Perhaps I have read too many popular books about animal intelligence over the past 20 years, but they generally hold few surprises for me anymore. The narratives are as predictable as a vaudeville melodrama, and the same stock characters always appear.
René Descartes will put in his usual bit appearance as the arch villain, freezing the souls of scientists with his heartless insistence that animals are mere machines, incapable of sensing pain or experiencing thoughts. A small band of brilliant but plucky iconoclasts—including, naturally, a number of attractive young females—will challenge the “scientiﬁc establishment” with their bold willingness to believe that animals are thinking, feeling, compassionate beings. Kanzi the bonobo will make a guest turn, punching his keyboard to create amazing sign-language sentences and humiliating all of the fuddy-duddies who had smugly denied that animals could share the unique human ability of language. Some equally gifted whales and dolphins will appear for a brief crowd scene; the gorilla Binti will heroically dash to the rescue of a human child within seconds of his impending doom. A pet dog will leave not a dry eye in the house with his touching, even telepathic empathy for his ill or endangered owner. The famous percentage 98.4 (sometimes played by the stand-ins 98.6, 98, or 99.99) will descend from the heavens with a trumpet fanfare to amaze us with the similarity in DNA between human and chimp. Finally, the narrator, voice quivering with piety and bombast, will send us home quoting Darwin’s famous admonition that the difference between animals and man is one of degree, not kind.
Like vaudevillians of old, present-day authors of books about animals are loath to tamper with a proven recipe for success. As a narrative vehicle, the formula of a few brave champions taking on a narrow-minded but powerful establishment is hard to beat. It is hard to argue with the proposition that most people would much rather read stories of amazing animal feats than be told what is wrong, suspect, or dubious about such stories. This is nothing new. A full century ago, Edward Thorndike, the pioneering American experimental psychologist, complained bitterly about all the books of his day that, he said, gave not “a psychology, but rather a eulogy of animals. They have all been about animal intelligence, never about animal stupidity.”
Like all clichés, the formula of these books is at best a caricature of the truth. The books generally seriously misrepresent the basic known facts about animal intelligence. Worse, they perpetuate a simplistic, either-or attitude about animal minds and the brains that create them—either they are machines or they are human. This attitude utterly fails to do justice to the amazing insights that cognitive science has provided over the past few decades.
A SYMPATHETIC SKEPTIC
It is thus no particular surprise to enounter an often-quite-good but always predictable popular book on animal intelligence such as Tim Friend’s Animal Talk, but it is a very great surprise indeed to enounter Clive D. L. Wynne’s Do Animals Think?
To take the surprising ﬁrst, Wynne breaks the traditional mold of popular writers in this ﬁeld in many ways. A comparative psychologist at the University of Florida, he is a profound skeptic about many of the more extravagant and widely popularized claims of language and reasoning capacity in animals. He is a lively writer with a congenial sense of humor, an obvious passion for truly understanding the minds of animals, and a sincere desire to come to terms with what all this means for the larger philosophical and ethical questions about the place of man and animals in the world. (By way of full disclosure, I should mention that I read and commented on an early draft of Wynne’s manuscript for Princeton University Press and offered a complimentary assessment that appears on the back cover of the published book.)
One of the great strengths of Wynne’s iconoclasm is that he is obviously a deeply tolerant and sympathetic man. Even when he catches the animal boosters red-handed telling whoppers, he is more amused—or sometimes, one feels, almost saddened— than triumphant or indignant. Indeed, his book itself refutes the caricatured charge that an entrenched establishment refuses to accept evidence of humanlike reasoning and language ability in animals. On the contrary, Wynne shows again and again how it is a handful of well-known primatologists, such as Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, Ph.D., Frans de Waal, Ph.D., and Jane Goodall, Ph.D, who are part of an increasingly doctrinaire establishment that is committed to popularizing the most extravagant interpretations of animals’ mental accomplishments while working to establish legal rights for great apes. Wynne also shows how some of these media-star researchers have come to give short shrift to traditional norms of scientiﬁc accountability.
SCRUTINIZING KANZI’S “LANGUAGE”
For those who enjoy discovering that the emperor has no clothes, Wynne offers amazing and little-known stories behind some of the widely popularized accounts of animal sagacity so assiduously retailed in recent years. Some of the most eye-opening passages of Wynne’s book have to do with Savage-Rumbaugh’s language-using bonobo, Kanzi.
One major surprise is that it has proved virtually impossible for outside researchers to verify or scrutinize the claims made on behalf of Kanzi or other apes that have supposedly learned to communicate using sign language or (as in Kanzi’s case) by pushing keys on a computer keyboard labeled with special symbols that stand for words. “The ape language supporters guard the transcripts of their apes’ utterances better than the biological weapons labs guard their anthrax,” Wynne writes. “You just can’t get one.” The only specimens available come from a Japanese television documentary. Yet, as Wynne effectively demonstrates, even these “edited products of the entertainment industry...produced to support claims that these animals have mastered language” show exactly the opposite when even a small amount of critical scrutiny is applied.
Wynne also painstakingly analyzed the published data that Savage-Rumbaugh cites as proof that Kanzi comprehends grammar. That claim has ﬁrmly entered the realm of conventional wisdom; it is constantly repeated, usually without a whisper of qualiﬁcation, in popular books and even sometimes in the scientiﬁc literature. The acid test of this claim is that Kanzi is said to be able to understand the difference between grammatical subject and object in such sentences as “Put the ball on the hat” and “Put the hat on the ball.”
But, Wynne reports, the actual data, in fact, show that Kanzi almost completely ﬂunked such tests:
The system by which Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues scored Kanzi’s reactions to their instructions is extremely generous. They commanded Kanzi, “Pour the juice on the egg.” Kanzi picked up the bowl with the egg in it, smelled it, and shook it. Only after they repeated the command three times with various modiﬁcations did Kanzi do what they asked him to. They nonetheless score this as a correct response. Similarly, though Kanzi’s ﬁrst reaction to the demand “Pour some water on the raisins” was to hold a jug of water over a lettuce, this was coded as correct... When Kanzi is given the two commands “Make the [toy] doggie bite the [toy] snake” and “Make the snake bite the doggie,” in both cases the snake ends up in the dog’s mouth, but both responses are scored as correct.
When Kanzi’s responses are accurately scored, the ape comprehended only 30 percent of such reversible sentences, even though just guessing randomly about what is to be done to what would yield an average success rate of 50 percent.
Kanzi is equally unimpressive with the “sentences” he generates himself. Overall, 94 percent of Kanzi’s utterances are single words, generally demands for food treats, and the overall average length of sentences is 1.15 words. This, Wynne concludes, is not even language, much less grammar and syntax: “For all the excitement and all the TV documentaries, the so-called ‘languagetrained’ apes have not learned language... Although some of them have been in training for decades, there is nothing to suggest that any of them ever comprehend grammar.”
BLURRING PROFOUND DIFFERENCES
Wynne makes the point effectively that, although a continual drumbeat claims that apes or dolphins or parrots demonstrate certain kinds of mental capabilities (language, arithmetic, toolmaking, self-awareness) once thought unique to humans, most of these demonstrations are absurdly trivial. By the time a human is ﬁve years old, he has already mastered (without any training whatsoever) the full apparatus of language and can express complex and novel thoughts; even younger humans use language to comment on the relations between things and to communicate ideas and concepts, as well as wants.
“A chimp with a lexicon of one hundred signs or keys to press should be able to say, ‘The banana you gave me yesterday was tasty.’ Yet no chimp ever has,” Wynne notes. To call what these apes are doing “language” is to play almost a semantic game—a game whose object is to deliberately blur profound differences between the minds of humans and animals.
While presenting many fascinating experiments showing that animals reason, learn, remember landmarks and social relationships, make mental lists, and understand transitive relationships, Wynne discusses several experiments that are quite astonishing in showing some of the profoundly stupid mistakes animals make. His point is not to belittle animals’ mental capabilities but rather to pose deep questions about the nature of animal reasoning and intelligence. In one experiment, for example, monkeys ﬁgured out how to use sticks to push a candy out of a clear Plexiglas tube, yet they could never grasp which end of the tube to push from to avoid pushing the candy into a (clearly visible) hole in the middle of the tube that would cause the candy to fall into an inaccessible trap. Likewise, when candies were dropped down a curved tube in plain sight in front of some other monkeys, these animals could never ﬁgure out that the candies would end up in the box to which the curved tube was connected, rather than in the box directly below the tube where the candy was dropped.
Say all you want about the problem-solving, arithmetical, and communicative ability of animals, but, when you see things like this, you cannot help being struck by the profound differences in the way our minds and their minds work when faced with novel challenges. This is not just a matter of degree: it is indeed a matter of kind.
Wynne’s overarching point is that the debate over the minds of humans and animals is based on a false dichotomy. He suggests that there are in fact both great similarities and great differences. While many animal boosters invoke Darwin in arguing that there must really be no fundamental differences in kind between humans and any other animals—that it is impossible humans could posses mental faculties that our close relatives such as chimpanzees lack—Wynne points out that this is not only a ﬂagrant misreading of Darwin, but just plain wrong to boot. Darwin observed a clear continuity among species in the expression of emotions, in some instincts, and in some other aspects of their mental abilities, but diversity was what he really saw in nature. Wynne proposes, based on the hard experimental evidence, that humans appear to be unique in possessing language ability and the ability, extremely important in its implications for abstract reasoning and self-awareness, of being able to conceive of and be aware of the mental states of others (what scientists call “theory of mind”). But this ability is no more “un-Darwinian” than is the conclusion that bats possess the unique mental ability to synthesize echolocation signals to hunt insects, a mental ability that humans not merely lack but have a hard time even imagining.
Wynne’s book not only informs but entertains, so I cannot conclude without mentioning the story he relates about dolphin researcher John Lilly, M.D., who began sanely enough but later went off the deep end around the time he began extolling the wonders of LSD. In 1967, Lilly even gave LSD to dolphins, presumably so they could share his mind-expanding experiences. Nonetheless, Lilly’s pronouncements on the super-human intelligence of dolphins have become part of an enduring myth about marine mammals. He asserted that dolphins are “sensitive, compassionate, ethical, philosophical” as well as “more intelligent than any man or woman.” Less often quoted is Lilly’s insistence that dolphins should be represented at the United Nations, and that when he played back tapes of dolphin vocalizations at half or quarter speed, he could make out words they were saying to him (miraculously, in English).
From Do Animals Think? by Clive D. L. Wynne. © 2004 Clive D. L. Wynne. Reprinted with permission of Princeton University Press.
The only specimens of ape language in the public domain are transcripts of a TV documentary and an ape on the Web answering questions put to it by e-mail. And yet even these sources are enough to prove my point: none of these animals has mastered language.
Here is a transcript of an interaction between Kanzi and his trainers, recorded by a Japanese TV crew. Kanzi communicates by selecting keys from his keyboard, which contains a “dazzling” (Steven Wise’s term) 250 keys. His trainers communicate to him in spoken English. This was recorded in 1993, when Kanzi was thirteen years old and had been in language training for eleven years:
Human: Kanzi, this is Janine. Would you like any food? Tell me what food you’d like.
Kanzi: Food surprise.
Human: Some food surprise?
Kanzi: Food surprise.
Human: Kanzi, would you like a juice, or some M&Ms, or some sugar cane?
Human: You like M&Ms? Okay. Kanzi, is there any other food you’d like me to bring in the backpack?
Human: A ball? Okay.
Look at this exchange carefully. First consider the human’s speech. I don’t think we’d consider her language complex; it’s the kind of thing you might say to a young child. And yet she uses an average of ten words per utterance, while Kanzi’s responses average just one and a half words. (One and a half words is pretty standard for ape speech.) The human identifies herself; she asks questions; she comments on the ape’s responses. Kanzi just names things in single words, except for two uses of the extra word “surprise.” This addition might indicate that Kanzi wants to be surprised by whatever food he gets (though if that’s the case, why does he ask for M&Ms when the same question is put to him in a different way?), or it might be completely meaningless. Kanzi doesn’t offer any further explanation of himself.
Although Janine responds to the ape with some questioning repetition that attempts to draw out a clearer answer, she is not simply echoing Kanzi’s language. Kanzi, on the other hand, in those cases where his answers make the most sense, is simply drawing a response from something that Janine said, for example, “food” or “M&Ms.” When Kanzi adds vocabulary to the conversation, he is always doing so at the expense of comprehensibility, as when he uses “surprise” and “Ball.” In the last interchange, “Ball” can be understood to mean “I don’t want any more food in the bag, but I’d like a ball instead,” but again Kanzi doesn’t take the opportunity to explain this for us. The simplest explanation of what he has said is that he is ignoring Janine’s questions and just demanding something he wants.
Here is everything else Kanzi says in this documentary:
Kanzi: Want milk. Milk.
Human: You want some milk? I know, you always want some milk when you’re planning to be good.
Kanzi: Key. Matada. Good.
Human: Oh, you want the key to Matada, and you’re going to be good. Well, I’m glad to hear that. I’m glad to hear that.
Note how abrupt, demanding, and/or meaningless Kanzi’s utterances are on their own and how his trainer struggles to add comprehensibility to them. “Key. Matada. Good” means “You want the key to Matada, and you’re going to be good.” Note too how the transcriber has added periods after almost every word that Kanzi utters. The words just refuse to string together into sentences.