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Groupe de Bonobos autour d'un hôtel à insectes
Groupe de Bonobos autour d'un hôtel à insectes

Can Animal Minds Rival Humans Under the Right Circumstances?

Are we just not being fair to animals, as some researchers think?

In 2007, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a psychologist and primatologist , published a paper in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science with a remarkable citation:

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Kanzi Wamba, Panbanisha Wamba, and Nyota Wamba, “Welfare of Apes in Captive Environments: Comments on, and by, a Specific Group of Apes,” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 10:1 (2007): 7–19.

What is remarkable about the paper is not the text but the authorship statement. Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota Wamba are not co-author colleagues—they’re apes, bonobos to be specific.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh (right) is a controversial scientist who believes that animals have intellectual powers that can, under the right circumstances, rival the human intellect. She included her ape subjects as co-authors on the paper because she believed that their intellectual contributions warranted co-authorship. This created quite a stir in the primatology community—among the human members that is. The apes seemed not to notice.

In follow-up to this er… madness, Gay A. Bradshaw, PhD, PhD (she sports two PhD’s because has two doctorates) published a review of this work in Project Muse, a resource collection published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Bradshaw (below right) refers in the text of her paper to the inclusion of apes as authors on scientific papers as “pan-homo authorship.”

Here’s Dr. Dr. Bradshaw’s abstract:

Modern Western society assumes that nonhuman animals do not possess an episteme comparable to humans; this presumption is used to exclude nonhuman species from knowledge-making and practices that intimately affect animal lives. For example, conservation policy that appropriates wildlife lands and reshapes animal societies through deportation (translocation) and genocide (culls and harvesting) is imposed without animal consent or consultation. Now, however, science has eliminated the conceptual foundation that sanctions modern humanity’s monopoly on epistemic authority. By illustrating trans-species science in the making, ape–human participatory action research (PAR) at the Great Ape Trust, Iowa, dispels the myth that language and science are the unique property and privilege of Homo sapiens. This and other scientific research reveals animal objectification as a purely political strategy to maintain modern human hegemony. To refute the error of anthropocentrism, ecocriticism needs to consider current scientific work on animal agency and embrace new modes of communication and models of knowledge that bring other species into dialogue and authority as equal partners.

G. A. Bradshaw, “An Ape Among Many: Animal Co-Authorship and Trans-species Epistemic Authority” at Configurations 18(1):15-30 · December 2010 (open access)

Much in the article is of interest, if you can bear it, but I’ll discuss here the first sentence from the abstract, offering a commentary:

Modern Western society assumes that nonhuman animals do not possess an episteme comparable to humans; this presumption is used to exclude nonhuman species from knowledge-making and practices that intimately affect animal lives.”

Modern Western society assumes that nonhuman animals do not possess an episteme comparable to humans because nonhuman animals do not possess an episteme comparable to humans. The proof of this assumption is simple: nonhuman animals have not taken any position in this debate, nor have they published their own review articles in Project Muse, because, well, they do not possess an episteme comparable to humans.

In plainer language, non-human animals don’t and can’t think abstractly. That is not to say that non-human animals aren’t clever or social or perceptive—they can be quite adept at the many things non-human animals can do. But non-human animals can’t do abstract thought. It is the capacity for abstract thought that distinguishes human animals from non-human animals.

Abstraction is the ability to think in terms of universals instead of just particulars. It is the hallmark of the human mind, and of the human soul, and it corresponds to the spiritual nature of the human soul. Non-human animals also have minds and souls (as any dog owner knows—you don’t need two PhD’s) but non-human animals only think concretely.

My little dog Pipa loves dog treats, bacon, and playing fetch. She knows these things quite well—I dare say she thinks about them more than I do. But she knows nothing— nothing —about nutrition, sodium balance, or exercise physiology. Non-human animals think a lot and they often think with passion, but they always think concretely. That is why animals never acquire even one PhD, let alone two. They would fetch and chew a PhD (diploma) if given the opportunity but they could not, in any meaningful sense, earn one.

This entirely correct inference on the part of modern Western society (perhaps other societies have thought differently) is not the reason “non-human animals have been excluded from knowledge-making and practices that intimately affect animal lives.” Non-human animals don’t have abstract knowledge-making and practices that would allow them to be meaningfully consulted. It is reality, not anthropocentric bias, that has left animals out of this decision-making process.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh and Dr. Dr. Bradshaw’s misunderstanding here is the consequence of their failure to distinguish symbols from designators.

Symbols are signs that convey meaning by perception, not by abstract understanding. Symbols are, loosely speaking, pictures that either look like what they mean or that, through a process of training or habituation, become associated with a meaning. A road sign showing a running deer is a symbol that conveys the meaning that deer often cross here.

Designators are words that convey meaning by abstraction. Designators convey concepts using signs that do not look like the meaning they point to, and the concepts are not acquired merely by training or habituation. A road sign with the words “Deer Crossing” is a designator that conveys the meaning that deer often cross here. A road sign with a picture of a deer and the words “Deer Crossing” is a sign that uses both a symbol and a designator.

It is a mistake to infer that words are merely complex symbols, acquired by training or habituation. Human language, which is the power to use designators to convey meaning, is a power inherent to and unique to human beings, as linguist Noam Chomsky has pointed out.

The reason non-human animals do not have language is not because they’re stupid or lack the ability to articulate the necessary sounds or write the necessary squiggles. It is because they lack the ability to think abstractly. When animals seem to use language it is invariably because humans have trained them to connect symbols (with which animals can be very adept) with designators.

I could, if so inclined, teach my little dog Pipa to bark twice when I ask her what twice the negative of the square of the square root of negative one is. That doesn’t mean that she understands complex mathematics and imaginary numbers. It merely means that I gave her enough cookies that she learned to associate the symbol of the sound I make when I say “Pipa, what is twice the negative of the square of the square root of negative one” with getting a cookie when she barks twice. And she really likes cookies. She can be trained to do tricks with symbols. She cannot understand mathematics nor can she understand or use designators. She can do neither mathematics nor language.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh and Dr. Dr. Bradshaw’s commitment to the ethical treatment of animals is laudable and it is one I share. But their misunderstanding of human language and of animal behavior is unfortunate and dangerous. The denial of human exceptionalism inherent to their error will indeed lead to treating animals more like humans, but only in the sense that humans will be treated like animals, not the other way around. That denial is not new—it has long been the basis for genocide and totalitarianism—and it is chilling that scientists are again leading us down this dark path.

More on animal intelligence:

Do animals truly grieve when other animals die? Yes, but “death” is, in some ways, an abstraction so there are only some things they understand about it. For example, the dog Hachikō’s lifelong devoted vigil at the train station is touching in part because he could not know that his human friend had actually died. (Denyse O’Leary)

The real reason why
only human beings speak. Language is a tool for abstract thinking—a necessary tool for abstraction—and humans are the only animals who think abstractly (Michael Egnor)

The idea that animals think as we do dies hard. But first it can lead us down some strange paths. And it seldom does much for the animals. (Denyse O’Leary)


Researchers: Apes are just like us. And we’re not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way… In 2011, we were told in Smithsonian Magazine, “‘Talking’ apes are not just the stuff of science fiction; scientists have taught many apes to use some semblance of language.” Have they? If so, why has it all subsided? What happened? (Denyse O’Leary)

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Can Animal Minds Rival Humans Under the Right Circumstances?