A recent study in Nature showed that many cats will slightly move their head and ears when their names are called, showing that they recognize their names. Responses to the study, which attracted a good deal of attention, demonstrated many of the misconceptions about animal vs. human thinking that naturalism fosters. Paper. (open access)
Briefly, when cognitive behaviorist Atsuko Saito and her colleagues studied cats who lived in households and at cat cafés, they found that most could distinguish their names from similar sounds spoken by humans. It’s not clear why we should be surprised; the cat probably knows from experience that something that concerns him will happen whenever he hears that sound:
But Bradshaw stresses that the study doesn’t suggest that cats actually understand human language. What it shows is that cats can discriminate between sound cues. “It’s a giant step from there to language, which would have to include grammar and syntax,” he says.Colin Barras, “Cats know their names — whether they care is another matter” at Nature
A giant step? Yes, like the difference between a man taking a step and a man taking a step on the moon. A lot lies in between.
Of course, the fact that a cat can recognize a sound does not mean that he can “understand human language.” Yet the bumf from science media often encourages such extrapolations. We hear, for example, that apes who use stones to break things up are entering the Stone Age. Are fish and birds who do the same thing also entering the Stone Age?
The belief that humans are nothing special, which undergirds the bumf, inhibits common-sense understanding of animals. Generally, materialists (naturalists) go in one of two directions when assessing animal psychology. In one direction, a given animal is “almost a human.” SETI enthusiasts have thought that way about dolphins. Darwinians today think that way about primate apes. In the other direction, the animal is assumed to lack any intelligent consciousness at all.
Fish are usually classed in the latter category. So when one species was recently shown to use a mirror, supposedly demonstrating self-awareness, a sensation erupted. Did the fish that used the mirror to recognize spots placed on their bodies really demonstrate self-awareness?
Well no, not exactly. If these fish never otherwise demonstrate what humans mean by self-awareness, we might better conclude that the test shows that fish can learn a new skill (contrary to earlier naturalist theory). But also, the mirror test is not as useful for judging self-awareness as once hoped.
Cats fare poorly overall in this either/or thinking. They are usually relegated to being “less intelligent than dogs.” Hence the researchers’ surprise that cats can learn their names. But if the cat can recognize and react to the household car pulling up the drive, a specific footstep on the stairs, or a can opener at work, why couldn’t he recognize his name when it is shouted?
Many misconceptions about cats stem from the all-or-nothing naturalist hierarchy:
Cats are notorious for their indifference to humans: Almost any owner will testify to how readily these animals ignore us when we call them. But according to a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, domestic cats do recognize their own names—even if they walk away when they hear them.Jim Daley, “Cats Recognize Their Own Names—Even If They Choose to Ignore Them” at Scientific American
Is the cat supposed to know that he should do something about the fact that a human is talking? He pays attention once he understands that a given sound, usually pitched higher, means something for him in particular. He can have no other point of reference to human speech. Similarly,
Saito says she thinks feline pets learn to recognize their names because of what is in it for them. “I think cats associated their names with some rewards or punishments,” she says—adding that she thinks it is unlikely the cats understand their names are attached to them. “There is no evidence that cats have the ability to recognize themselves, like us,” she explains. “So, the recognition about their name is different from ours.” Still, she says, it may be possible to teach cats to recognize other words. Whether that could allow humans to train cats to respond to commands—as dogs readily do—is another matter.Jim Daley, “Cats Recognize Their Own Names—Even If They Choose to Ignore Them” at Scientific American
Saito is surely correct that the cat does not pursue the matter more deeply than recalling practical consequences from experience. But when a dog responds to commands, it is not because he is smarter than a cat; he does that because he is a pack animal who feels a need to please his superiors. The cat, a solitary small carnivore in nature, has no such innate drive. He may very well understand what you want and be capable of doing it. But nothing in him prompts him to bother unless there are consequences that he can understand and remember. Long ago, when he was a kitten, he learned to be nice to Mommy and not to push things too far with littermates.
One critic, Mikel Delgado, offers a useful distinction:
That said, Delgado liked how the researchers were careful to match the enunciation of each word, including the names, because “most of us when we call our cat’s names don’t do so in a monotone—we often use more of what is called ‘mother-ese’—a higher pitch that animals tend to respond to more,” she said. What’s more, Delgado wanted to know more about the cats who could discriminate their names, like if their names were simpler, or if the owners refrained from using nicknames.George Dvorsky, “Scientists Talked to Cats to Figure Out If They Know Their Own Names” at Gizmodo
The cat does not forget the “mother-ese” he learned as a kitten. He surely knows when a distinct sound like “MUFFIN!!” is directed at him. It’s easier than some may think: Is he likely to hear that exact sound when it isn’t directed at him? How many humans shout “MUFFIN!!” for no particular reason?
He also knows quite well what “MUFFIN, STOP SCRATCHING the SOFA!” means. He complies for the moment, then digs his claws into the sofa fabric again a few minutes later, once he thinks no one is looking. Is that because he is too stupid or obstinate to change his behavior? Not really. He responds when sounds he can interpret are directed at him. He has no concept that making a hole in the sofa is bad and feels no urge to understand human behavior, as opposed to just living with it. So, once the sound has faded, he goes back to using the sofa fabric to pull the sheaths off his claws.
It’s a sobering fact that the war on human exceptionalism makes nonsense of our ability to understand animals. If we start with the fact that a cat cannot understand abstractions like “my name” because he is not a reasoning creature, we can intuit that most cats can learn human sounds that make a difference to them anyway.
But such an obvious, easily demonstrated, conclusion does not support the view that humans are just like other animals. That may be the reason that most naturalists feel compelled to take such a long way round when studying animal cognition.
See also: Dogs are not as intelligent as seals, say some researchers.