All the time, in universities and other science institutions throughout the world, men and women are engaged in studying the minds of other animals. The word ‘mind’ isn’t the one they normally use, of course: ‘cognition’, ‘behaviour’, ‘affect’, and other such terms keep the subject less dangerously anthropomorphic. A few of these studies show up in the media in the form of ‘smarter than we thought’ stories, the smartness usually consisting in surprisingly human-like capacities: so what’s meant is ‘more like us than we thought’. But most of them belong to a steady and un-newsworthy throughput of laboratory research using the less picturesque animals. Whereas the research that appears in the press has sometimes been dis-interestedly concerned with how different species think and behave, these others are nearly always using them to provide insights into the human mind.
Here’s one such research project going forward at present. It appears as Non-technical Summary number 2 (because so far I’ve only looked at two, out of a possible 466) in the list of research projects approved by the Home Office in 2020, which have just now been published by the government. The project is titled ‘Affect and cognition in rodents’. It will use 1400 rats and mice over a five-year duration. 75% of the planned ‘procedures’ are predicted to be of ‘mild’ severity, and the rest ‘moderate’. Against the question “What will happen to the animals at the end of the study”, the applicants have put “Kept alive/Killed”, which seems to cover all the possibilities, if not very informatively. The general aim of the project is as follows: “To identify and characterise the psychological and biological mechanisms underpinning the affective and cognitive processing of rewarding and punishing stimuli and dysfunctions/disturbances of such processes.” There’s a limit, you see, to how ‘non-technical’ one wishes to be in these matters.
The knowledge gained from this research, as the quotation clearly implies, will be knowledge not just of rats and mice, but of humans too (perhaps of all animals with central nervous systems). In fact the principle benefit hoped for will be “novel therapeutic strategies” for human psychiatric disorders. But the project should also, we’re told, contribute to a better understanding and treatment of laboratory rodents. You may suspect that the second benefit was a politic after-thought (it’s for their sakes too!), for surely, now that so many millions of these rodents have passed through their hands, researchers must know all that can be known about how to look after them? But no, only in 2017 did research show that mice would rather be carried in cupped hands than upside down by the tail. There’s always more to learn! Perhaps the same will be true of the “novel therapeutic strategies”, then.
You’ll have noticed the phrase “psychological and biological mechanisms”. The old behavioural model of mind, as a machinery of responses put together by a history of pleasures and pains, evidently lives on, and indeed much experimental psychology still relies on this reductive way of dealing with mind. However, there is presently an ambitious scheme of research into this subject of animal minds which expressly repudiates what it calls “mechanistic models of animal cognition”. It also dispenses with the assumption that animal mentality has been a more or less straight-line trek from the near-darkness of simple organisms to the brilliant light of human intelligence. This project is a collaboration between neuroscientists, ethologists, philosophers and other academics, and is called Diverse Intelligences.
The collective aim of Diverse Intelligences is to create a ‘periodic table’, like the familiar one that maps the chemical elements by atomic number, but in this case mapping all the varieties of animal intelligence by – well, what? perhaps neuro-anatomy, behaviour, habitat-niche. At any rate, the idea is that it will organize and relate animal minds but not rank them. Human intelligence will be there all right – necessarily distinct for, as one of the participant scientists says, “There is something different about it because other organisms on this planet are not having conversations about this” (though they surely are having to deal with it in practice). Distinct, then, but not privileged, for he adds “I don’t think it’s a story of human exceptionalism.” And all the other animal minds will have their own distinct positions likewise.
Before thinking further about this great international project, it’s helpful to know where the funds are coming from. The provider is the Templeton World Charity Foundation, a huge philanthropic outfit founded by Sir John Templeton. That’s a name well-known in Oxford. It was Templeton money that turned the university’s Centre for Management Studies into Templeton College (just outside the city). This institution merged with Green College in 2007 to create Green Templeton College. Sir John himself was a very successful investment financier in the USA, who had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1930s. His early benefactions were aimed at raising standards in business and management, but he had ambitions for something much more comprehensive, which the Charity Foundation calls “the science of human flourishing”.
Green Templeton College, a graduate college with special interests in medicine, social sciences, and environment, already reflects this ideal. But John Templeton was a committed (though undogmatic) Christian, and believed that humans couldn’t flourish without cultivating and as far as possible understanding their spiritual nature. So the Foundation undertakes to “support exploration of the nature of religious belief and practice”, and “invest in basic scientific research that could shape how we think about human existence.” Accordingly, the Templeton Prize, another generous arm of the charity (it’s worth more in cash than the Nobel Prize), has been given equally to scientists and religious figures – ideally, it seems, to those who belong to both camps.
This particular attempt to bring science and spirituality together receives a hearty drubbing from the biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion. He speaks of it as “a very large sum of money given annually by the Templeton Foundation, usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.” Particular fun is made of a project funded by the Foundation in 2005-6, sometimes called the Great Prayer Experiment, and aimed at testing the efficacy of prayer in the convalescence of heart-surgery patients (no positive effects were identified). Dawkins considers that the Prize, and the Templeton projects more generally, have a corrupting effect on science and scientists.
The God Delusion is a brilliant and entertaining book, and the Templeton values, as earnestly promoted in the Foundation’s high-minded prose, are anyway rather easily mocked. But then the prize-winner last year was the primatologist Jane Goodall, and here one can see how the Templeton vision works. She has of course proved herself a highly accomplished scientist. Has she also said “something nice about religion”? Well, she has said “I feel a really strong spiritual connection with the natural world on which we depend.” And the prize citation spoke approvingly of her “humility” – rather a key Templeton word, and with good reason when desiderated of science and scientists. I’m not sure exactly what aspects of Jane Goodall’s work the Templeton Foundation had in mind there, but it’s surely true that her studies of chimpanzees pioneered a less reductive, less condescending zoology. Giving names to these animals, as she did in violation of scientific orthodoxy, can now be seen as standing for a sense of engagement and responsibility which have since expanded far beyond them in her thinking. So not just chimpanzees and not just wild animals, but farm animals (she is now a vegan) and lab animals (she opposes the use of animals in research) are implicated in that “strong spiritual connection with the natural world”.
We can hope that the Diverse Intelligences project will incorporate that sort of spirituality, but its topic is a hard one, ethically as well as scientifically. The word ‘intelligence’ itself seems to make human cleverness the standard. One of the philosophers involved in the project has argued that, for just that reason, this word will help to claim for other animals the mental prestige which we have treated as peculiarly our own: they’re clever too! I’m not altogether convinced by this argument.
Then there’s the ‘gee whiz!’ aspect of the subject. An article about the Diverse Intelligences project has recently been published in New Scientist (a serious non-academic journal of science news and analysis). Enthusiastically citing instances of animal “smarts” (is there such a word?), its author mentions rooks that can get at a “treat” floating inside a jar by dropping in stones that raise the water-level, octopuses that can “easily open a jar”, and a chimpanzee able to memorize “random sequences of nine numbers that a screen flashes at him for only 60 milliseconds”. Certainly these skills show cleverness, but contrived tricks of this sort will not, or at any rate should not, do much to “fundamentally change how we view other species”, as the writer believes the project is set to do. (Incidentally, the Diverse Intelligences prospectus does not rule out experimental work, unless it’s “cruel or inhumane”.) Even the “sense of wonder”, spoken of in the article (and Richard Dawkins, too, is very keen on the value and sufficiency of science-fed wonder), is in practice very selective. It won’t much help the species we’ve subdued and multiplied into anonymous familiarity, like farm animals or the rats and mice of the non-technical summaries.
The claim which such subject animals have to our respect and forbearance is not that they’re “astonishing” in the New Scientist sense, or even clever, though it should have been their birthright, as it certainly is that of every wild animal, to be clever enough for the life they would naturally lead; it’s that they have as much inclination and right to flourish (the Templeton word) as any other animals, humans included. I hope that this will be clearly implied when they have their own boxes in that periodic table, the same size of box as ours and all the others.
Notes and references:
The Home Office’s online publication Non-technical Summaries granted in 2020 was issued complete in two ‘volumes’ on 6 June 2022. ‘Affect and cognition in rodents’ occupies pp. 18-25. The total of 466 projects takes up 3465 pages. See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/non-technical-summaries-granted-in-2020#full-publication-update-history
The mouse-handling study is reported here: https://newatlas.com/mouse-transport-influences-study-results/48512/
The Templeton Foundation’s general aims are quoted from its very extensive web-site here: https://www.templeton.org/strategic-priorities. The prospectus for the Diverse Intelligences project appears here: https://www.templetonworldcharity.org/our-priorities/diverse-intelligences/brilliance-living-world. There’s an interesting interview on film with one of the academics involved (Marta Halina of Cambridge University) here: https://aeon.co/videos/how-a-periodic-table-of-animal-intelligence-could-help-to-root-out-human-bias. It’s she who thinks that ‘intelligence’ will be a usefully corrective word in studies of cognition.
The God Delusion is quoted from the Black Swan edition of 2007, p.40.
Jane Goodall’s Templeton Prize was featured in the Guardian newspaper on 20 May 2021, accessible online here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/may/20/naturalist-jane-goodall-wins-2021-templeton-prize-for-lifes-work
The article titled ‘Different Minds’, written by Ute Eberle, appeared in New Scientist on 14 May 2022, at pp. 42-5. As well as the author herself, one of the Diverse Intelligences academics, Andrew Barron of Macquarie University, is quoted from this article (on human intelligence).
The woodcut, from Sue Coe’s collection The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto (OR Books, 2017), dreams of intelligent co-operation among farm animals, tragically caught up as they are in the workings of human intelligence.