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More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity

by Eugene Linden

Pub Date: Aug. 26th, 2002
ISBN: 0-525-94661-6
Publisher: Dutton

From an award-winning journalist (The Parrot's Lament, 1999, etc.), tantalizing conjecture about what lies behind the canny behavior of animals.

Even if one starts at the ground floor—“scientists do not know what produces intelligence (or even what it is)”—it seems clear that certain animal behavior can be viewed as of the higher cognitive sort, since it demonstrates deception, trade and barter, games, cooperation, the making and use of tools. These acts and achievements may be serendipitous or simple association, if approached from a reductionist viewpoint. But why leave it there, asks Linden. Why not take a cognitive leap of our own and hypothesize “that if animals can think at all, they probably do their best thinking when it serves their purposes”? Linden is the first to admit that the anecdotes leading up to this are ambiguous. Rather than taking that as defeat, though, he uses it as an opportunity to wiggle into the crack: There is the “lingering sense of wonder” when one contemplates the possible skullduggery of the octopus, its observational learning (though it’s a solitary creature), and its distributional intelligence (neurons acting together, rather than a centralized brain). How else is one to explain zoopharmacognosy, those instances of animal self-medication? Or those times when Orcas play catch-and-release with seagulls, using bait to lure the birds to the water’s surface, taking them in their mouths and then letting them go (though snacking on them, too, sometimes)? Or consider the orangutan: it makes a lasso out of its hair to get at mangoes outside its cage, then hides the pits to avoid detection. Here are potential examples of metacognition, “the ability to reflect on and adjust thinking,” and Linden is willing to conjecture even beyond that, into the realms of telepathy and shared vision between animals.

No wild claims, but only “credible stories of the ways . . . animals use their wits.” Draw your own conclusions, says Linden, and keep an open mind.