A couple of weeks ago, an editor at The Guardian tweeted an image of a bald eagle staring at its reflection in a body of water. “This photo of an eagle taking a hard look at itself is not a metaphor for anything that's been in the news recently,” he wrote.
This photo of an Eagle taking a hard look at itself is not a metaphor for anything that's been in the news recently pic.twitter.com/FLyANNUg44— Sam Morris (@SamMorrisDesign) January 26, 2017
At the time of this writing, the image has been retweeted 62,000 times.
And it prompted one of my colleagues at The Atlantic to ask: “Are eagles intelligent enough to recognize their own reflections?”
In March 1838, a young and little-known biologist named Charles Darwin asked the same question. On a visit to London Zoo, he stepped into a cage with an orangutan named Jenny, and marveled as she played with a mirror. He noted that she was “astonished beyond measure” at the glass. She examined it, kissed it, made faces at it, and contorted her body as she approached it. What did she see in the mirror? Did she recognize herself? And perhaps most importantly, how could you even tell?
Psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. came up with a way, over a century later. In 1970, he got four captive chimps accustomed to a mirror, and anesthetized them. While they were out, he dabbed red dye on their eyebrows. When they came to and caught sight of their reflections, they did exactly what humans would do—they stared at their faces and touched their own eyebrows. Monkeys, by contrast, made no moves to examine their own red-marked faces. They couldn’t recognize themselves in the mirror, Gallup concluded. But chimps could.