Can humans ever understand how animals think?

Harpo

Getting away with it
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For the immediate future there will humans who assume that animals are nothing more than a resource to be exploited the same way one would mine a mineral. The basic flaw with this belief is that humans are also animals. Here is an example of a classical dictionary definition of the word animal, "something that lives and moves but is not a human, bird, fish, or insect." Formerly locked in a book where one had to look for it, it is now easily found on the world wide web, the fountain head of misinformation.

The human definition of intelligence is being able to manipulate the environment to a "profitable advantage. Which naturally excludes animals. What will happen when AI starts generating wealth for itself, will that be considered a sign of intelligence. Funny how the A in AI has so many different possibilities. Maybe intelligence is an adjective and not a noun. Maybe there is something else that should be measured to determine how smart life is.

The so called "educational" programs that seek to show examples of animal intelligence almost always start off with doubt in the narrators spiel and spend the whole program posing the question are animals intelligent, and leaving it as a question for the viewer to decide.

As far as a new flood of information goes, that overlooks personal observations by people for the past 100,000 years. It seems more like an excuse as to why the gate keepers have been allowing the human first mantra to flourish unchallenged.
 
We put human characteristics on to animals. We can't help it. And there's nothing wrong with doing that. But the problem is that we also determine the level of 'intelligence' of animals by human standards as well, with the ultimate aim to be able to get an animal to read, write and/or speak our language. Quite why any animal would want to do so is beside the point. Better off pretending to be dumb, and maybe we'll then let them get on with being whatever species of creature they are.
 
We would understand animal behavior a lot better if we looked at it from their point of view rather than on our.

I believe animals have maps, routines, methodology, all memorized precisely because they seemingly can't record anything, except by marking with scents, odors, excretions, etc. that can form pretty complex situations/responses. That system can be upset by the weather.

From a neutral standpoint, many of our actions show no sign of rationality, but that's how we do it, and we follow it, but for animals it might just seem totally irrational and hard to quickly respond. Confronting a car traveling at high speed with very bright lights on a wet shiny road in a driving rain storm usually doesn't end well for an animal. A human would have no trouble with that, except some times people do manage to get run over on a roadway at night with clear skies.

A lot of animal responses seem to be incapable of change, so when something changes they appear out of touch with the situation. The same is true for people. For example, if we suddenly couldn't go to supermarkets to get food because of changes outside of the consumers control, our routines would be greatly upset and perhaps we wouldn't be performing well until we saw or read what other people were doing or a substitute system was put in place for us.
 
We would understand animal behavior a lot better if we looked at it from their point of view rather than on our.

I believe animals have maps, routines, methodology, all memorized precisely because they seemingly can't record anything, except by marking with scents, odors, excretions, etc. that can form pretty complex situations/responses. That system can be upset by the weather.

From a neutral standpoint, many of our actions show no sign of rationality, but that's how we do it, and we follow it, but for animals it might just seem totally irrational and hard to quickly respond. Confronting a car traveling at high speed with very bright lights on a wet shiny road in a driving rain storm usually doesn't end well for an animal. A human would have no trouble with that, except some times people do manage to get run over on a roadway at night with clear skies.

A lot of animal responses seem to be incapable of change, so when something changes they appear out of touch with the situation. The same is true for people. For example, if we suddenly couldn't go to supermarkets to get food because of changes outside of the consumers control, our routines would be greatly upset and perhaps we wouldn't be performing well until we saw or read what other people were doing or a substitute system was put in place for us.
For most of human existence, humans didn't have a meaningful way to record things - ok. cave paintings. There have been great records of anthropologists living among non-literate tribes during the last couple hundred years and finding out that non-literate humans have complex social lives not so different from literate society. People in these groups are intimately familiar with their environment knowing not only plant species, but individual plants and animals, rocks and streams that they interact with. I remember a study that suggested that in a tribe studied in the Amazon, the children in the village could identify and speak about over 2,000 individual plants in their environment.

Does that say anything about cats, dogs, dolphins and cockroaches? No, not at all. But at least one species of animal on this planet is very capable of doing all of that.

And then there is me realizing that I couldn't identify 10 plants in my neighborhood, but I can tell you the best place to find a parking spot near my favorite store!
 
I think that more than anything else we have to stop animals from going extinct. Apparently the world has lost two thirds of its wildlife within the last 50 years. Two thirds. That's a pretty staggering statistic.

As their natural habitats are destroyed, more species will go extinct. Eco systems have to be fairly resilient, but can only be pushed so far. The degradation of one form of wildlife can have a significant effect on others, and an ecosystem that has built up and developed and worked perfectly well for hundreds or thousands of years can come crashing down like a pack of cards; and it will be almost impossible to help it recover.
 
Most animals that do not have armor or do not often live in a shelter are much faster in perception, reaction, and movement than humans. The degree of this superiority depends on the type of capabilities they have for survival, obtaining food, and the potential dangers they may encounter. Some animals are powerful fighters, some are fast runners, and some have strategies to hide from enemies.

Of course, the animal world is much more complicated than this simple classification and explanation.

Yes, animals think about what to do, make plans, and use strategies to hunt, remain alive, or find food. They can understand the states of other animals or a member of their packs. Manner of looking, figure of ears, tail, and behaviors like the type of walking are like speech to them. For example, when a pack of lions wants to trap rapid prey in a desert, the leader shows with a glance to each one of the lions what they have to do, in which direction they should move, and where they should ambush.

A more vivid example is that, a dog understands the state, mood, or purpose of its owner through his looks.

So, animals can think, understand, and communicate, but only within the boundaries of their instincts and needs.
Of course, domesticated animals like dogs or cats can learn things beyond their natural abilities, but they often lose some of the natural capabilities that a wild animal possesses. For instance, if a lion or tiger is born in a zoo, it will lose some of its hunting skills, such as hunting a wild buffalo. If it encounters such a beast, it will not know what to do or how to attack the giant prey. Usually, it would be scared of that fierce and enormous creature.
 
I think a lot of this research/arguments are vegan based university research (no bias on my part shown here) if I wanted to be cynical about the article. If animals are clever, why do we eat them = guilt and soon after a vegan diet for all.

Valid enough, as my cockapoo Bertie clearly knows me and really knows when it's dinner time and is generally a clever dog. Bertie is sadly quite dim when compared to humans, but bless him, he does try.

Pigs are supposed to match dogs for intelligence, with octopus(s) having an intelligence of their own as well, and then dolphins etc. and on and on, then where do we draw the line for meat? I still eat pork, because if we were all vegan there would be no need to keep pigs and there would be far less pigs around as we control the world. Which is a problem, as I like animals and I like meat and even the magpie currently across the road from me is clever enough to plan a search for food and get by day to day - even if I hate all magpies as a general statement. Cows and sheep, that are generally dim but unlucky for them also very tasty, can suffer stress in the final moments. Animals can know when the butcher likes the look of them so clearly, this shows some self awareness even if it is only self-preservation in the final moments of farming life. So do I grapple with the dilemma of meat eating, yes but not enough to stop me eating my Sunday dinner. Should we all be vegan, probably, but then where would all the animals go if we don't need them any longer? So I guess there is no right answer here, other than my buying habits insisting on good animal welfare shown by the Red Tractor on British meat, so that animals have a good life (if short) before their industrial end.
 
@Harpo - I love the working out the statistics of carrots vs courgettes by giraffes to get the best outcomes.

I've been reading on Animal Behaviour and Intelligence for years and am convinced of considerably more abilities, and feelings, than most people would attribute to them.
I'd recommend the following books, written by professional animal behaviour academics, which are still readable to non academics.

Alex and Me - Irene Pepperberg. A thirty year study of the intelligence and learning ability of a grey parrot. It is considerably more than I expected, even with my expectations. (Griffin, the parrot mentioned in @Harpo article was another parrot in the same study as Alex)

Echo of the Elephants: The Story of an Elephant Family (1993) - Cynthia Moss. Who is the founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and the longest continuous running study of a group of elephants. ATE. Deeply fascinating study that is still ongoing.

There are considerable examples in both those books of not just learned behaviour, but reasoned learned behaviour. (Not monkey see, monkey do, but monkey see, monkey plot, monkey do something effective - except talking parrots and elephants.)

Regarding farm animals, I have some pet sheep. From my own observations, and from talking to friends with sheep, there is a considerable range of intelligence, and feistiness, by breed and by individual. Many of them are not dim at all - but they can be covert. Some are really bright and are working to thwart you - which may cause shouts of "you stupid ****" - but they are not stupid, they are just refusing to do what you want them to, which is not a sign of stupidity.
Some are dim, and some are selected to be dim by the farmer - a friend knows a farmer in their area that deliberately culls any animal that shows signs of intelligence and independence as they cause more work. Keep doing that to a breed and it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think if the world went vegetarian or vegan there would still be farm animals, though far fewer, as there are people who keep farm animals as pets, keep them for conservation grazing including needing chunky hoofs turning over your marsh, and for wool. I would hope there would be a decrease in the number of animals bred as the demand decreased and there would be a gradual and kind transition. However, little though I like the idea, there would also be mass culls as that is common practice. In the last few years there have been mass culls of pigs on farms, due to the lack of Carbon Dioxide for the abattoirs. (One method of killing is immersion and suffocation in a bath of carbon dioxide.) By the time the supply chain problem was sorted, the pigs were too large to fit in the killing baths and the meat processing machines, so they were shot and binned.

I'd also recommend Isabella Tree - Wilding - which has some passing bits of information on the free ranging animals on their farm, especially the chunks on the pigs and some of their behaviours.

Final observation - the British used to be known as a nation of mutton eaters, because we were major wool exporters. Keep flocks of sheep for longish and happy, healthy lives, to produce the best quality wool (if an animal is not being well kept, the wool is far poorer quality). Then when they reach an age where they need more care, where the wool quality might start to drop off, then they start to be eaten. However this is often at least 8 years old, and some tougher individuals will keep going longer. So the sheep gets most of his or her life before being eaten as mutton. But with the advent of artificial fibre, we are using far less wool. Commercial meat sheep are tending to be slaughtered at 6 months to a year, depending on breed, prices, size etc. Lamb used to be a luxury item as you'd be paying for killing an animal before it could produce 8 years worth of wool. There was also a change in consumer preferences as well. More recently there has been a campaign to put mutton back in the shops and on the table, so that there is value in the carcasses of older animals. They do need to be hung for longer than lamb, but they have a far richer flavour, you need two weeks hanging to make sure they aren't tough.
 
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"something that lives and moves but is not a human, bird, fish, or insect."
What? "Animal" is a kingdom that contains all of those. Or it is all animals in the kingdom of animal that are not humans. But since when are birds not animals? That sounds like the definition of mammal.
 
Apples, oranges, and shortcuts. Take how capable a dog's nose is for example, the dog gets AAA+++ , the human gets a FFFFFFF-------- rating. Plenty more examples where that came from. How well do you think you would score would taking an IQ test in a language you didn't understand. Probably do okay on the math section.

There are huge herds of the same animal because we keep eating them everyday. Perhaps we should vary our diet and eat a radically different animal of the same family everyday. To be blunt, mono agricultural is a one way road that leads to nowhere. Organic farming was supposed to treat the land and animals that lived on it better and provide healthier food. But it has simply become another label. There are still farms employing biodiversity in their faming techniques but the number of giant mono agriculture organic farm factories is steadily increasing. Biodiversity is a a measurement of the healthfulness of the environment.

We have arrived at a point in time where we could be manufacturing food on a grand scale but it just wouldn't be the same. Imagine munching on unexciting food vs getting a burst of pleasure every 30 minutes. Life would be boring. Manufactured food could be made exciting, make it just another branch of the cosmetic industry. For dietary capabilities, implications, and ramifications, animals get AAAA++++, as for humans, its got the worst distribution system ever invented, another dismal score. Do I know animals are intelligent and have emotions, absolutely.
 
When we say animal I don't think most people include microbes in their thoughts.
 
Its too easy to compartmentalize everything so that everything looks unrelated in purpose. Its even easier to lump it all together. Colonies of microbes can behave like individuals of a different nature, with different goals for each microbe even though they are all the same. We are composed of many different kinds of colonies usually working together with our personal identity an elusive form of consciousness that knows who it is but can mysteriously disappear to places others can't find.
 
On the how animals think theme, I find it interesting from documentaries on the myriad behaviours one small example being differences between the big cats, based on their habitat and size. This is basic behaviours, from tigers sliding through the jungle, to prides of lions hunting the savannah, to cheetahs being sprinters - and small enough to be prey so are nervous big cats.

I am really interested in the thought processes of animals and comparing their sophistication to humans. I do think at times that some animals outdo some humans. However it is also worth understanding the basics that the animals are trying to communicate without language- ear twitches, foot stamp, stare - that warns you that they do not want to be approached.
There are a few instances that make the news each year of people being killed or injured by animals, often, but not always due to them misinterpreting the animal's intentions. It is not something taught in schools, how to behave around animals. I mentioned elephants earlier - there is another fascinating book Daphne Sheldrick's An African Love Story which is memoir, wild life studies and all sorts - she was the first person to work out a formula for artificial baby milk for elephants. (If you give them cows milk they get the runs and die.) During WW2 there was an incident she heard of, where a well intentioned British soldier used to zoos, wandered up to a wild bull elephant and held out a nice iced bun. The elephant took exception to being walked up to, and expressed this with a swing of his trunk - just a slap to another elephant. It killed the soldier.
Years back, someone who was only used to dogs, looked at a cat swinging its tail from side to side and said "oh, that is friendly". "No, dogs wag their tails, but most cats don't, unless they live with dogs and have picked up the habit. That is "I am thinking". The cat promptly ran away.
My pet sheep thump me from time to time - it is mostly shoving me out of the way so they can get at the food I've put down and I haven't moved fast enough to not block their access. They treat me as another sheep. Though research has shown, and I see it regularly, that sheep can tell the difference between people and spot a stranger as soon as they step in the field. Most people cannot recognise individual sheep. There are more differences than you'd think, once you are used to being around them.
 

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