Tag Archives: abilities

Animals have the behavior they need

Jan_Breughel_-_Paradijs_Landschap_met_de_ValThis is the second post in a series about animals. For many years (centuries) there has been the idea that humans have many behaviors and skills that animals don’t. Slowly the list has become shorter and shorter. Although we do act very differently from other animals, this difference is largely a cultural one rather than a biological one. I recently wrote a piece on the immense difference between ourselves and other animals in cultural evolution, why are we different (see link below). This current posting is about the brain’s non-cultural skills.



Comparative Neuro-biology 2: Animals have the behavior they need



Basically we can assume that almost all animals are adapted to their niche and have the abilities they need to in order to survive in that niche. They have behaviors to find food, find mates, protect themselves and so on. But we cannot be sure of the abilities that are possible but not called upon. For example, humans have echo location abilities but you have to look far and wide to see anyone use that ability, except the blind, of course. “…This shows that anyone can learn to analyze the echoes of acoustic signals to obtain information about the space around him. Sighted people have this ability too; they simply don’t need to use it in everyday situations. Instead, the auditory system actively suppresses the perception of echoes, allowing us to focus on the primary acoustic signal, independently of how the space alters the signals on its way to the ears.” (Wallmeier 2013) The suppression allows us to concentrate on the sounds important to us but it can be reversed.



So we have the situation where dolphins and bats have converging evolution for a very effective sonic location system. They share adaptations with each other that their closer relatives do not have. There are probably only certain ways the mammals can develop such a system. But that does not mean that the sort of echo location humans are capable of is not wide-spread in mammals. Given an evolutionary pressure to use echo location, probably most animals could start with a rudimentary ability such as ours and evolve an excellent ability such as bats and dophins have. It is difficult to know what abilities an animal has unless we can devise the training and testing to bring it out. It is obvious that if humans are blind they almost automatically learn to echo locate and if they are not blind, they do not even know they are capable of it. Most of us cannot swing through trees like an orangutan but there are human trapeze artists; most of us cannot dive like a seal but there are human pearl divers. We cannot look at animals just going about their normal lives and say that they cannot do some other specific thing.



What talents of animals have surprised us? Alex the parrot investigated by Irene Pepperberg could count and add objects or arabic numerals. Alex learned names of categories of objects and characteristics such as colour. He also carried on simple conversations. Pepperberg made him a co-author on the last paper about the research– showing that she viewed him as an active participant in the research. Alex might seem very unusual but parrots and crows are groups that show particularly high intelligence. “Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know.” (Alex and me).



The list of abilities found amongst parrots and corvids is long and includes: tool use, tool making, serial use of tools, problem solving, puzzle solving, simple counting and arithmetic, vocal learning, schooling of offspring, learning from one another, communicating specific information, point/gesture with beak/wing, remembering individuals (including human ones), remembering hiding places, remembering events, designing nests, holding a grudge, mourning their dead, recognizing themselves, patiently delaying gratification, deceiving others, acting collectively for protection, having personal names, using causal reasoning, using transitive logic, using inference by exclusion, using rule abstraction. (sources below) Similar lists can be compiled for primates and for whales/dophins. Elephants have an impressive list. Even the dog, as a result of long association with humans, has some very unusual skills. And song birds have specific abilities that overlap with human language learning. What is missing from these lists is language proper (whatever that means these days). All sorts of communication is on the lists, some of it quite sophisticated and approaching what we would call language. Other animals also do not use and control fire. At least we have not found any ways of bringing this out in other animals.



Behavior is the outward effect of what is happening in the animal’s brain and that is what is interesting to the neuro-scientist. The questions are about what is happening in the animal brain – ours and other animals’. The comparisons are hampered by the ways we view our thought differently from their thought. We feel we make conscious plans and decisions, which are thought out more or less logically. We are surprised when we are confronted with experiments that show that the conscious thoughts are ‘after the event’ of unconscious planning and decisions. We are surprised when animals appear to enjoy conscious experiences. There is no reason I can think of for rejecting the assumption that we think like other animals and other animals think like we do. We all have conscious experiences and we all have them ‘after the event’ of unconscious thought. It is the same scientific problem to solve but if we make this assumption then there is a lot more information available to work with. For any ability, we should assume that for vertebrates, differences of kind are very rare, while differences of degree are very common.



Image: Paradise landscape with the fall by Jan Breughel