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Right Now | Feeling Like an Animal

Wild Minds

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In the summer of 1980, while doing primate research at a tourist spot in Florida, Marc D. Hauser had an unusual encounter. A female spider monkey appeared to be looking intensely at him, so he approached her cage. The monkey also approached Hauser and, while sitting in front of him, reached through the cage and slowly wrapped both of her arms around his neck. She looked into Hauser's eyes and cooed several times. "What happened next was remarkable," he later wrote. "The female spider monkey's cage mate sauntered over. She looked back, unfolded her hands from my neck, and then swatted the male on the head. He jumped back, climbing to a branch on the opposite side of the cage. She then put her arms back through the cage and resumed the position."

This unexpected occurrence, which the Harvard professor of psychology recounts in his new book, Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think, makes one wonder at the thoughts and emotions of animals--particularly when they act in ways that resemble human behavior. "Yes, animals think and feel," says Hauser, "but not necessarily like us." He and his veterinarian wife own a dog, two cats, fish, and two rabbits, whom they say they love despite their view that the love they give may not be the same as what they receive. When referring to pets, Hauser avoids umbrella terms like "intelligent" and "sensitive." He says, "We can be more precise and ask, What do animals remember? How do they represent objects? What kinds of emotions, aside from basic visceral reactions such as fear, do they experience toward things that attack them or cuddle them?"

Hauser argues that animals may not experience feeling-thought states like guilt or sympathy, which depend on self-awareness. "Perhaps only humans have a consciousness of self," says Hauser. How about the dog that howls at his master's death, or licks the face of a weeping child? "There may be some feeling there," he says, "but it is unlikely to be of the kind that we originally guessed from its response."

Recent neuroscientific findings link the brain's frontal cortex--larger in humans than in animals--to inhibition, the ability to control impulses. It's this capacity for mental restraint that makes us uniquely responsible for what we do. "The difference between 'is' and 'ought' is one only we can understand," Hauser says. "Humans alone create a moral world." While animals, in his view, may act naughty or nice, they aren't capable of putting values on these actions; we can train our pets to be what we call "good," but not because they understand what's right or wrong.

Wild Minds is likely to cause controversy. It contradicts the "animals are just like us" premise of such popular books as The Hidden Life of Dogs, by anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas '54, When Elephants Weep, by independent scholar Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson '64, Ph.D. '71, and Animal Liberation, by ethicist Peter Singer, who bases his calls for legal rights for animals on what he claims is their uncanny similarity to humans. Hauser also rejects the strict behaviorist view that all animal (including human) behavior can be reduced to mechanistic, even robotic, patterns. These researchers contend that because animals have no language, they cannot think. "Thought is not dependent on language," says Hauser, who argues that the nonlinguistic thought process of animals is analogous to that of preverbal human infants.

Hauser does not claim to know how animals think, or why they act as they do. What he seeks is an open-minded inquiry into their behavior. He has studied animals in the wild--vervet monkeys on Kenya's savanna, chimpanzees in Uganda's rain forest, rhesus monkeys on islands off Puerto Rico--and in urban settings--crows on a California golf course, white-crowned sparrows in San Francisco, and cotton-top tamarins in his Harvard laboratory. "Most work in animal cognition," he says, "focuses on areas where human and animal behavior overlap, but the differences are just as interesting.".

Wild Minds describes dozens of animal behavior tests that readers can replicate. Each requires systematic observation and simple controls. For example: does your dog understand the concept of reflection? Put her food dish by a mirror. One day, while she sees you in the mirror, place a bone in the closet behind her. Watch closely: does she look behind the mirror or know to turn around to find the bone? To explore the question, "Do cats have a sense of self?" use the same dish and mirror setup. Pat your cat daily while he eats. One day, pat him with powder and see if he realizes that the white stuff in the mirror is on his own head, and if he tries to rub it off. Hauser hopes to get animal lovers interested in thinking like scientists. "It's exciting to think experimentally," he says. "Each experiment opens the door to a new set of experiments. Anyone can do it."

If Wild Minds persuades us, will we love our pets less? Do Hauser's views diminish the animal-human bond? Emphatically not, he says. "I want my book to enrich that bond, to create an appreciation of what an animal's life must be like--on its own terms."