Animal Wise by Virginia Morell

Virginia Morell has spent 30 years writing about animals and nature for magazines like National Geographic and Discover. In her heart, Morell has always instinctively known that her pets had thoughts and feelings. Yet even up to a few years ago, Morell would have been cautious about making that claim in writing because the prevailing scientific opinion was against her. But all that has changed, she argues in her new book, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures.

Animals Really Are Smart

Through her visits with animal cognition researchers around the world, Morell explored how recent scientific developments confirm the intuition that she — and many of us — always had about the minds of our pets and their animal peers. While scientific confirmation that animals think and feel like we do is a recent development, it’s an idea that goes back a long way. Darwin, for example, had no doubt that animals were capable of reasoning and memory, to some degree. But for much of the 20th century, the field of psychology was dominated by a school of thought called behaviorism, which restricted research to behaviors that could be observed. This meant that thoughts and feelings weren’t appropriate to study — even in humans.

But as behaviorism started to go out of fashion in the 1950s, Morell explains, it was replaced by a new view of the brain as a kind of computational device for processing information. By the 1980s, it had become scientifically respectable to study how animals take in information from the world around them, learn from it and make decisions about how to act.

Scientists taking this view have discovered that some surprising creatures are capable of impressive acts of information processing. Morell begins the book with a visit to a lab that studies ants, where she talks with scientists who are studying the social structure of anthills. The ants “don’t have a leader, and they don’t have an overview or blueprint of what they’re trying to solve or accomplish,” researcher Nigel Franks tells her. “So how are they able to form their complex societies?” Franks goes on to explain that the ants’ rules for choosing a new nest site can be explained as decision-making algorithms like that of a computer program. In fact, he has discovered that the ants’ requirements are extremely precise — for example, they prefer an entrance that’s 2.5 millimeters wide.

What Animals Are Thinking

But not all animals are driven by math; Morell also explores the ways in which some species mimic our social structures. Male dolphins, for instance, form cooperative groups in the wild, although these social groups aren’t quite as heartwarming as they sound: These dolphin alliances capture females to mate with and fight off competing groups of males. It’s not very nice behavior, but the complexity of the interactions shows that they’re constantly analyzing their relationships, much like humans. Researcher Richard Connor tells Morell that the dolphins need to figure out who’s on their side and who’s not: “That’s where the real social strategizing comes in,” he says. “‘What did Harry and Jack do with Tom and Bill yesterday?’ ‘Can we count on them to go after the other guys tomorrow?’ Those are the kinds of issues male dolphins face daily, actually hourly.”

There’s more to animal behavior than just strategy, though: Morell examines one of the most remarkable long-term experiments in animal cognition, conducted on a parrot named Alex. Researcher Irene Pepperberg showed that Alex could do much more than just name objects — he could count, categorize things by color and shape and even tell if two things were the same or different in some way, a concept that animals supposedly couldn’t understand. Morell sees for herself that Alex definitely has a mind of his own when he berates a younger parrot who mispronounces a word, ordering the other bird to “Talk clearly!”

Understanding the Animals

Remarkable creatures like Alex may make you wonder why scientists were once so dismissive of animal abilities, but Morell explores what a challenge it can be to understand these alien minds. For example, researchers assumed that elephants couldn’t use tools because they won’t use a stick to knock down fruit that is out of reach. It turned out that the real problem was that scientists didn’t understand what it’s like to have a trunk: You can’t hold something with your nose and find food by smell at the same time. Give the elephant a stool instead, and now he has the right tool to extend his reach. In another chapter, Morell reveals that rats laugh — but their giggles are out of our range of hearing, so we’d never have known about them if a researcher hadn’t been listening in with special equipment.

What about the animals closest to us? It’s probably no surprise that few scientists have figured out how to get cats to cooperate in experiments, while dogs are uniquely suited to working with humans. In the book’s final chapter, Morell explains that dogs were once considered uninteresting to study because domestication had supposedly made them less intelligent than their wild relatives. But a recent explosion of research has shown that dogs are far from inferior versions of wolves — they have special abilities that enable them to communicate with people. You know that look your dog gives you when a toy is stuck under the couch? When you’re sure he’s asking for help? You’ll be glad to learn that science has proven that you’re right.

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