What do studies of animal cognition mean for ethics?

One of the most-viewed posts that I’ve written was about animal intelligence. I still maintain that the current mainstream view of animals is outdated and needs to recognise that non-human animals are, while not as intelligent as us, more intelligent than usually given credit for and, as fellow sentient creatures, deserving of moral protection. Currently, there is more and more scientific evidence being produced that supports intelligence in a wide range of species. I imagine resistance to these findings comes from a few sources such as many religions making an explicit separation between humans and animals (one which is not supported by biology), a lack of knowledge of studies of animal intelligence and a reluctance to acknowledge these findings as that would necessitate a complete overhaul of how we live our lives.

One of the strongest examples for animal intelligence is the dolphin. Previously I’ve highlighted some examples of their tool use, possible examples of culture, possible attempts of different dolphin species to find a common language and, most recently, the recognition of dolphins as non-human persons in India. Outside of primates they are possibly the most intelligent species with examples to support that.

New work on dolphins suggests that dolphins may have their own names. Dolphins have signature whistles which are unique to individuals and experiments with wild dolphins have shown that they call back when they hear their own “name” while ignoring those of other dolphins. This is building on previous work by the same group which showed that when dolphins were separated they copied the whistle of their closest social partner, suggesting that they were calling for a specific individual. (Original paper is open access.) As we know dolphins can use vocal sounds to refer to objects and that they have a dynamic social structure, it is possible that observations of dolphins using an absent dolphin’s signature whistle means they are referring to that individual.

Some people claim that animals all live in the moment, with no concept of the past or future. How that comports with what we know about animal behaviour (such as training and pets recognising their owners) I don’t know but, again, the evidence is not in favour of this view. Recent experiments with two species of ape (chimpanzees and orangutans) have shown that they were able to recognise and repeat a task that they had first seen three years earlier (Described in Not Exactly Rocket Science and ScienceNow). Apes that had not been involved in the experiment years ago did not solve the task immediately and instead explored randomly. A similar test was repeated with a few weeks gap for the same result.

Recently published research has also forced us to re-examine how we think about dog memory. Declarative, or explicit, memory involves recalling facts and was previously thought to be exclusive to humans. It was also known that dogs could imitate a humans behaviour, however only if the behaviour happened within five seconds. New evidence shows that dogs can remember, and correctly imitate, actions that happened even up to 10 minutes earlier. This was shown with both familiar and new actions, with various time delays and even with distractions between the action they were shown and the time that they were told to copy it. I think it’s especially impressive because it’s not just about memory. The imitation part requires the dog to analyse the action and adapt it it’s own body plan.

This sort of work is vital because our treatment of animals must be based on reality. Once we can accept the evidence that non-human animals can think and feel then we need to examine how we should be treating them. I recently learned about a project that is attempting to share that evidence. This is the Someone, Not Something project, which sounds quite exciting as it appears to be be basing it’s advocacy on science rather than sensationalism.

Research on animal cognition demands that we start to rethink how we treat animals. We need to move away from ethical systems that are either not tied to reality, such as assertions that animals can’t experience pain, or that are logically inconsistent. I would suggest that the reason things in this area move slowly and become so polarised is that they will almost certainly require a reworking of society with the biggest conflicts arising in regards to eating animals and using animals for research. Both are contentious topics but ones where we need to ask tough questions, such as: Is it more ethical to conduct research on sentient, non-human animals or on brain-dead humans who can longer think, feel or suffer? Or does a person’s enjoyment of meat outweigh the suffering that goes into preparing it?

At the very least, we can move to try minimise suffering caused by our behaviour by identifying what we can do better or what is done unnecessarily. For example, while the UK has seen an increase in the number animal experiments, a review of animal models in neurological research shows that the studies appear to be subject to large biases and poor levels of significance. (Original paper is open access.) If those results are not reliable then the suffering resulting from them is unnecessary and unethical. Either such research would need to be stopped or adjusted to improve reliability.

The facts are that as we begin to research animal cognition we are finding that it is more complex than we originally thought. The distinctions between us and other animals are more blurred than people would like to realise as non-humans are being tested at levels that exceed children of a few years of age and the distinction between pet, pest and food animals is essentially completely meaningless. Our systems of ethics need to take the latest research into account and move toward internal consistency.


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