Recently there have been some very important strides for (nonhuman) animals. In just the past week, Ringling Brothers finally committed to stop exploiting elephants in circuses by 2018. An article in The Christian Science Monitor points out how Americans are increasingly standing up for animals.
Nonetheless, we remain obsessed with the question of how “intelligent” animals are. Scientists race to figure out which animals will seemingly identify themselves in mirrors. Other scientists strive to show how animals can pick up human language, while other researchers test animals’ memories against each other and against humans. Activists draw attention to every new study on animal intelligence. Meanwhile, skeptics use every opportunity to point out ways in which humans are exceptional.
I can’t help but think about how eerily similar these mismeasurements are to those used to demean people based on race, class, and sex – a topic that is well addressed in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.
Two recent articles, “What Animals Teach Us About Measuring Intelligence” by Philip Sopher and “Many Animals—Including Your Dog—May Have Horrible Short-Term Memories” by James Owen, examine several studies that attempt to quantify animal intelligence. Both articles come to an important conclusion that there are significant limits to intelligence research. Sopher explains up front: “with the current infrastructure, analyzing animal intelligence is nearly impossible.”
Owens quotes psychologist Victoria Templer who studied short term memory in chimpanzees and other primates and concluded: “…evolution is not a unidirectional ladder of improvement with humans at the top and [other] apes close behind.”
The common practice of using memory as a litmus test for intelligence is flawed for a number of other reasons. Memory is dependent upon many factors such as stress and emotions, and recollections are often subjective.
Along with memory testing, other forms of intelligence testing produce dubious results. As Sopher explains in his article, most tests do not replicate a natural ecological context for the animal. One test, the pointing test, evaluates an animal’s ability to follow a human’s directions through pointing. These instructions would clearly be difficult for an animal without arms and fingers to contextualize the activity.
Though these articles point out problems with ongoing research on intelligence (in humans and nonhumans), one of the biggest problems with animal intelligence research is that it ignores the most important way in which humans are clearly not exceptional: Like us, other animals suffer.
In 1789, moral philosopher and legal scholar Jeremy Bentham noted that it is the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, that should be the “insuperable line” that determines the treatment of other beings, including infants, adults with particular disabilities, and animals.
According to Bentham,
“A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? Nor, Can they talk? But, can they suffer?”
If the question is “Can they suffer?” the answer is a resounding “Yes.”
The drive for thirst, hunger, sleep, safety – and even love – involve areas of the brain that are phylogenetically ancient. Very small structures below the cortex called the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus are involved in the expression of fear, panic, rage, and the fight or flight response. Like the neurological structures for pain, these brain structures involved in emotional suffering are evolutionarily conserved across a wide array of species. Emotions such as fear, pain, anger, and sadness enhance survival. Why wouldn’t other animals share these essential responses to the world around us?
As a result of these anatomical and physiological similarities, people and animals experience positive and negative emotions in very similar ways. This helps explain why we see attachment disorders, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and complex anxiety disorders in humans and other animals. In a series of studies first published in 2011, my colleagues and I showed just how traumatized chimpanzees suffer from PTSD, depression, anxiety, and compulsive disorders. Many other studies have shown how monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, mice, rats, and other animals also suffer from mental health disorders.
And if there are still lingering questions about how animals perceive pain, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – which oversees the killing of billions of animals every year – puts this question to rest. According to the USDA, a painful procedure to an animal is one that can “reasonably be expected to cause more than slight or momentary pain or distress in a human being to which that procedure was applied.”
We are too quick to forget what we do know about animals: They experience physical and emotional suffering like humans. Charles Darwin established this common sense principle more than 150 years ago. Yet, we continue to probe differences between human and nonhuman animals in an attempt to delineate our superiority.
I can’t help but wonder if this persistent questioning is an attempt to purposefully diminish animal intelligence to justify our treatment of them in factory farms, laboratories, circuses, zoos, and the many other ways in which they are exploited. In doing so, we really only diminish our own intelligence. Surely we can do better.