Thinking Ourselves Kings

In Frans de Waal’s most recent book about animal cognition – Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) – he introduces to a general public many animal talents and capacities hitherto supposed unique to humans. His own specialism being primatology, he talks particularly about the social and political acumen of chimpanzees, forward planning among bonobos, reciprocal favours between capuchin monkeys, gorillas using tools, and so on. But he discusses also the skills of birds, cetaceans, octopuses, and many others.

The research which has revealed these accomplishments has often been picked up in media stories of the ‘smarter than we thought!’ genre. It’s a pity that the word ‘smart’, which in American English means simply ‘bright’ or ‘intelligent’, has in British English a suggestion of showiness or sophistication about it. For de Waal’s essential argument is that these various species have exactly the sort of intelligence which their situation in nature demands – intelligence developed for and within that situation, in fact. That’s what is implied in the term which he prefers for his branch of biology: evolutionary cognition. De Waal’s account of the ‘Kluger Hans’ story makes the point very well. Hans was famous in the early 20th century as a horse that could do sums, until a psychologist called Oskar Pfungst studied the performance and found that Hans was getting his cues for the answers from his unwitting trainer. The showy maths meant nothing to Hans, but understanding the body language of his trainer was a vital skill in which he had surpassed both his trainer and all their audiences.

The study which Pfungst then published did much to improve the techniques of experimental psychology. However, the Hans story was commonly understood as a caution against anthropomorphism, and therefore had the effect also, so de Waal says, of sanctioning a more sceptical and reductivist account of animal intelligence. At any rate there did follow what he calls the “this bleak period” for most of the 20th century, when (with the notable exception of Konrad Lorenz and his school of ethologists) the idea of intelligence or emotion in animals was dismissed as unscientific romance. In its place came the animal as mechanism: “the two dominant schools of thought viewed animals as either stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment or as robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.” [4]

But in the case of behaviourism – the stimulus-response school led by B.F.Skinner – at least the reductivism went right to the top: the pigeons learning their behaviour from the rewards and punishments administered in the ‘Skinner box’ were the models, however inadequate, for all animal mind, including the human. Hence Skinner’s foray into human politics in his books Walden Two (1948) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He did not believe that humans were a special case, but applied to them the lessons he believed that he’d learnt from his animals. Here, at least, was impartial science.

But as de Waal shows again and again, studies in animal cognition have habitually been quite unscientifically partisan. Humans have been taken as the standard, and the intelligence of other animals has been judged according as they clumsily approximate to it. (One of de Waal’s chapters is titled ‘The Measure of All Things’.) The whole Nim project, for instance (as recounted in this blog for 8 May 2017), was essentially anthropocentric in this way: it asked how like a human a chimpanzee could be induced to behave.

De Waal shows that the very methodology of many studies has been carelessly Wall 2 Apes in sterile environments, behind bars or wire, take tests devised and presented by a different species (humans), and the results are compared to those achieved by human children in supportive human settings: the miserable contrast is well pictured in one of de Waal’s own illustrations. Earlier in the book he has aptly quoted the physicist Werner Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” [7]

“What a bizarre animal we are,” de Waal exclaims, “that the only question we can ask in relation to our place in nature is Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?[157] It’s a well-chosen image, because the mirror test for self-awareness is an especially plain instance of the exam-bound mentality behind much comparative psychology. At this point we need to recall that nearly every research scientist is the triumphant product of almost two decades of successful test-taking. How could a mind be unaffected by this habituation? (Jane Goodall said in a recent BBC interview that she thought herself fortunate to have delayed formal scientific study until her late twenties. She never did study for an undergraduate degree.) Accordingly a conference report in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says, “Dolphins, it turns out, are pretty darn smart. Panelist Lori Marino, an expert on cetacean neuroanatomy at Emory University in Atlanta [incidentally, the same university in which de Waal is a professor of psychology] said they may be Earth’s second smartest creature, after humans, of course.” For instance, “They can recognise themselves in a mirror (a feat most animals fail at).” Fail! One wonders how such animals get on in later life. Nature, it seems, is seated at a giant exam, where the top mark is reserved for the examiners’ own relations (for of course that question we put to the mirror on the wall is a confidently rhetorical one: we know who).

De Waal is keenly alert to all the manifestations of this attitude. He speaks, for instance, of a research project in which sheep were shown to recognise and remember the pictured faces of other sheep (touchingly, “they actually called out to these pictures as if the individuals were present”). But he balks at the sub-title given to the published report, ‘sheep are not so stupid after all’: it’s “a title to which I object, since I don’t believe in stupid animals.” [72] Later he writes of the “patience and restraint” shown by apes and others, as much in the wild as in domestication: “self-control is an age-old feature of animal societies.” [221] And yet it’s often said of humans who fail to show these qualities that they’re behaving ‘like animals’. De Waal illustrates our senseless prejudice in this respect with a story told by the zoologist Desmond Morris. In the days when London Zoo (where Morris then worked) held chimpanzee tea parties, these apes, being quite capable of using tools, became too orderly and polished in their manners to please the public: in order to conform to expectations, they had to be trained to misbehave. The point is that science, supposedly the home of positivism, has been prejudiced in the same way. Summarising this whole comparative or rather competitive tradition in cognitive science, de Waal says with characteristic decisiveness, “I cannot think of a single profound insight it has yielded.” [12]

Happily, evolutionary cognition is now a well-established and rapidly growing discipline in science, with a large body of authoritative research already to its credit. Much of the success has no doubt been due to de Waal himself. Nowadays, who would think of saying, as a popular introduction did in the 1960s, that “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour, and that is to learn more about man himself”? However, the subject still does face resistance; in particular its egalitarian premise does. I don’t mean the sort of particular challenges which all science needs in order to remain healthy, but something more like an ideological antagonism.

A recent book title (cited by de Waal) makes the point: The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (2013). But at least here we are pictured in the same kingdom as our evolutionary fellow-products, the ‘other animals’. The more absolute case has been summarised in the ugly coinage ‘humaniqueness’, a word aimed at fixing into being this strange intellectual hybrid of science and ideology. The case was put in the 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University, titled ‘The Seeds of Humanity’ and delivered by the man who coined that absurd term. The two lectures by Marc Hauser, then a professor of pscyhology and human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, are densely argued texts, but their ideological theme is clearly established in the introductory paragraphs. Here is a taste of it, starting with the first sentence of all:

Humans create plays, operas, sculptures, computers, equations, laws, religions, guns, and soufflés. This is only a partial list of our achievements. In the history of life on earth, we are the only species to have created such creations … These observations suggest the first radical proposition I will make: we are not animals … If the fact that we share some 98 per cent of our genes with chimpanzees is meaningful, then why isn’t a chimpanzee writing this essay, or singing backup for the Rolling Stones, or working on quantum computing, or adjudicating over a legal case, or making me a soufflé? … Looked at in this way, a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee is a chimpanzee – a cultural non-starter.

This is the prospectus, familiarly bumptious in its formulation, for the extreme form of what de Waal calls “an us-versus-them world”. That’s indeed the world which has been made for us in the West over the centuries, and which has been costing “them” ever more and more in pains and lives. And there’s surely still a persuasible audience for such thinking as this, even or perhaps especially among scientists, for it leaves us with nothing to apologise for or, more crucially, to change our ways for, and of course it makes us proud to be human.

De Waal’s book is a detailed critique of the ‘humaniqueness’ outlook. It is part of his own case that apes do indeed have cultures and other “creative” accomplishments, but that these are themselves pointers toward farther (not lower, but less immediately accessible) reaches of intelligence among animals more distant from humans in the evolutionary complex:

After the apes break down the dam between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, the floodgates often open to include species after species. Cognitive ripples spread from apes to monkeys to dolphins, elephants, and dogs, followed by birds, reptiles, fish, and sometimes invertebrates … an ever-expanding pool of possibilities in which the cognition of, say, the octopus may be no less astonishing than that of any given mammal or bird. [69-70]

So what are we: a lonely self-congratulating elite, scorning and battening upon the rest of nature, or fellow-swimmers in the waters of cognition? It’s a choice not just for cognitive science, but also for the moral and spiritual faculties which Hauser thinks so well of humans for having. I shall end with one tragi-comic utterance on the question Rouaultfrom those latter regions of the human mind, by the great French artist Georges Rouault: the print titled Nous nous croyons rois (‘We think ourselves kings’). It was made during the First World War. Its eloquence makes further comment superfluous.







Notes and references:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) is published in the UK by Granta Books, and in the USA by Norton and Co. The Desmond Morris story appears on p.223, and is referenced to R. and D. Morris, Men and Apes, McGraw-Hill, 1966. Page numbers for quotations are given in the brackets.

Jane Goodall was being interviewed on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 14 May for the programme Private Passions.

The popular introduction from the 1960s is P. L. Broadhurst’s The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963: quotation from p.12. There is more about this book and its times in the post for 10 October 2016.

The conference report in Science (an excellent journal) appears in the issue for 26 February 2010.

The 2008 Tanner Lectures can be read at

Georges Rouault’s Nous nous croyons rois is number 7 in his print series entitled Miserere, first published in part in 1927, and published complete as Miserere et Guerre in 1948. Unfortunately I can’t recall where I have the image from, but I hope the source will forgive its use here.


Experimenting with Mother

I have a constantly growing collection of ‘They’re smarter than you think’ news stories. Here, for instance, is one from the Washington Post a few months ago. It’s headlined “Make Way for Ducklings; they’re smarter … [etc.]” Make Way for Ducklings is a classic children’s book, published in the U.S.A. in 1941 and often re-printed since then. It would therefore be familiar to most Washington Post readers, and the reference is a sub-editor’s way of sweetening the science. But the main theme of that book is the trouble which Mrs Mallard takes to be a good mother to her brood, whereas in the research reported in the news story, which was done in Oxford University’s Zoology Department (of hideous aspect: see post for 12 June 2016), there was no mother duck: the experiment involved creating substitute mothers out of assorted coloured shapes. I shall make a 2-paragraph summary of it, which can be skipped (a more complete non-technical report, illustrated with a video, can be found at

Newly hatched ducklings (in common with chicks and other baby fowl that quit their nest straight away) have to learn very promptly to identify, and to go on recognizing, their mother. The phenomenon is termed ‘imprinting’. It might seem a very basic act of perception, to know one’s own mother and recognise her anew on each sighting, but imprinting is by no means infallible. These young birds will very readily imprint on anything which stands in for the mother at the crucial time. It’s possible, therefore, to take advantage of this pathetic gullibility in order to discover exactly what faculties of perception and cognition the baby birds are using. Certainly they must rely on such indications as colour and shape, but can they detect and use the more abstract properties in what they see? After all, the apparent colour and shape of the mother must vary with changing light and movement.

The abstract properties or relations which the Oxford research tested were sameness and difference. The newly-hatched mallard ducklings (154 of them) were each given time to imprint on a linked pair of coloured shapes – to call them ‘mother’, in short. They were then presented with two variations of these pairs, one of which preserved an essential relation from the first – sameness or difference of shape or of colour – and one of which did not. The ducklings did indeed seem to use these relations in order to fix upon the right or original ‘mother’. Very much needing a mother, they apparently searched for and found one even in such abstract qualities; or in case that sounds anthropomorphic, here’s how the research summarizes it: “For a duckling critically dependent on proximity to its mother and siblings, defining the attachment stimulus configuration as a library of sensory inputs and logical rules increases the likelihood that the mother and sibling group will be identified with high fidelity in spite of considerable variations in how they are perceived.” You see? Yet such a capacity for conceptualization has hitherto “only been demonstrated … in species with advanced intelligence”. In short, they’re smarter than you think, or used to think.

This phenomenon of imprinting has been a subject of study for many years. One of its pioneers was the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in the 1930s famously induced greylag goslings to fix upon him as their mother. In his popular and excellent book King Solomon’s Ring (first English publication 1952), he describes the same accomplishment with mallard ducklings, the species used in the Oxford research, although Lorenz’s ducklings seemed to demand vocal identification as well:

If I ceased for even the space of half a minute from my melodious “Quahg, gegegegeg, Quahg, gegegegeg”, the necks of the ducklings became longer and longer corresponding exactly to ‘long faces’ in human children – and did I then not immediately recommence quacking, the shrill weeping began anew. As soon as I was silent, they seemed to think that I had died, or perhaps that I loved them no more: cause enough for crying! [42]

This scene – Lorenz quacking and waddling along in a squatting posture (for the ducklings ‘lost’ him when he stood up) – is worlds and minds away from the blank cubicle with suspended geometrical shapes in which, each one alone, the Oxford ducklings made their decisions. Both have their strengths and weaknesses as science, no doubt.

The original German title of King Solomon’s Ring was Er Redete mit dem Vieh, dem Vogeln und den Fischen (he spoke with animals, birds and fish), for it was a legend about King Solomon king-solomons-ringthat he had a magic ring which gave him this communicative power. And much of Lorenz’s research, as well as his home life, was indeed conducted in that style: “It is only by living with animals”, he said, “that one can attain a real understanding of their ways” [147]. Of course he was often charged with imputing, to the animals, strictly human thoughts and emotions. He defended himself in this way:

You think I humanize the animal? … Believe me, I am not mistakenly assigning human properties to animals: on the contrary, I am showing you what an enormous amount of animal inheritance remains in man, to this day.” [152]

I mention this because the question  of “assigning human properties” is a controversial one in all research into animal minds. One academic psychologist, Jennifer Vonk, by way of comment on a study of reasoning power in crows, has summarized the two parties to the controversy thus: on the one side are those who too readily grant “abilities to animals that are interesting largely because they potentially break down the human-erected divide between humans and other animals”; on the other are those who insist on “Morgan’s canon” – that is, the rule pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century by the experimental psychologist Conway Lloyd Morgan, that animal behaviour ought never to be interpreted as showing a ‘higher’ human-like faculty, if it can be adequately explained by a faculty “which stands lower in the psychological scale”.

No doubt it’s a matter of emphasis rather than incompatibility: one side looking for Darwinian continuities, the other preferring strictly behaviourist interpretations. We could happily leave them to work out their differences in the specialist journals, except that there are ethical consequences involved. I notice, for instance, that one of Jennifer Vonk’s references for the Lloyd Morgan side is an article from the journal Behavioural Brain Research declaratively titled ‘Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and non-human minds’. Included among its authors is Daniel J. Povinelli. This is the psychologist whose work with chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center (University of Louisiana) is indignantly dispraised by Steven Wise in his book Rattling the Cage (1999). The point which Wise makes against Povinelli is that he treated the chimpanzee mentality with such Lloyd Morganish scepticism (for instance, in the providing of a carelessly bleak physical and social environment for the animals to grow up in), that he had pre-stunted the minds which he then studied and found wanting.

Not that the more Darwinian perspective guarantees a raised status for animals. It’s noticeable that when research of this ‘smarter than you think’ kind gets into the more popular media, it at once becomes affected by the sort of quips and puns which count for merry sparkle in that world. In the case of birds, there’s many a play on ‘bird-brained’, ‘free-range thinkers’, and so on. (Even Dr Vonk gets caught up in it: her comment piece in Current Biology [vol.25.2, 19 Jan 2015] is facetiously titled ‘Corvid Cognition: something to crow about?’) Such jokes are harmless fun, no doubt, if they are fun, but they tag these animal stories as light relief. Essentially the jokes invite a speciesist smirk at our inferiors and their primitive efforts to be more like us. That scene with the ducklings in King Solomon’s Ring comes in a chapter headed ‘Laughing at Animals’. The book itself is very entertaining, but Lorenz won’t countenance laughter at animals: he calls it “deriding things which, to me, are holy” [39]. He tells the story of the ducklings, for instance, as a joke against his own undignified antics as a searcher for the truth, and not because it’s a good laugh to put babies through their paces: in that scene, after all, they know, and he’s only the tyro trying to know, what it is they want.

I needn’t say that the Oxford research is presented wholly seriously, and was indeed an ingenious piece of work, if hardly conclusive. It seems not to have required a licence under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), though as Lorenz’s experiment shows, imprinting on the wrong thing surely may involve “distress” of the sort which ASPA is meant to supervise. Anyway, the research did have the approval of its departmental ethics committee, and the ducklings were returned to the Oxford University Farm afterwards (with what mothering prospects there, we don’t know).

All the same, these imprinting experiments make one uneasy for good reason. It’s not just that experimental psychology, essentially the taking apart of behaviour, has often enough entailed taking apart the brain itself (just follow the subject of imprinting into the neuroscience journals). More largely, the theme itself is disquieting. Even Nature (if I may personify it for a moment) with all its frivolous indifference to individual welfare and its short way with weakness, seems to have made an exception in the case of the maternal bond. The mildest of animals is lent anomalous courage during motherhood so that she’ll protect her offspring with selfless bravado. Here, if nowhere else, Nature itself seems to call something in its bloody free-for-all “holy” (to use Lorenz’s word). Or at least we can say factually that it’s in this one bond that the strongest and most absolute passions in animal life – of attachment and of bereavement – are to be found.

And now see how this unique complex of love, fear, and defiance has fared in the laboratory. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed … but just how important?” – so asked Professor P. L. Broadhurst, introducing animal studies to a new generation in his popular  work The Science of Animal Behaviour (1963). It’s an ominous question coming from an experimental psychologist. In this case, it was preliminary to commending the work of Professor Harry Harlow, the man who had recently set about answering the question, in his Wisconsin laboratory, by depriving baby rhesus monkeys of their real mothers, and tempting them with various inorganic and savagely inadequate alternatives. Harlow’s experiments, metaphorically taking a blunt surgical knife to the principle of motherhood, cast a shadow of real iniquity over the whole of animal research – so much so, that a formal repudiation of them ought to be a condition of getting a licence under ASPA. But especially they have tainted and dishonoured the experimental study of imprinting and all its allotropes. The steady and unapologetic continuation of such study is a reminder, if one needed it, that in bio-science some things may at different times be illegal, but nothing is sacred.

Incidentally, it seems that there was a habit of jocularity in Harlow’s lab. I just mention it.


Notes and references:

The Oxford University research is reported in Science, 15 July 2016, vol.353, pp.286-88. The abstract is available online at

The illustration on the title-page of King Solomon’s Ring is by Konrad Lorenz, and shows a greylag goose with neck “outstretched in that gesture which, in geese, means the same as tail-wagging in a dog”.

The comment piece by Jennifer Vonk appeared in Current Biology, 19 Jan 2015, vol.25, pp.69-71, the research itself being reported in the same issue.

Steven Wise discusses Povinelli’s work with chimpanzees in Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals, U.K. edition by Profile Books, 2000, pp.230-34.

For more about Professor Harlow, see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How not to Treat Babies’.




How to Learn about Magpies

Another of those ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ stories appeared in the Times last week. In fact probably they appear every week, somewhere around page 15, reporting on new research thought charming or grotesque enough to engage the readership. This one was headed ‘Magpies show their caring, sharing side’. Apparently, biologists at the University of Vienna have discovered that azure-winged magpies (cyanopia cyanus) will make food available to their flock-fellows in routine acts of “unsolicited altruism”: a surprise, it seems, because until very recently “many researchers believed that this sort of selflessness was a uniquely human characteristic.” Yes, they would have believed that, of course. Who had ever supposed that scientists were merely unprejudiced students of nature?

The middle of a daily paper, with views in all directions of murders, wars, law-court wrangles over huge fortunes, poverty, acts of cruelty and scenes of deranged luxury, isn’t where one can best appreciate that comfortable old scientific belief in selflessness as a human speciality. Nor was this magpie research itself exactly a kindly and sympathetic attention to other ways of life. On the contrary, it was a calculated interference. The birds which showed their altruistic behaviour were not enjoying what the original report (in Biology Letters) so evocatively calls “naturalistic contexts” (= freedom). They are (or perhaps were, their after-careers not being specified) caged birds, and were performing in a drastically simplified and controlled version of flock-life. But indeed, the whole behaviourist tradition to which this research belongs is the theoretical equivalent of such experimental settings, a drastically simplified conception of animal life.

Putting aside whatever cruelty may be thought implicit in the technique of the experiment, the project can’t even be called dis-interested as science. The larger problem which this research – like other such research, on other species – claims to illuminate is “the evolution of human altruism”. As the author of the book featured in the previous post, The Science of Animal Behaviour, said in 1963 (perhaps the high noon of the behaviourist tradition), “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.” And the comprehensive world-view in which that assumption plays its part is this: that the whole astonishing many-million-years history of animal life is properly seen as a warm-up act for ourselves. Whereas really (if I’m to keep to this on-stage analogy), the brief but savagely destructive contribution made by humans to the show is probably best likened to the house-fire which destroys both the show and most of the venue.

Fortunately the behaviourist tradition in animal studies has for some time been challenged or at least complemented by ethology, the study of animals as far as possible in their “naturalistic contexts”. As its great pioneer Konrad Lorenz has shown, such studies may include everything from meticulous and self-effacing observation in the field to full human participation. In fact ethology, though newish as a tolerated science, has been a going concern over many centuries in the form of amateur natural history and, more generally, of human curiosity and affectionateness. For a brilliant and delightful instance of this longer tradition, and therefore as an Corvus.JPGoffset to the Vienna University research, I recommend Corvus: a Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta 2008).

One of the rescued birds whose life in the Woolfson household the book describes is a magpie (not of the azure-winged sub-species, though of course both are corvids). He was christened Spike, and being part-domesticated from earliest life he could never safely leave the house. You might therefore expect a series of anecdotes of cute and humanized behaviour. No: Spike’s stubborn otherness (I have to use that fashionable term here), and the strength of will through which his nature as a magpie expressed itself, are everywhere insistent. At the same time, qualities and conduct which we might carelessly regard, following our scientific mentors, as “uniquely human” – thought, empathy, practical joking, football games – this history of Spike compels us to believe we see fully translated in him. Pioneered, rather: magpies, after all, knew and enjoyed the world long before we arrived.

Scepticism about our assumptions, and about what we really can know, is not a monopoly of scientists. Esther Woolfson certainly has it, but she qualifies its mental austerity or aloofness with a generous and affectionate egalitarianism, participating in these other lives without speciesist reserve.

On the one hand, then, she doesn’t wish or guide her birds to behave humanly; she doesn’t yearningly impute human motives to them, or make humanity the measure of value (in this, she is more ‘scientific’ than the Vienna researchers). She says, “I don’t want birds to be other than they are.” And habitually she tempers or quizzes what, as a human, she sees and thinks. For example, when Spike takes a fervent part in family ball-games, she describes him “shouting with what seemed remarkably like joy” (my italics).

On the other hand, she is always moved to see how much there must be that Spike and the other birds do share with humans, in emotions and in conduct: “it makes me feel as if I live in an indivisible world, that my belief that we’re nearer in every respect than I could have imagined is correct, that we are, whatever we are, something of the same.” Those last nine words, with their intellectual modesty and life-hospitable “we”, bring together all that is best in science and in humanity.

No doubt the research done at Vienna will make a useful addition to a certain kind of knowledge of some bird-life. It may even do a little to counter our prejudices against magpies: the Times correspondent very properly thinks it should. But I would say that one can learn more about the life of magpies (to say nothing about their possibilities as individuals), and therefore about our true and proper relation to them, from such a book as Esther Woolfson’s than from all that can ever come from the world’s cages and laboratories.


References: The Times news article was written by its science correspondent Oliver Moody, and appeared on 19 October, at p.15. The original report of the research, titled ‘Proactive prosociality in a cooperatively breeding corvid, the azure-winged magpie’, was published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters on 18 October, and is accessible in full online. Quotations from Corvus: a Life with Birds are taken from pp. 163, 199, and 169.


Spitting in their Faces

An item appeared on Oxford University’s ‘News and Events’ web-page a few days ago headed ‘Fish can recognise human faces, new research shows’. The fish in question were archer-fish (Toxotes chatareus), a tropical species which is able to bring down its insect prey by shooting water from its mouth. Researchers had presented these fish with images of human faces, and successfully trained them to spit at the ones associated with a food reward.

Probably this news item was also put out as a press release, since it was quickly picked up by the news media – for instance by BBC Radio 4 and by the Times newspaper. For them, it was a performing animal story, of the category ‘They’re smarter than you think!’ The title used by the University may have been deliberately worded with that in mind, because properly it should have read the other way round, ‘Human faces can be recognised by fish’. That is, the question which the research was aimed to address was not really about fish at all, but about the uniqueness or otherwise of the human capacity to recognise each other’s faces: is this capacity innate and peculiar to humans, or is it a particular application of the general visual competence possessed by most animals? If fish can do it, then recognising human faces must be at least partly a skill that can be learnt using powers of the eye not specialised for that purpose. After all, such a skill would have been of no practical advantage to any species of fish in the ordinary course of its evolutionary history, though it may now be earning archer-fish a few pellets of proprietary tropical fish-food in Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

Incidentally, it’s sad to think of these and other picturesque fish spending their lives in that grim stained-concrete heap, surely the most hideous of all Oxford’s science buildings. And not just in the laboratories: in the public part of that building, too, there’s an zoology buildingaquarium of tropical fish, sited in one of the corridors presumably for decorative and instructional purposes, and steadily mis-educating generations of students as to our proper relations with the rest of the natural world.

Anyway, other orders of animal than fish have been similarly quizzed in the past, and this present research does little more than extend and confirm existing data. The authors admit, in the full article as published in Science Reports, that the results so far are “not surprising” (a news-ruining observation which is accordingly omitted from the University’s ‘News and Events’ report). After all, accurate and discriminating eyesight is essential to the survival of many or perhaps most diurnal animals, and especially so, you would suppose, for a fish which takes aim at insects while its eyes are still underwater. Still, the authors look forward to further studies using fish. This routine conclusion to published research – i.e. that more research is needed – illustrates what the zoologist Ray Lankester, one of Oxford’s earliest and keenest vivisectors (of fish, tadpoles, crayfish, among others), said about animal research: that however regulated by law, it would naturally (and quite properly, so he believed) increase in geometrical progression.

As I said, this particular research got into mainstream media as a ‘smart animal’ story. Jenni Russell of the Times (9 June, p.22), happily unaware that the results had been thought unsurprising by the report’s own authors, called it “the week’s most startling news”. She pondered over similar evidences of cleverness in other “creatures” – a term which, tellingly, she seems to use only for non-human animals. Some birds, it seems, have shown themselves to be “just as smart as apes. They empathise, think logically and recognise themselves in a mirror [that popular shibboleth in nature’s class-system]. An octopus that escaped from its tank must have used “real intelligence”, by which I think she means recognisable intelligence, intelligence like ours. The point about the Oxford research, then, was apparently not that fish have remarkable visual acuity, but that they have swum into human relevance by showing they can do something we thought only we could do.

Ms Russell’s piece is headed ‘Not-so-dumb animals deserve our respect’, so she does get a valuable lesson from the subject, however wrong-headedly. She declares herself a meat-eater who thinks “human survival worth experimenting on creatures for” (a familiarly melodramatic formulation), but now she is “wavering”: “I’m going to have to rethink my relationship with the creatures on this planet.” True, it’s all presented in the self-regarding life-style terms commonly used in such journalism: done in the mirror, in fact, of both self and species. And the term “deserve” has school-room force: only those who “can be shown to have complex brains” get the respect. It’s animal deserts, then, not animal rights: a variety of treats for tricks. But with luck some of the article’s readers may see further than its author, and get a more serious ethical message than she intended.

I think anyway that Jenni Russell may have over-interpreted what the archer-fish were recorded as doing, namely ‘recognising’ (telling apart) human faces, rather than, as she has it, ‘reading’ (getting information from) them. She may even have pictured the fish looking up into the living faces of laboratory staff. No such homely scene: the faces, so far from being live and local, were provided by the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology. This is the same Max Planck Institute at Tübingen with which Oxford University has had another news-link recently. The Institute’s various cruel experiments upon primates (conducted by way of research into human psychiatric and neurological pathologies), and its harsh management of these animals, were the subject of undercover investigation in 2013-14 by Cruelty Free International and the German group SOKO Tierschutz. Hurrying to Max Planck’s defence last year, the European Animal Research Association condemned the investigation, and announced that “some renown [sic] scientists from different affiliations have already given their expert support”. They quoted two such scientists, though not from different affiliations: both are Oxford professors. One of them, a professor of Experimental Psychology (that subject with its history of uniquely ruthless animal research), explained that the Institute’s work on monkeys was essential not just for human medicine, but also in order “to reduce the long-term need for animal experiments”. Excellent! Vivisection as a way of reducing vivisection: it may not be as plausible a piece of thinking as Ray Lankester’s prognosis, but at least its ‘affiliation’ to the alma mater of Lewis Carroll seems just right.


[References: For the ‘News and Events’ piece, with a short video of the fish spitting at a face, see ; for the article in Scientific Reports, ; for Cruelty Free International’s report, .]

Setting Tests or Learning Lessons

Last month a public talk was given in Oxford under the title ‘Why is a Child, but not a Chimp, a Person?’ It’s not a very promising question, and the answer to it, as the philosophy professor giving the talk rightly admitted, will simply depend on what we choose to mean by ‘person’. If we mean, as we usually do, ‘human being’, then the question hardly makes sense. But we might mean (I don’t know why: I certainly never mean this) “an animal in possession of certain specified capacities and attributes” (guess whose?). In that case, if we’re looking around for candidates beyond our own species, it’s natural to start with what seem to be our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. And this is what Professor Emma Borg of Reading University did, in a talk which, whatever unfavourable things may be said about the assumptions behind it, was a very interesting and engaging one.

Professor Borg spoke about various experimental researches into the thinking and behaviour of chimpanzees, but it wasn’t essentially a scientific talk. Indeed, I doubt that the approach implied in her title is a scientific one at all: it seems to belong to the tradition of dressing chimpanzees up for our amusement (‘How like humans they are!’) rather than with disinterested research into what they’re like in themselves and in their own setting. But it wasn’t really a philosophical talk either. At any rate, the ethical implication was all along assumed rather than quizzed: i.e. that ‘personhood’ was the right and proper qualification for a set of rights which those presently recognised as persons, by each other, have agreed to allow themselves. But the allowing in this present case, so the professor began by saying, meant what the courts would or wouldn’t allow: so the question was really, ‘do chimpanzees deserve recognition as persons in law?’ – a question, then, in jurisprudence: an important one, in so far as it would make a lot of difference to some chimpanzees, but also a negligible one, since it can do nothing for any of the other billions of animals urgently needing to be helped or to be left alone. Anyway, the professor didn’t claim to have answered it in the end, only to have shown the difficulties arising from it.

When the question was opened to the floor, someone said that perhaps the great difference between ourselves and these near relatives was that humans “loved” – or did he say “laughed”? I couldn’t tell from where I was, or from what Professor Borg politely answered. I don’t see that either would be right, anyway, but as to laughing, it did seem a very proper object for monkey hilarity, this spectacle of humans solemnly ruminating over the question how like themselves their near relatives might be rewarded for being. [See the September post ‘How to be Human’ for Karen Fowler’s fine novel on this subject.] And it’s more than speciesism making the thing ridiculous, because it’s all really premised on the assumption that nature itself takes the same view: that evolution has been a great billion-year trek to arrive at us. Back in 1931, the Cambridge professor Herbert Butterfield wrote a book entitled The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he warned his fellow-historians not to read previous centuries as if their essential inner drive must have been towards achieving the present. But this “Whig interpretation” is what we habitually use to understand the whole history of life on earth.

I suspect that this way of looking at things, so far from being corrected as it ought to be in the universities, is at least partly their fault (a possibility the professor’s talk itself seemed to illustrate). Peopled as they are by those who have been habituated from an early age to competing successfully in exams, and later to setting and marking them, their model of life, and the one which after all suits them best, is the competitive test. The tests given to chimpanzees by way of assessing their capacities, some of which tests were described by the professor, are pathetic instances of this outlook: ‘can you show skill in this or that thing which we, your betters, have proved so good at, and get marks for it?’ However, no doubt there are also some larger cultural determinants of our patronizing attitude to other animals, and perhaps even some innate ones.

It’s to be hoped, anyway, that we can finally be reasoned out of this absurd anthropomorphism. That is indeed the aim of the modern animal rights movement, as a philosophical and political project. Meanwhile, it’s certain that through the imagination we have always had the means to free ourselves at a bound from our blinkering self-importance, at least in momentary epiphanies. I’ve been looking again at the Penguin Book of Animal Verse edited by George MacBeth in 1965, and finding many such epiphanies, in a book whose contents all preceded even Brigid Brophy’s originating ‘Rights of Animals’ article in the Sunday Times [see the August post about her], let alone Animal Liberation and the rest. MacBeth himself sets the attitude in his introduction, explaining why he decided against arranging the poems by species, genera, etc.: “arrangement by kind is faintly hierarchic. One feels that the plan is designed to bring out Man (or God) at the top. The arrangement alphabetically [which is what he uses] has the great merit of being democratic. All entries are equal and there is no pressure to relate or prefer one to another.” In fact this is exactly the message of the book’s cover, too: a detail from one of the lovely Peaceable Kingdom pictures by the nineteenth-century painter Edward Hicks.Animal Verse 2

Two poems in particular have impressed me this time. In Zoë Bailey’s ‘Calyptorhynchus Funereus’, the poet stands at an aviary of exotic birds, puzzling over a seemingly despondent Funereal Cockatoo, who grips the bars in front of her:

Without words I can do nothing he wants me to do. Useless, I stroke his claw
Unwilling to go …

His hieroglyph my mind cannot resolve, nor read,
Only a finger through the mesh
Can brush his head

To caress the body of his grave incomprehension
With amity, with amity,
Again and again.

The poet wishes, but knows that she is unable, to understand the meaning urged at her by  this strange black and yellow bird (the phrase “as though” appears three times in the short poem, qualifying her surmises as to the bird’s state of mind). Nor, of course, can the bird understand her. She reaches across this mutual “incomprehension” with the beautifully diffident word “amity”, earnestly repeated. Here, then, is a mental and moral scene of a different order of maturity and promise from the one where humans make nick-named monkeys do IQ tests for bananas.

Patricia Beer’s poem ‘The Gorilla’ deals more exactly with our subject. Here again, the poet qualifies as “human fantasy” anything she may suppose about the gorilla’s inner life, but her argument is really about human attitudes anyway. By such, the gorilla is regarded as “left behind. / He cannot talk, feel shame or make / Comparisons”. Here, then, is exactly the pre-human as seen by the person-mongers. And defining him thus by what’s missing, they will necessarily fail to “understand his wholeness”:

                through all his future
People would talk before his cage
Clothed and upright, would turn and pass
Saying how like a man he was.                              

Very nearly a ‘person’, in fact (but not quite, or we’d have to let him out).

This Penguin Book of Animal Verse, because it wisely avoids extracts, does not include the famous passage from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ (1855), beginning “I think I could turn and live with animals”. However, it’s well worth quoting here, because it satisfyingly up-ends the personhood attitude. Even that first line, you’ll notice, puts the human among the animals (he means wild animals), instead of the usual converse as represented in the research mentioned above, and incidentally also in both of the previous poems, set as they are in zoos. And the lines which follow, for all their characteristically Whitmanesque preoccupations, are a strong corrective reminder that if other animals do lack some of our human talents, the opposite is just as true:

      I stand and look at them long and long.
      They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
      They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
      They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
      Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
      Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
      Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Many other animal lessons could certainly be added to this list, but the principle is well established: humans only come top when they set the tests.

Perhaps VERO should invite Professor Borg back to speak next time about why a child, as well as a chimp and for that matter a mouse or a snail, is an animal, and what we ought to make of that unquestionable fact.