Thumbs Up For Animal Cognition

Years ago I taught a graduate-level class at American International college in Springfield, MA called “Nonprofit Board and Volunteer Development.” As a CEO of a nonprofit for more than two decades I had considerable experience and interest in the subject.

I began the class with a series of animal photos which might have made a few students wonder if they hadn’t wandered into the wrong classroom. Stay with me on this one, folks.

What makes humans the dominant species on this planet? Scientists told us it was our opposable thumbs. Apes have very human-like hands, but their thumbs are in line with their other fingers, making it very hard for them to, oh say, use tools or send a text message. Is that what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom? What spurs the development of language? Improves our evolutionary odds? Enables us to pass on collected knowledge to subsequent generations?

Then Jane Goodall found that chimpanzees in the wild use sticks to extract yummy ants from their mounds.

And ate the ants from the sticks, simultaneously creating the first tool and the first multi-purpose dining cutlery. Brilliant!

So our thumbs can’t be it. Then what? Perhaps it’s our gigantic cerebral cortex, grown large by our canny shift from plant foragers to meat eaters. More protein was needed to power that cranium of yours, Cyril. Yes, it’s the roasted wildebeest, big brain connection, of course.

“Excuse me?”

Yes, well, it turns out dolphins do have much larger brains than humans. Of late we seem intent to prove that almost daily in the news coverage of our species.

And, then there is the New Zealand crow. A crow. Very literally a bird-brained animal, yet one which can remember literally thousands of saved seed locations and can even learn to solve problems in order to get a treat. And I’m still wondering where I put my car keys?

So, what about this guy?

“My name is not Polly.”

The African Grey parrot, the avowed champion spoken language learner of all non-human species.

African Grays have built vocabularies of more than 1,000 words and can recognize 50 or more objects by name. Research shows these brainy birds even learn the meaning of the words they learn to use (not just “parrot” them) and can be quite impatient with anyone, animal, vegetable, other parrot or human who doesn’t quickly get what they are trying to say.

Why in God’s name would this species develop such a talent? To entertain people who keep asking them if their name is Polly, and do they want a cracker? No, the answer is “no” to this one. Then what possible evolutionary advantage could they have drawn from this talent to cause it to become so ingrained in their little gray feathery DNA.

Turns out, African Grays are very much like college kids. They sleep in the trees with any number of other unrelated birds, but return to spend their days on the forest floor foraging for food with birds to whom they are related. They don’t bring laundry with them, but the analogy is otherwise apt. It wasn’t thumbs, brains or meat-eating that honed this talent. It was the evolutionary value of community.

Community. Family, specifically. Which bred the need to communicate, by one means or another, to increase the likelihood of finding their next meal. Like college kids. To think beyond only themselves. Not exactly like college kids. Humans unable to do that are called sociopaths. Parrots unable to do that are called extinct.

Recently, science has again been steamrolled by growing scientific data which tells us something many of us have known for years. Not only do some animals have a consciousness, but perhaps they all do. Consider a recent article on which claimed new research shows animal cognition is far more common than science had previously proven.

“It’s a big step forward in our understanding of animal cognition. Prior to this, we only knew of conscious perception among humans and other primates. The brains of animals like birds were considered too different from our own to have subjective experiences, but this study, published Friday in the journal Science, potentially upends scientists’ assumptions about just how smart animals might be.”

To be fair, scientists have long suspected this. They are not idiots who haven’t a clue about how smart your beagle can be when there’s meat in the room. Or even the scent of prior meat in the room. Sometimes premonitions of future meat that might soon be in the room. Proving it all scientifically is the tricky part.

As an aside, I had a beagle years ago seemed to know when I left work and began my 17 minute drive home. He would go to the back door and begin a vigil awaiting my arrival. A few minutes later when I would call home to say I had left work he would already be at the backdoor. I held a job which caused my return commute to sometimes vary by several hours. I almost never left work at the same time. Am I claiming Shadow was clairvoyant? No, I believe he had a man on the inside and that it was all somehow related to meat.

More to follow on this, but if animal cognition peaks your interest at all, then the December issue of Smithsonian Magazine’s cover story “The New Science of Our Ancient Bond With Dogs” by Jeff MacGregor, with photos by Daniel Dorsa might be of interest.

 I know this because:

Richard Authier Lee is the author of the technothriller “HIGH GROUND” and a retired nonprofit executive. His novel is available on in paperback or eBook and as an audiobook on and iTunes Audiobooks (in iTunes: Audiobooks/Mysteries and Thrillers/Richard Authier Lee-see below).

How could you go wrong with this face on the cover, and my beagle, Scout, made me tell you about it. Seriously.

Read a sample from HIGH GROUND by clicking here.

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