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ARE WE alone? Is human intelligence all that there is?

No, this is not a question about space aliens but about the creatures with which we share the planet: our fellow animals.

The question of animal intelligence - and animal sentience, the possession of feelings and perception, which is a related but separate issue - has vexed mankind for millennia. Because of our unique relationship with the animal world, it is something we have tended to sweep under the carpet.

These are, after all, the beings we keep in farms and kill for food, prod and poke in the name of medical progress, hunt, skin, stuff and hang upon our walls.

So experiments such as the remarkable one reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences raise a lot of uncomfortable questions.

Three Asian elephants, Happy, Maxine and Patty, who live at the Bronx Zoo in New York, 'passed' a classic test which is designed to see if a creature possesses self-awareness.

The test is quite simple and has been used on a number of species with varied - and interesting - results.

Basically, you use a mirror to find out if the animal recognises its own reflection. By painting a spot or cross on the animal's forehead, as was done with the elephants, you can see how the creature reacts when it stares into the looking-glass.

All three elephants behaved in ways suggesting they realised the 'animal in the glass' was themselves.

They poked their trunks into their mouths and watched the reflection in fascination.

One - Happy - passed the spot test: she tried to wipe the mark off her face with her trunk after seeing it in the mirror.

This suggests, say the scientists, that the elephant can join a small elite of species that have true self-awareness. 'The social complexity of the elephant,' said Joshua Plotnik, one of the scientists behind the study, 'its well-known altruistic behaviour and, of course, its huge brain made the elephant a logical candidate species for testing in front of a mirror.' The 'mirror test' was invented by a scientist called Gordon Gallup in 1970. It is considered to be the best-available marker of whether a species shows true 'selfawareness', the key property of sentience which can be defined, loosely, as a conscious feelreligiousing of self as separate from the world around.

So far, apart from humans, the great apes - chimps, bonobos, orang-utans and at least one gorilla - have passed the test, as have dolphins and, possibly, pigeons.

Dogs fail every time, as do cats and most monkeys, although one species, the capuchin, reacts in an intermediate way, suggesting some awareness that the monkey in the mirror might possibly be itself.

Of course, plenty of animals, such as budgerigars, are fascinated by mirrors, but the key difference here is that they do not seem to realise that the reflection is of themselves.

So what does this prove? Is it really meaningful to talk about, say, a chimp being 'self-aware' and a dog not so? Does this mean that we should consider the 'lower animals' as only semi- conscious at best, zombies at worst?

Until quite recently, the answer given by most scientists would have been a definite 'yes'. It has been something of a taboo among scientists to suggest animals have mental lives at all.

This thinking stretches back a long way. Aristotle denied the power of thought to animals, asserting that they are capable only of appetite and sensation, and furthermore that all nonhuman creatures are there for the service of mankind.

This became a prevailing view in Western thought until surprisingly recently (although in other cultures the idea that animals were sentient and had 'souls' was commonplace).

The 17th- century French philosopher Rene Descartes considered animals to be mere automata, organic machines which could have no more mental life than a clock. …