds clearly experience pain. But part of the suffering that we experience in certain painful situations is a result of our ability to understand the consequences of the situation, which is different from what other animals are capable of. We're capable of thinking, My God, I'm going to die. We're capable of thinking, I've broken my arm, and it's going to be a terrible problem, and I won't be able to go to work for two weeks, and I'm going to have to have an operation in the hospital that's going to be awful, and I hate to be hooked up to an IV -- and on and on. I don't think that a sheep that breaks its leg is thinking any of those things. In fact, I can tell you from my experience with farm animals (I've seen some rather gory things) that many animals do not react the way that we would to a similar assault on our body.

In your book you seem very critical of animal-rights proponents, and I wonder if you're critical of the way they attract people to their cause or of what they're actually trying to do.

Both. I fundamentally disagree with their goals because, as I wrote in The Covenant of the Wild, our relationship with domestic animals is one marked by mutual gain in the broadest evolutionary sense. I think the notion of abolishing animal agriculture and pet ownership is simply wrong. I also disagree with their methods, because I think many of them use a lot of selective evidence. There's a wholesale misrepresentation of what biomedical research is for and what it's about. There are a lot of misrepresentations of animal agriculture, too. But what really concerns me is that we have so many naive ideas of animals. I don't know if we're giving animals their due by the sentimental anthropomorphizing that tends to go on -- and which is unfortunately on the rise. I dislike the idea that we're trying to make dogs or horses or cats into human beings. They aren't humans, and part of what's so wonderful and even magical about our relationship with them is that we're touching these minds and these beings that are really from another planet. To try to turn them into people and apply our sentiments to them amounts to trivializing them and in some ways demeaning them.

Could you talk about the roots of this compulsion to anthropomorphize -- to attribute human emotions to animals in order to account for their actions?

I think that you could make a fairly good argument that our anthropomorphizing is a highly adaptive trait. Being able to anticipate what we would do if we were somebody else is a clear selective advantage in a group-dwelling species. As far as being compulsive goes, there are lots of examples, ancient and modern, of how we tend to do this. In ancient times it was clear that people anthropomorphized nature: the volcano erupted because of some reason, or if you propitiate these forces of nature they will stop doing these things to you. How this affects our understanding of animals is really one of the major subjects of my book. We tended for a very long time to judge animals' intelligence with reference to us. If an animal can do what we can do, it's smart, and if it can't, it's not as smart. Our eagerness to seize upon anecdotes of communication, tool-making, and problem-solving in animals as signs of humanlike intelligence is also an example of compulsive anthropomorphism at work.

One of the key points I tried to make in my book is that a lot of things that look like human intelligence in animals may really be nothing of the kind. That's what makes us suckers for all of those clever animal stories out there. I start my book with a story about this eight-year-old female gorilla in the zoo who "rescued" a three-year-old boy who had fallen into her enclosure. There was a flood of donations, and TV crews from all over the world came and did stories about it. But several months later additional information started coming out. The lead zoo keeper said that the gorilla actually didn't save the boy from anything -- the other animals weren't coming after the boy -- and that the gorilla had been trained to do exactly what she did: a lot of zoo animals are not very good at raising their young, so the zoo keepers had trained this gorilla to bring a doll over to her keepers. The idea was that she'd do the same when she gave birth.

I don't want this to sound like I'm saying, "See, they're just dumb animals." Gorillas are capable of some marvelous feats of cognitive understanding. The fact that the zoo keepers were able to train this gorilla to do what she did says something right there. But when you start to really look at what animals can do and understand the ways in which they're different from us, it's an even more remarkable story.

You write that "even what appear to be fairly high orders of intentional behavior can be the product of good old dumb evolution." What are some animal behaviors that we might see as evidence of consciousness that are actually the result of evolution?

One example comes from baboons that were observed in the wild. Generally, the dominant male will not let the other males mate with the females within his earshot or sight. A scientist observed one female who would repeatedly creep behind a rock where the dominant male couldn't see her, and there she would mate with a young male. Now, yes, one completely plausible explanation is that this is an example of deliberate deception, but another is that it is simply the product of trial-and-error learning. According to the second explanation, this baboon mated behind the rock once, didn't get whomped by the dominant male, and therefore formed a simple learned association that if you mate with another male behind this rock where you cannot see the dominant male, you're okay. It's extremely hard to design experiments that can distinguish between these two interpretations, which are sometimes contrasted as reasoning about mental states versus reasoning about observables. They imply that very different things are going on in the brain.

Several of the experiments you describe show the level of cognitive functioning of most animals -- from monkeys to pigeons -- to be surprisingly close. Assuming that animal species have been evolving separately for millions of years, why would this be so?

There's one school of thought that says that all intelligence is specialized intelligence -- that there are separate modules of the brain that do separate things in different species. We supposedly have a language module. Horses may have God knows what -- maybe a recognizing-the-horse-whinnies module. But the more I look into it, the more I'm sympathetic to a controversial view held by the psychologist Euan Macphail, among others, that all nonhuman vertebrates are equally intelligent. Now, that sounds like a ridiculous statement at first, but when you start trying to strip away all the species-specific characteristics and get to the core cognitive abilities -- certain problem-solving, list-making, pattern-recognizing skills -- you are very hard-pressed to find many differences between species. People say that sheep are really dumb, but sheep are clearly capable of recognizing individuals by their facial characteristics, and they can learn feeding schedules very quickly and very efficiently. So can goldfish. You can train a goldfish to chose this spot versus that spot in its tank to get fed. A lot of times when you do find apparent differences in learning ability, it's really that the experiments were not designed very well. The classic case is that rats did not do well on a visual-discrimination test in which they had to pick certain visual patterns to get a food reward. People took this to mean that rats aren't as good at learning as monkeys are. Well, it turns out that rats don't have very good eyesight, but if you give them the same test using different odors instead of different visual stimuli, they learn just as quickly as any other animal does. Why should this be? There are certain things that develop pretty early on in the course of evolution, that are so fundamental and so universally useful that they're very widespread. It may well be that the basic mechanism of learning is one of those things.

It's such a strange idea that everything from an iguana to a gorilla would have the same basic level of intelligence, isn't it?

Yes -- but again, I think that reflects this tendency on our part to think that things that are close to us are almost as smart as we are, and things that are farther away from us are dumber. The evidence suggests there's a huge continuity in intelligence among all vertebrate species. The discontinuity is between humans and nonhumans, and is a result of language, which is uniquely human. The people who take the animal-rights position and claim that animals are just like us are actually taking a very anthropomorphic and anti-evolutionary view.

How do we know that animals don't have thoughts about thoughts, but in a language that we don't understand? What about animals -- dolphins, humpback whales, chimpanzees -- that some have said are able to communicate?

There's a real difference between language and communication. I mean, even plants communicate. There are some plants that send out hormones through the soil to cause changes in other nearby plants. That's not language, but it is communication. There is an adaptive value to being able to communicate. Often it's a matter of recruiting the attention of the other members of a group to a threat. But this isn't language. Language is fundamentally different from other forms of communication: it allows people to have thoughts about thoughts. I think that is the simplest and the most profound way to put it.

Even in those experiments where animals have been trained to communicate using sign language, or symbols, you don't find them making utterances about what they want to do a week from Tuesday. What you do find, even in the most sophisticated of the chimpanzees, is that well over 90 percent of their utterances are immediate requests for food or attention or some activity. The real difference between what apes do and what people do with language is that human children begin using words simply to show that they know what the word means. They point to an object just to call attention to it, not because they want it. They'll say plane if they see a plane. They're not saying "mommy give me a plane."

In what ways will our understanding of animal intelligence change as scientific experiments become more sophisticated?

I think that the real challenge ahead is to design experiments that can distinguish between reasoning about mental states and reasoning about observables. To date no experiment has been able to show that any nonhuman animal can understand "higher orders of intentionality," to use the philosopher Daniel Dennett's phrase. But the book isn't closed, and I think that's an area where people who are a lot cleverer than I am can come up with some good experiments and might really learn something. The other really important area is the study of how animals think without using language. The key to that is studying things that animals are good at, not trying to see if they can duplicate in rudimentary form things that humans are good at.

Keeping your book in mind, how should people reconsider the behavior of their animals?

The thing that I take pleasure in is trying to figure out how animals have learned to do what they do. This is a source of continual interest. A lot of times it's not at all obvious why dogs, for instance, do what they do. Trying to see as much as we can through our dog's eyes is a challenge, and it's a lot more interesting than simply saying, "He's doing it because he loves us," or "He's doing it because he misses us." We tend to be very self-centered, and we tend to interpret our pets' behavior in easy sentimental terms. It's a lot more interesting and rewarding -- and it gives animals a lot more of what they're due -- to try to look at their actions from their point of view.

Discuss this feature in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

More on Books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.