Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Dumb beasts

One of my favourite Simpsons episodes is the one where Lisa undertakes a science project to find out "Is my brother dumber than a hamster?" The second experiment in the project involves a cupcake that gives an electric shock if touched. Needless to say, the hamster learns to avoid the cupcake after the first shock whereas Bart continues to reach for the cupcake (even though there's a sign saying "Do not touch"), getting shocked repeatedly until Lisa concludes the research with the result "Hamster 2, Bart 0".

I'm reminded of that episode whenever I hear people make pronouncements about how we
(homer sapiens) are supposedly the smartest banana in the evolutionary bunch. And we add insult to injury when we attribute all the awful things about ourselves to our animal cousins – “pig ignorant”, “dog ugly”, “rat cunning”. One has to wonder, who’s calling whom a dumb beast?

Consider Alex the African parrot who appears to understand the abstraction "zero". Researchers working with Alex conclude "(t)he results add to growing evidence that birds and other animals are much smarter than we thought" (just like earlier, similar “discoveries” about black people and women!) Later in the article we hear how coots can keep track of their eggs in a nest, even if they're mixed in with other birds' eggs. How many of us could (in all honesty) identify our offspring in a ward full of bald infants? No. We attach labelled wrist bands to our neonates and, in the case of twins, make them continue to wear them until the child is able to tell us which twin they are.

Further in the article we learn that black-capped chickadees are
able to warn their communities about the size and threat of specific predators. “Bird-brained” humans won't be surprised to learn that crows use tools. Prairie dogs - in perhaps the most clever adaptation of all - have come up with a prairie dog version of the word "humans!" to bark to each other in alarm. Finally, at the end of the article, we leave Alex and the researchers to discover how well Alex can count and subtract.

In other recent news we learn of some dolphins at the Epscot Disney Centre in Florida who have learned to sing the theme from Batman! Now some of you won't know that the tune from Batman involves two separate competencies - pitch and rhythm. And apparently these dolphins are able to demonstrate both. (Think about that the next time you watch the Australian Idol auditions). But even that is not enough evidence for some, such as the human psychologist (not involved in the experiments) quoted in the article who tetchily responded "I think music is a human construct" … "I doubt that it has pertinence to animals, although the elements of music, such as pitch, time, timbre, rhythm, etc, may be incorporated into animal communication." Oh no, mister behaviourist quadrant brain couldn’t tie your own shoelaces pedant, no pertinence at all. Might upset your overweening ideas about human intelligence and the whole educational psychology applecart. Much better to stick your fingers in your university educated ears and hum I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK, hmmm?

But someone over in the land of the free must know a thing or two because it has also transpired that some “(a)rmed dolphins, trained by the US military to shoot terrorists and pinpoint spies underwater” (!?!) escaped into the Gulf of Mexico during the kaos of hurricane Katrina. And I do admit that my first reaction upon reading the story was to imagine Maxwell Smart haplessly trying to explain the situation to the Chief. Somewhat mysteriously, Don Adams - the actor who played Max - “died” at around the same time, so who knows – I’m beginning to think that anything’s possible nowadays. Rather troublingly, there is also some concern about civilian divers and windsurfers being mistakenly targeted by the escapee dolphins but personally I’d rather take my chances with armed dolphins than armed humans lurking underwater. I like to think that the escaped dolphins will meet up with a wild group of bottlenosed funsters, throw down their guns and start singing Batman like any creature in their right mind should.

Closer to home, Brisbane City Council employs a couple of Jack Russell terriers as rat catchers around its waterways and, in its enlightened way, pays them a proper wage and entitlements including holiday leave, meals, sick leave, long service leave and so on for their services. Though one has to wonder what will happen to the poor little fellows once they have to negotiate workplace bargains for themselves in this brave new “fairer” Australia that is being stitched up as we sleep.

And it should come as no surprise to be reminded of the incredible achievements of our closest primate cousins including
  • the tres debonair Kokomo Jr who not only acted in television programs but also painted, played saxophone and violin and skied
  • Nim Chimsky who, like his namesake Noam Chomsky, helped humans research the underpinning biological constructs of language and in his spare time played practical jokes on his human sisters
  • Koko the gorilla who had a vocabulary of more than 1000 words, kept pet cats and cried (telling her handlers she felt “sad”) when a beloved kitten died
  • Wild gorillas who, left to their own devices and without our “training” use tools to negotiate territory and survive in conditions that would have most of us crying for our mothers within minutes
Even the story of Clever Hans says more about human nature than anything else. “Ooh", said the fancypants scientist Oskar Pfungst "Clever Hans wasn't counting - he was reading the body language of his master and responding accordingly". Well derrrr, Herr Doktor. Could I respectfully suggest that that's still a tad more intelligent than a species who employ “executive life coaches” to tell them how to wipe their sorry arses? I can just imagine perfectionist Pfungst, were he alive today, exclaiming “Batman? Batman?!? Get them to do Wagner's Ring Cycle and then I’ll call it singing!

Now if, at this point, you’re thinking “ah well – yes, but that’s because she’s talking about mammals and they’re just like us” consider this: For years researchers dismissed the so-called "waggle dance" of the honeybee as the mindless gyrations of an excitable being (which I suppose is forgivable considering that human behaviour was the only thing they had to go on at that stage). Instead, years later, we find that these tiny, perfectly formed, disciplined and gorgeous creatures are displaying “the most sophisticated example of non- primate communication that we know of" (and it really is satisfying to finally see the words “that we know of” included at the end of a scientific sentence acknowledging that perhaps it is “we” who need to learn more rather than “they” who need to prove something to us).

So next time you’re tempted to say something patronising about an animal, bird, insect or reptile, or inclined to insult an animal by comparing them unfavourably to a person, think twice. Otherwise you might just end up sounding like a big ignoramus erectus.

(Luvly photos by kms, stefan and

PS: Tonight I learned that mice are the troubadours of the animal world, composing individual songs for their beloved. View this article to listen to some mp3s!

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