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Do Animals Think?




ANNOUNCER: Funding for Think Tank is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Our show, Think Tank, is the PBS program on ideas. But are human beings the only creatures that think? What about other animals? To find out, we came to the Think Tank Exhibit at the National Zoo, a program designed to study the cognitive abilities of animals.

Later in the program, we will head back to our studio for an in-depth discussion on animal intelligence.

MR. SHUMAKER: I think we can recognize humans as the fifth species of great ape.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do animals think? If so, what do they think about, and what can we learn from them? The topic before the house, animal intelligence, this week on Think Tank.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Iím with Lisa Stevens, who is the curator of Think Tank at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Youíre from Think Tank, Iím from Think Tank, welcome to Think Tank.

MS. STEVENS: Welcome.

MR. WATTENBERG: Right. What are you all doing here?

MS. STEVENS: Well, this is an exhibit thatís very unique for a zoo. We are looking at the subject of animal cognition, animal thinking, and the exhibit is as much about the subject as it is about the process, the scientific process of investigating thinking. And what weíre really hoping is that we narrow that gap between us and them, and really get people to see that other animals have the ability to think.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. What does thinking involve?

MS. STEVENS: In our definition, it involves three things. It involves image, which is the ability to make a mental picture of something. Intention, which is basically a goal, and flexibility. Now, flexibility is really important because thatís the aspect of the definition that one can look at by looking at animal behavior. So, if an animal has an image and an intention, and it sets out to accomplish something, if the first plan fails, this ability to come out with maybe a second or a third plan, Plan A, Plan B, is whatís really the critical part of our definition.

Now, we have lots of examples of behavior in Think Tank. We look at a broad range of behaviors, and itís really important to discern what behaviors are based on instinct, or are genetically hard wired from trained behaviors from innate, flexible thinking behavior. Weíre looking at thinking behavior in three areas. Weíre looking at tool use, language, and social behavior here in Think Tank. These are the three areas that traditionally scientists have used to gain insight into thinking behavior. And weíre looking at a variety of species, not only orangutans; Sulawesi macaques, a type of monkey; hermit crabs; archer fish; and leaf cutter ants.

MR. WATTENBERG: Letís go on to the next area.

MS. STEVENS: Letís take a look at the tool area.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Lisa, give me some examples of animal tools.

MS. STEVENS: We use a lot of examples from chimpanzees. Chimpanzees in the wild are very resourceful at finding food and using tools to obtain food, and they show a lot of flexibility in their tool use. For example, there are populations of chimpanzees that use a stone tool in order to crack nuts that they canít crack on their own using their teeth or their hands. And they actually have anvil and pestle stones that they use in order to crack these nuts. And they show incredible flexibility and skill in how they use these tools in order to obtain this very rich food resource.

MR. WATTENBERG: If they move from one area to another area, do they carry their tools with them?

MS. STEVENS: They carry their tools with them, or they store their tools, and they go back and they seek them out in order to further harvest these nuts.

MR. WATTENBERG: So, would that fulfill the requirements that we talked of for intelligence?

MS. STEVENS: Most definitely. They show lots of flexibility. They show the ability also to modify these stone tools in order to have exactly the right stone to do the job.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: We started out conceptually with a definition of thinking, and then we moved over to the tool section to see how that interacted with that idea of thinking. And what are we doing here with the macaques, what are we looking for?

MS. STEVENS: Social behavior is one of the newest areas of study when it comes to animal thinking, really going out and looking at the dynamics that occur in a social group of animals. These macaque monkeys live in a group in which they have to balance cooperation and competition in order to meet their daily needs. Two areas that we find very exciting in this field is the evidence of tradition among animals, and the evidence of innovation, animals which depart and do unusual things.

Thereís a very famous group of macaque monkeys in Japan on Koshima Island who, when provisioned by the scientists with sweet potatoes and also rice, one particular individual began to take the rice and the sweet potatoes and wash them in the water. We think that this accomplished two things. One is that it separated the sand very nicely from either the sweet potatoes or the rice. Perhaps it also made it more efficient to eat the rice because the rice would float on the surface of the water. But the second thing, perhaps, is that it provided some salt. The salt water maybe perhaps improved the flavor of the provisioned food.

We really donít know why this particular animal did it, but what we know is, once she started, this behavior then was learned by her offspring, and now when you go to Koshima Island, every individual in the population does it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Lisa, this was a fascinating tour, and I learned a great deal, and we all salute think tanks, whether theyíre in television studios or in zoos. So, thanks a lot.

MS. STEVENS: Thank you.

MR. WATTENBERG: It was great, appreciate it.

MS. STEVENS: Thank you for coming.


(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: As promised, we are back at our own Think Tank studio to further discuss animal cognition and the research being done in this field. We are joined here by Robert Shumaker, biologist and coordinator of the Orangutan Language Project at the National Zooís Think Tank; Sarah Boysen, director of the Comparative Cognition Project at Ohio State Universityís Chimpanzee Center; James Olds, neuroscientist and director of the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University; and Eugene Linden, author of the recently published book, The Parrotís Lament And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity.

Lady, gentlemen, thank you for joining us. This is not a field that I purport to be a great expert on. So, maybe we could start out, just going around the room, starting with you, Rob, who you work at the other Think Tank with Lisa Stevens whom we saw. Letís go around the room, tell me what youíre each working on briefly, just so our audience gets a little view of what we think weíre talking about.

MR. SHUMAKER: Okay. To the point, Iím working with orangutans, one of the species of great apes, and Iím studying their mental abilities in regards to learning a language made of abstract written symbols, and that language is a platform for me to pose and explore a number of other questions about their general mental abilities.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, Sarah.

MS. BOYSEN: Well, my ape of choice happens to be the chimpanzee.

MR. WATTENBERG: His is the orangutan.

MS. BOYSEN: Orangutan, the big orange, you know, shag carpeting.


MS. BOYSEN: And I work with chimps, have for about 25 years, and my interests really are in a whole range of conceptual and cognitive capabilities in chimps. Iím interested in cognitive capacities. And to look at that, weíve been exploring things like numerical competence, that is counting skills, the chimpís ability to recognize the relationship between a scale model of a room, for example, and the real room. And more recently weíve been looking at chimpanzee natural vocalizations, an innate species typical collection of food barks, for example, or screams or whatever. And weíre looking at the information content of those.


MR. OLDS: Iím interested in the cell biology of learning and memory, and thatís across a number of species. But for me, what has been intriguing in my own line of research is understanding the sequence of molecular events that may subserve animal intelligence.

MR. WATTENBERG: And are they the same molecules that perform memory functions in humans?

MR. OLDS: We think so. Certainly thereís a direct line in terms of these molecules from animals as simple as a sea snail all the way to a mammal as advanced as a rodent or a rabbit. And these same molecules are present and enriched, in fact, in the human brain, particularly in the parts of the human brain that subserve higher learning and memory.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, Gene Linden, you are not one of them.

MR. LINDEN: Iím not one of them.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do you do?

MR. LINDEN: Well, I got interested in the question of cognition and language when I heard about the ape language experiments nearly 30 years ago. And I thought, gee, thatís interesting. Chimps arenít supposed to be able to do that. And one single anecdote sort of led me to do this book, The Parrotís Lament, when I heard about an orangutan who had escaped from a zoo in Omaha way back in the 1960s, at about the time that the apes were doing the language experiment. This orang was hiding a wire between its lip and gum, using the wire to pick a lock, get out of its cage, and then hiding the wire again. And it did this three times, at least, before it was caught and they discovered how it was getting out, and where it was hiding the wire. And that involved tool use and tool making, you know, keen powers of observation to understand how the locking mechanism worked, deception, a whole suite of higher mental abilities, and it was doing it despite the best attempts of its keepers to keep it in the cage. So there was no possibility of queuing or imitation.

And it occurred to me, maybe animals do their best thinking when it serves their purposes and not necessarily that of a scientist. I began talking to zookeepers and trainers and scientists, veterinarians, people who deal with animals on a daily basis, and the floodgates just opened, and I got all these stories that seemed to reveal all sorts of higher mental abilities involving trade and barter and games and humor, deception and such.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you all generally believe that animals are smarter than most people think they are? Is that what might unify you?

MR. LINDEN: I think most people think animals are smart, itís just a very difficult question to prove.

MR. SHUMAKER: I think itís an awkward question in a way. I think that most people have experience with dogs and cats and domestic animals, and I think a lot of the time those animals get too much credit in terms of what they know or understand, not to take anything away from them, but itís easy to project your ideas on your pet.

MR. WATTENBERG: Donít take anything away from Maggie, my dog.

MR. SHUMAKER: Iím not taking anything away from your dog, I promise. But I think that the animals we work with, great apes in particular, get the short end of the stick in terms of peopleís perceptions. And I think that they have a tremendous capacity for understanding and learning and thinking, and whatever you want to call it.

MS. BOYSEN: I agree with you, Rob, on some things. I think the lay public does empower animals with a great amount of capabilities, more so than the scientific community. But the scientific community is looking for rigorous, empirical evidence, data, show me the data, that unequivocally will demonstrate some of these kinds of complex things that Eugene mentioned, like deception, et cetera.

MR. WATTENBERG: Youíve all mentioned, without me even bringing it up controversy, that thereís an argument going on here. Whatís the argument? I didnít know there was an argument going on about animal intelligence. Whatís the argument.

MR. LINDEN: The argument is always, I mentioned the word 'queuing' earlier. The very first ape language experiments posited that they could understand symbols and maybe manipulate these symbols and use them in a productive way.

Then critics referred to a horse called Clever Hans, back at the turn of the century, who seemed to be able to do math. And his owner would say, whatís three and four, and heíd tap his foot and stop at seven. And it was a wonder.

MR. WATTENBERG: Not go to 34, but go ahead, right.

MR. LINDEN: In any case, then a psychologist looked at this and did an experiment where he blindfolded the horse, I think. When the horse could not see the owner, it was a dunce at math. And it turned out that the owner would visibly relax when he got to the right answer. Ever since then -- and so it seemed he was doing math, but really he was just watching his owner. And I think Hans was pretty smart, you know, to figure that out if he was going to get a meal out of it.

MS. BOYSEN: I think it was actually the case that if whoever was asking him the question, or they didnít know the right answer, that somebody else, you know, as long the person who knew the correct answer was interacting with the horse.

MR. LINDEN: Was in eyeshot of the horse, thatís right.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, you can make the case, as you started to make, that that, too, requires a certain level of intelligence to be able to read a visual queue of relaxation.

MS. BOYSEN: But itís not arithmetic computation.

MR. WATTENBERG: Itís not what they said, right.

MR. LINDEN: But ever since then, thereís been this. Clever Hans has hung over every single experiment thatís ever been done with higher mental abilities, and people look for the most obscure opportunities for imitation and queuing.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is this an argument between hard scientists and even harder scientists? In other words, most everyone would agree that many animals, at least, have some intelligence, is that the argument?

MR. OLDS: I think science is changing. Ben, I think that 20 years ago, 10 years ago, the reductionists, the folks in neuroscience and psychology who are interested in understanding intelligence from the lowest building blocks, the atoms, if you will, would have been very offended by this notion of animal intelligence, and were constantly crowing about queuing artifact in these type of experiments. But I think neuroscience has changed. And one of the key things thatís changed about the field is that we now understand that itís not simply enough to break down a complex mechanism to its simple watch parts, the little gears, and understand how a watch works. That, in fact, a good deal of what our brain does, in terms of producing mind and intelligence, is a result of these vast cell assemblies, arrays of nerve cells interacting together like a symphony orchestra.

MS. BOYSEN: And producing big chunks of complex behavior --

MR. OLDS: Absolutely.

MS. BOYSEN: -- that you canít understand by looking at D-1 and D-2 dopamine receptors. It doesnít tell you about that.

MR. OLDS: And the simplistic notions that were very popular in my field at least a decade ago and maybe even less than a decade are by the by.

MS. BOYSEN: Itís still in my department.

MR. LINDEN: Thereís a philosophical and a religious dimension.

MS. BOYSEN: There really is.

MR. LINDEN: I donít want to share the world with other -- intelligence gives us special rights in nature. It makes us, you know, the sort of pinnacle of the cosmos. I think the phrase is 'the divine trauma.'

MS. BOYSEN: Well, I mean, thereís still the carryover of some scale with humans up here in a level of complexity, right, right below the angels. When, in fact, all species are alive today as part of the biological continuum, which includes us. Itís this way, itís a horizontal schema, and weíve ticked away at all things that weíve thought of or at least historically have been unique for humans. It used to be man, the tool user, because we spoke of it that way. You know, not humans, man. Well, Goodall reported over 30 years ago that chimps were using tools. Okay, so weíll correct it, now itís man the tool maker. Well, tool modification of all sorts have been demonstrated by chimpanzees and other species. So that wasnít any good. Well, when the ape language work started, oh, my word, there was such an uproar in the academic community because did we dare to say that there was a species on the planet that shared even a proto-language like capability. Big, big controversy.

Okay, then we even have someone like Franz Duvall suggesting that there are the rudiments of morality. I got the same thing in my work. Itís not really counting if a chimp is doing it just because itís not a human. So we always up the ante on the definition of whatís human, and thereís one last hold out right now, and Eugene talks about that a lot. And when you look at sort of the distribution of stories that he shares in his book, then youíll come to see what this last thing is, and that is the ability of humans to attribute mental states to others. That is, I can empathize and think about how you must be feeling right now because Iím not stopping talking and you probably want to. At any rate, that ability to attribute a mental state --

MR. WATTENBERG: When I want to start talking, you will hear me talking. Go ahead.

MS. BOYSEN: But thatís sort of the last new hold out that involves the level of consciousness that humans and chimpanzees have, and itís a very rich area in developmental psychology, looking for this notion of theory of mind and kids.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think there is an difference between chimpanzees and human beings?


MR. LINDEN: Humans are a lot smarter. We get a quarter of our cardiac output goes to the brain, less blood goes to the brain than a chimpís, the chimpís brain is smaller by any ratio. I mean, weíve been optimized for intelligence. I like to use the analogy of, if youíre going to have a continuum, like we may command the heights of Mount Olympus in terms of cognitive abilities, but animals are arrayed along the slopes, depending on how intelligent they need to be. And theyíre not at the bottom, all looking up. Itís more like --

MR. OLDS: Eugene, wouldnít you say that itís a matter of degree rather than a qualitative reference that separates.

MR. LINDEN: Yes, right.

MS. BOYSEN: And thatís been the controversy for a long time.

MR. SHUMAKER: I donít think that anyone would argue that humans are not distinct in some ways. But I think itís important to note that those ways are not all things that weíre particularly proud of. Weíre also the only species that I know of that has committed genocide. So, the kinds of things --

MR. WATTENBERG: Some of those apes commit murder.

MR. SHUMAKER: Yes, but thatís not genocide.

MR. LINDEN: They have warfare.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, they donít have the tools. Okay, itís not genocide.

MR. SHUMAKER: And I think the intentions are very, very different, and aggression is normal in every species, and itís certainly normal in humans. But when we talk about humans being special and unique, thereís two faces to that coin. There are things that are not particularly great about our species as well, and we donít see those in other species. But I think we share much more than we differ. And if we were going to be honest and up-front about it, I think we can recognize humans as the fifth species of great ape.

And I think what Jim said is entirely consistent with that, that the differences between humans and other great apes are differences in degree, not differences in kind.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is that what youíre finding in the language project that youíre doing at the National Zoo here at Think Tank?

MR. SHUMAKER: Well, I certainly donít think that weíre intending to pose that as our research question or our main hypothesis, weíre not. I think what we can contribute are answers to individual questions that we pose, collect data and answer the same way that Sally moves along in her research. And I think what we find over and over and over, when we look at all of these good quality science projects, is that apes are able to do all of these different abilities that everyone has been mentioning. We know that they are intelligent. We know that they are thinking. We know that they have cognitive complexity. I think that thereís very good evidence now that theyíre able to understand things from a different point of view, or this idea of theory of mind, placing themselves mentally in the place of another individual. Thatís a tremendously sophisticated --

MR. LINDEN: Itís something that doesnít occur in human children until about four.

MS. BOYSEN: Right.

MR. WATTENBERG: And Lisa Stevens was telling me, when we talked to her at the zoo, about the deceptive qualities of the macaque monkeys, and told of an incident when the alpha male wasnít looking one of the subordinate males went off with one of the females behind a screen for the purpose of copulation, and the female purposefully didnít make her normal mating sounds lest they be discovered. Obviously, I couldnít let this program go by without repeating that sort of an incident. But thatís pretty intricate behavior, a) youíre sort of sneaking off and b) youíre not only sneaking off, but youíre kind of covering up. Again, it sounds like Washington.

MS. BOYSEN: But you used a term, purposefully, and thereís no way, scientifically and rigorously in an anecdotal setting in the field to provide support for the use of that term. You donít know what her mental state was. You donít know what she was thinking, and it wasnít an experiment, itís an observation. But they speak to those kinds of issues.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just get into a final area which, unfortunately, we have to be fairly brief in, and I can summarize it in a very brief two word question, so what? So, youíre learning all these things about animal intelligence. Is that going to help me in any way, or my children, my grandchildren?

MR. OLDS: It gives you insight into what being human and having thoughts of grandma, memories of growing up, what that means actually to be human. We gain insight from studying animals that are similar to us.

MR. WATTENBERG: What insight have you gained? As we used to say, give me a for instance?

MR. OLDS: I believe that for me the notion that my own six layer cerebral cortex, the wrinkly thing that sits in my brain engages in the same electrical activity that an apeís cerebral cortex does, or even a cat or a rat. That makes me think of myself as an intelligent animal on a continuum rather than separate from these animals, because I see my brain as being the evolutionary product of those brains.

MR. LINDEN: Itís kind of lonely if weíre the only smart creature in the universe. I think itís much more comforting to think that thereís a lot of other intelligences out there, different intelligences alive and in the world.

MR. WATTENBERG: Alas, our time for we five fifth apes has lapsed. Thank you very much, Rob Shumaker, Jim Olds, Sally Boysen, and Eugene Linden. And thank you.

At Think Tank we encourage feedback from our viewers, particularly via email, itís very important to us. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

ANNOUNCER: We at Think Tank depend on your views to make our show better. Please send your questions and comments to New River Media, 1219 Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20036, or email us at thinktank@pbs.org. To learn more about Think Tank, visit PBS Online at pbs.org. And please let us know where you watch Think Tank.

This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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