Magazine article The Spectator

Can Pigeons Count?

Magazine article The Spectator

Can Pigeons Count?

Article excerpt

WILD MINDS: WHAT ANIMALS REALLY THINK

by Marc Hauser

Allen Lane, L18.99, pp. 336 Next time you visit the zoo, take a long look at the chimpanzees. If they have nothing better to do, they may even return your gaze. There is something quite unsettling about making eye-contact with these, our closest relatives in the earthly family of life. Snakes, lions and newborn humans may fix you with a stare, but not in quite the same way that adult chimps do. Chimps seem to think about your presence, weighing you up in some wild, hairy but strangely familiar way. They clearly have mental options, and they can choose between them on the basis of what appear to be sensible reasons. Snakes give the casual human observer the overwhelming impression of blankness. Dogs, by contrast, seem intelligent. But chimps are different. Chimps are smart.

At least, this is the sort of subjective ranking typically arrived at by most people. But does it have any basis in fact? Snakes may look blank, but they could be doing prodigiously difficult calculations in their heads, for all anyone knows. Chimps may resemble humans in form and behaviour, but do they think like us? Do they have a sense of, say, number? If so, can they count? Can pigeons? Do chimpanzees have a sense of self? If so, can they empathise with others of their kind, or with us?

These questions and many others of animal cognition are the subject of Marc Hauser's fascinating new book. Hauser is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Harvard, and has spent his career trying to find out what, if anything, animals think. The ingenuity of researchers in designing experiments to test the intellectual abilities of their subjects comes across particularly strongly in the book. For example, can animals other than humans solve a problem that involves keeping a representation of an object in their mind after it has been removed from their sight? In full view of your animal subject, take a piece of food and hide it under a cup. Now slide the cup behind a screen and remove the food. Show the subject the empty cup and put it face down on the floor. To find the food, the animal has to infer that it was removed from the cup out of sight and left behind the screen. …

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