Sunday, June 24, 2012

Planet of the Apes?

An AP story begins:

The more we study animals, the less special we seem.

Baboons can distinguish between written words and gibberish. Monkeys seem to be able to do multiplication. Apes can delay instant gratification longer than a human child can. They plan ahead. They make war and peace. They show empathy. They share.

"It's not a question of whether they think — it's how they think," says Duke University scientist Brian Hare. Now scientists wonder if apes are capable of thinking about what other apes are thinking.

"The evidence that animals are more intelligent and more social than we thought seems to grow each year, especially when it comes to primates," the piece continues.  Monkeys have amazing memories.  Apes may be setting goals and working towards them. But it's not just primates:

Dolphins, whose brains are 25 percent heavier than humans, recognize themselves in a mirror. So do elephants. A study in June finds that black bears can do primitive counting, something even pigeons have done, by putting two dots before five, or 10 before 20 in one experiment.

Even dogs and cats are getting more scientific respect. There's more evidence in a recent booklength collection of research. Still more research suggests that crows and even bees recognize individual people. Little birdbrains remember where scores of food caches are, even under snow cover.  Why all of a sudden are we figuring this out, as primate species particularly are on the brink of extinction?  Prejudice operates among scientists just like everywhere else, and if the conventional wisdom is that animals cannot have uniquely human abilities, then anybody who goes looking for them--or even sees them and reports them--risks being laughed out of their careers.  Primatologist Frans de Waal, a pioneer in this area, has suggested that scientists haven't seen such evidence because they simply weren't looking for it.

But now that it's okay, there's much more research money available for these studies, and so there is much more evidence.  Apart from the ethical implications of how these animals are treated by scientists and other humans using them for entertainment, there is of course the profound ethical implication of causing their extinction. 

We aren't so incredibly different and special.  But we do have the power to destroy and maybe the power to save.  At least it is our moral duty to try to save the world from the Climate Crisis and the other destructions we're wreaking on the life of this planet.  It's great that scientists are looking at other animals and finally asking, what are they thinking?  But we need a good look in the mirror, and ask on behalf of these animals, what are we thinking?

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