Animals not only have minds, but personalities and emotions. They make plans, calculate, cheat and even teach, writes veteran science writer Morell (Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings, 1997) in this delightful exploration of how animals think.
Until 50 years ago, most scientists—but not Darwin—believed that blind instinct governed animal behavior; thinking was unnecessary and therefore absent. Morell documents her interviews with scientists across the world whose studies have reduced this to a minority opinion. Readers anticipating the traditional high-IQ dog/monkey/elephant examples will receive a jolt in the first chapter, which reveals that ants are no slouches in the brain department. Members of a complex society, they solve problems with a flexibility that would be impossible if ant neurons were simple and hard-wired. No less impressive are fish, birds and rats, which the author examines in subsequent chapters. Fish feel pain. Birds sing because their parents teach them. Parrots not only imitate human sounds, they know what they are saying and can identify numbers, shapes, colors and even differences between them. Rats engaged in play make sounds that reveal that they are enjoying themselves. Entering familiar territory, Morell also looks at elephants and dolphins, which have long memories and sophisticated personal relationships that include genuine affection. While chimps perform their impressive feats, dogs occupy the final chapter since many experts believe that a dog’s obsession with reading and responding to our cues make it the best model for understanding the human mind.
Although human cognition remains uniquely profound, evolution guarantees that it has a long history, and Morell makes a fascinating, convincing case that even primitive animals give some thought to their actions.