Animal Intellect Part II – Land and Air
Honeybees are some of nature’s most amazing creatures. They do complex dances to indicate a new discovery, beat their wings to keep the hive at a precise temperature, and then there’s the Buckminster Fulleresque hexagonal structure of the honeycomb. Why a hexagon, rather than a triangle or square? Because the hexagon provides the maximum amount of storage for the minimum amount of beeswax. How did they know? Did honeybee scientists labor for generations trying other shapes? Or did they get it just right the first time? Did they just know? We can compare this with that coral species in Part I. It learns over time. If this is intelligence, it’s on a more fundamental level. Certainly it’s not thinking, right?
If we move up the evolutionary ladder, though, we see something else. We know that elephants are pretty smart (those big brains again). But no one would have predicted what happened in South Africa after Lawrence Anthony died. He was a naturalist and author, and had helped rescue and rehabilitate two herds of rogue elephants scheduled to be slaughtered. One of his more well known books is The Elephant Whisperer. Days after he died last year, dozens of those same elephants came from as far as thirty miles away, and hung around his home. After a few days they went back to their ranging grounds. Were they paying homage to this man who loved them? Are we projecting what we would do? Maybe, but that doesn’t explain what else they could have been doing there, and at that specific time.
Last year PBS aired “A Murder if Crows.” That’s what a group of them is called, a murder. They have the biggest brain to body size of the birds. One crow used a stick as a tool to pry food from a tube. Then researchers rigged it so the crow had to use another tool to get at the stick. Then they tied the tool to a string and hung it from a branch, so the crow had to untie the knot to get the tool to get the stick to get the food from the tube. To go through a sequence like this without losing sight of the main goal requires thinking, working things out. It indicates a far higher order of thought than we had ever suspected. Crows can recognize human faces, and pass on that knowledge to their young. They have crow funerals for their fallen comrades. It seems that the more we study animals, the smarter they become.
At the Omaha Zoo, no one could figure out how the orangutans kept escaping from their enclosure. They’d end up over in the elephant area, up in a big tree. Zookeeper Jerry Stones thought someone was forgetting to lock the door. Then one day they saw Fu-Manchu, the lead orangutan, over by the door. It looked like he was working at the lock. They searched everywhere for a bar or lever, but there was nothing. A few days later, “Boss, the orangs are out again.” As they marched them back, Stones noticed a glint of something in Fu-Manchu’s mouth. Opening it, he found a small wire, curved to fit between the teeth and gums. Now it’s one thing to learn how to pick a lock (I don’t think I could do it). But it’s quite another to practice deception. That’s a different level entirely.
I grew up on the prairie, the home of the pronghorn antelope. The head male will have a harem of females in the area, and if he sees danger he’ll give a particular call. Then these males were observed giving the same call when there was no danger present, presumably to bring the females closer. Lying to women? I guess men are pretty much the same everywhere.
I recently heard about Alex, an African Gray Parrot. His trainer was testing him for things like the difference between colors and shapes, which was different, and so on. You might want to look him up, if you’re interested. The dialogue between them is pretty intriguing. What got to me was at one point during the procedure, perhaps Alex was having difficulty hearing the exact words she was saying, and he prompted her: “Talk clearly.” Think about that. Doesn’t it sound as if there’s some reasoning there? Or at least independent thought?
Again we’re wondering if animals actually think. It sure looks that way. The truth is we don’t know how smart they are. Maybe they’ve been putting us on all this time, and they know exactly what we’re about. I know this isn’t true, because if it were, they’d constantly be laughing their asses off at us, and I don’t see that. One thing I do see — they have ideas. We can teach them all kinds of tricks, but just remember, they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get a reward. People do that too, even if it’s because they have to in order to survive.
What about consciousness? Yes, they are conscious beings, aware of changes in their environment, and all that. Are they self-aware? That’s a more difficult question, though, because how would we test for that? What if it turns out that they have what Eastern mystics have sought for thousands of years — total consciousness? Is that really important? They operate in harmony with their surroundings, and that is important, I think. It has occurred to me as I write this, that man’s consciousness has evolved since we first stood upright. With several millions of years’ head start, why wouldn’t an expansion of consciousness have taken place with our animal brothers and sisters?
Can animals think? You bet they can. Among my Webster’s definitions of ‘think’ are devise, reflect, intend, plan, remember, exercise judgment, expect, and so on. Thinking implies the entrance of an idea, and animals get ideas; we’ve seen the examples. As for intelligence, let’s ask ourselves how intelligent it is to continue to destroy the only place we have to live, or to take each technological development and weaponize it. So who’s the dumb animal, here, the one who lives in harmony with its environment, or the one who treats it as an adversary?
Throughout Native American history and mythology to modern shamanism, we see a respect and even veneration for the special wisdom of animals (as well as everything else). As usual, they’re probably right again.