These Animals Think, Therefore

By Small, Meredith F. | Natural History, August 1996 | Go to article overview

These Animals Think, Therefore

Small, Meredith F., Natural History

Indah, a sixteen-year-old female orangutan, faces the computer screen. She is presented with three drawings: at the far left is a dot within a rectangle; in the middle, a rectangle crossed by a wiggly line; and on the right, a rectangle divided by a diagonal line, with a dot at its center. Indah unfolds one long, hairy arm and touches the rectangle with the diagonal line. The computer gives off a reassuring beep-right answer. She is rewarded with a slice of apple, which she pops between her rubbery lips. Chewing methodically, eyes wandering, looking bored, she has to be coaxed back to work with a few encouraging words and a pat on the arm.

This computer business is, after all, a no-brainer for Indah. She has done it a million times-the symbol for apple = apple. Big deal. Her gaze also drifts because for the first time she has an audience: from the other side of the glass a crowd of adults and children are watching her perform. The public is being let in on Indah's secret-that she, a great ape with no language to speak of and a brain about the size of a softball, has the cognitive power to understand symbols.

On October 27, 1995, the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., unveiled an exhibition called Think Tank. With demonstrations by live animals and written explanations about learning and thinking, the zoo is trying to make a point. Other animals, not just humans, lead cognitively complex lives. Chimpanzees fashion tools, leaf-cutter ants navigate through a multitiered caste system, and monkeys are experts at social manipulation. Just like us, they think, reason, plan what to do, solve puzzles. And so they merit respect. The unspoken goal, says Benjamin Beck, associate director for biological programs at the zoo and the initiator of Think Tank, is to make people appreciate the cognitive richness of these animals so that they will be more inclined to conserve them.

But should the zoo use this hook to educate a bored public? People might view these animals, not as cognitive sophisticates, but as performers-they may not wear funny clothes and ride bicycles, but they still must strut their stuff. "I think there is a very narrow line between demonstration and performance, and I'm not sure when you cross that line," says Christie Feral, program officer for the African Wildlife Foundation. She adds, cautioning about all such projects, "By putting their activities into a human context, such as using a computer or demonstrating abstract associations, are we really learning what makes [other animals] unique and adaptable or what makes their lives complex and interesting? And what is it that we are trying to teach people about the animals? Is it that they have an intellect that reflects ours, or are we trying to teach something about these animals being distinctly different but having equal value?"

Over the past decades, zoos have been installing exhibits that illustrate habitatstropical jungles, marshes, desertsand inviting visitors to appreciate animals on their own terms. The snake and the spider are worthy simply because they exist. Think Tank, in contrast, uses the lens of intelligence, a characteristic that just happens to be of great significance to our species, to evaluate other creatures. Beck is aware of the problem in this bias, that after all, "an ant or a slug is just as worthy of conservation as a thinking orangutan."

In any case, the zoo's approach helps illuminate a fundamental question: How is the human mind different from other animal minds? Behavioral psychologists have long known that learning plays a large role in the behavior of many animals. With a few dogs, dishes of food, and a buzzer, Pavlov demonstrated that even automatic responses like drooling over dinner could be conditioned. B. E Skinner showed that with a little reinforcement, even smallbrained birds and rodents could learn just about any task. More flexible responses could be seen at work in chimpanzees: captive apes were able to figure out how to use a stick to rake in bananas or how to pile boxes on top of one another to grab at dangling fruit. …

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