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How smart are animals?

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher held animals in such high esteem he wrote that 'No truth appears to me more evident than the beasts are endowed with thought and reason as well as men.'

This is the perfect start point for evolutionary cognition, i.e. shared mental processes. A great variety of claims about animals allied to 'thinking, sentience and rational' have been revealed. The cognitive view of animals has prevailed. Animals learn what they need to learn by sifting through the massive information around them. They actively seek, collect and store information around them. Animals cache and remember food items or engage in fooling predators, whereas some species are endowed with the brainpower to tackle a wide array of problems. New Caledonian Crows with straight bills and binocular vision use tools to extract caterpillars from crevices. Physical features adapt to an animal's cognitive specializations. Every species is special, learning is dictated by biology - this is the field of evolutionary cognition.

The continuity assumption implies shared neural mechanisms with face recognition in monkeys and humans, the processing of rewards, the role of the hippocampus in memory and of minor neurons in imitation. Convergent evolution reveals facial recognition in both primates and wasps, or flexible tool use in both primates and crows.

Vervet monkeys in Kenya have distinct alarm calls for a leopard, eagle or snake, described as referential signaling. Orcas in Twofold Bay, Australia, drove humpback whales in to whalers in times gone past, with whalers naming the orcas. We humans constantly enquire in relation to our place in nature - 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all', hopeless! Humans actively access past and future, currently, there is growing evidence for episodic memory, future planning and delayed gratification in animals. Animal cognition, with brains the most expensive organs around using twenty more energy than muscle are fully operational.

Sometimes researchers watch what animals do of their own accord, while, researchers put animals in situations where they can do little else but what we want them to do.

Animals should be given a chance to express their normal behaviour. We return to our hunting ways in the way that a wildlife photographer relies on hunting instinct, not to kill, but to reveal. We seek ecological validity and follow the advice of Uexkulll, Lorenz and Imanishi who encourage human empathy as a way to understand other species.

Some humans insist on animals on a plate with two vegetables, this is a concept for the dark ages. This is unfair, animals are sentient beings, they have feelings and emotions which pet owners can readily confirm.

Source: Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Frans de Waal, Norton, 2016


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