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 http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/ducklings-make-way-abstract-thought-oxford-study-finds/).
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! 
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 that 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” . 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.” 
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” . 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 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6296/286.
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’.