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Exploring How Nonhuman Animals Think

By Russell Tenofsky

In her new book, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, Virginia Morell investigates nonhuman animal cognition. A subject that was once taboo among researchers is now a vibrant area of study.Photo of Virginia Morell smiling next to her dog.

The concept of nonhuman animal cognition first struck Ms. Morell when, while visiting Jane Goodall in Tanzania, she watched a young chimpanzee named Frodo use aggressive tactics to plot his ascent in the chimpanzee social hierarchy.

Another example of sentience occurred when Morell witnessed a young orphaned chimpanzee named Dilly engage in a moment of silent communication with Goodall. Despite all of Dilly’s cries and begging, Beethoven, the adult chimpanzee who had taken in the young orphan, hoarded all of the bananas Goodall was feeding to the chimpanzees. However, once Beethoven had fallen asleep after his selfish feast, Goodall, with seemingly nothing but “a nod and a wink,” was able to slip another banana to Dilly who, with nary a sound, was able to eat the banana without rousing Beethoven.

Even though Dilly’s deception appeared to be strong evidence of her cognitive ability and emotional depth, Morell was surprised to learn that Goodall was not going to publish these findings. “I thought that Goodall would certainly write a paper about Dilly’s behavior,” said Morell. “And was incredulous when she told me that she could not.”

Taking its cue from convenient beliefs like Descartes’ assertion that nonhuman animals are just “automata,” it has been the scientific tradition to deny that they possess the mental cognition to reason. Goodall was just following scientific tradition by not publishing the research on Dilly’s scheming to acquire and eat the banana in silence.

Image of the cover of Morell's book, Animal Wise.“The ability to plan and deceive was something that humans did,” explains Morell. “Goodall could only write about the young chimp’s actions if she used indirect expressions like ‘The young chimpanzee behaved as if she were deceiving him,’ or ‘If she were human, we would say that she was deceiving him.’ This was how she circumvented the problem of discussing the chimpanzees’ emotions, motivations, personalities, etc.”

Morell’s encounter with Frodo was in 1987 and, fortunately, times they are “a-changin”. Or, as she argues, actually going full circle back to the works of Charles Darwin. Darwin argued that, as with other human and nonhuman traits, cognitive abilities such as reason, memory, and language are a product of evolution and natural selection. And, just as with other evolutionary traits, humans can learn about the development of cognition by investigating its roots in nonhuman animals.

This seismic shift in scientific thought and its evolution – in great part due to the persistence and perseverance of Goodall – is the basis of Morell’s book. As she describes it:

“In the years since my visit with Goodall, the field of animal cognition research has shifted and now embraces the Darwinian approach. Scientists no longer ask, ‘Do animals think?’ Instead, they want to know, ‘How do animals think?’

“In Animal Wise, I introduce readers to some of the scientists who are asking this once-forbidden question of a wide range of creatures, from ants to birds and rats, and from elephants to dolphins, dogs, and wolves.”

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