Laughing rats? Manipulative fish? Unsupervised teenage elephants? There’s been a sea change in the way scientists approach animal cognition over the past few decades, a transformation Virginia Morell surveys in Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures.
As late as the ‘80s, the scientific community generally viewed animals as “just stumbling through life, they didn’t plan anything or do anything with intention,” Morell says. But the scientists she documents have now come to frame cognition in evolutionary terms. “You can’t say that we’re special and unique in our thoughts and our feelings, yet share all this DNA with other species,” she explains. “Our thoughts and feelings are biologically based.”
From this perspective, humans are no longer exceptional—at least, no more than insects are. One fascinating chapter of Animal Wise documents new research on teaching in ants—distinct from mimicry—that required painting entire ant colonies to distinguish individuals.
“What do those animals have in common with us that would cause something like teaching to evolve?” Morell asks. “That’s much more interesting than to repeat that ‘we are special and the only ones that have teaching.’ ”
Other chapters are dedicated to charismatic megafauna, including chimpanzees, dolphins and wolves. When Morell visits Jane Goodall, one young chimp involves her in his sociopolitical schemes: “He hit me. That’s what males do—they will hit females as a way to move up in their
hierarchy. I had never imagined being used as a tool in a chimpanzee social drama,” Morell says.
Animal Wise makes a compelling case that animals and humans are not separated by the absence or presence of cognition. “All of our mental abilities, our emotional abilities—none of these just came out of nothing,” Morell says. “They don’t just suddenly appear in humans; they have an evolutionary history. We’re finding out the roots of our thoughts and emotions. I think that’s truly exciting.”
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.