Animals Are Smart. Are Humans Holding Them Back?

For centuries, animals’ capacity for human-like behavior went unnoticed. Now we know they’re more like us than we thought, but we’re still not sure how to act.
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ConstantinCornel via Getty Images

Matthew Zampa, Sentient Media

Animals are smarter than we think. Sharks like jazz and bees understand the number zero. Some of the most abstract ideas for humans to grasp—mastered by nonhumans. It feels like they deserve a round of applause or something. But they’re not getting one.

Seeing compassion, virtue, suffering, and struggle in animals, smart or not, puts us in a weird spot. When we recognize other moral beings with ethical claims, we feel we have to behave better, too.

The study of animal behavior is long and complicated with a lot of wrong turns. The world once believed a horse could count. Like that itch you just can’t seem to scratch, science is still struggling to understand what’s really going on in animal brains.

Learning is often placed at the center of any conversation around animal intelligence. There’s even an elite club of tool-using animals. But intelligence can be a crutch. It changes the way we treat animals. What if the way we treat animals is holding them back?

“If humanity tests for a new capacity in animals like tool use or grief, the odds are that they have it,” says Jacy Reese, research director at the Sentience Institute. “We should only be surprised if they don’t.”

Humans are exceptionally good at using tools, among other measures of cognition like recognizing ourselves in the mirror, listening, learning, and making friends. But it’s important to remember that none of these traits are distinctly human.

Family units exist in chimpanzees, elephants, wolves, baboons, and meerkats. Orcas experience grief. It’s the combination of these traits, each occurring without fail in every healthy human being, that lends itself to another dangerous conclusion—that we are the exception.

Don’t think too hard about this one. Humans are amazing creatures. We can even show you how special we feel. We dance, groove, boogie, shake, and we’re not the only ones. Honeybees can dance, too. They actually communicate by dancing. And like salsa dancers, they need a partner, or more like 60,000 partners and one queen to make a hive.

Bees dance a figure-eight dance called the waggle. The honeybee waggle varies by species and by the direction each honeybee traveled to carry pollen back to the hive. This suggests the waggle evolved to look different and to mean different things over time. It is not a learned language but rather a tool sharpened on the grindstone of evolution.

Sara Mapelli runs bee-themed energy alignment retreats at a secret location outside of Portland, Oregon. The retreat focuses on healing the body by experiencing what she calls the communal bee mind—and the little bit of magic that goes with watching a woman cover herself in 12,000 bees for two hours. When her her two-legged guests arrive, they’re wearing all white.

“That’s so the bees don’t perceive you as a threat,” she says.

Everyone is seated on the lawn in a circle of white folding chairs, musicians at the ready. Before she runs off to cover herself in bees, Mapelli asks her guests their intentions.

“Right away they have this huge scary story, ’When I was six years old I got stung 10 times,” she says. “Or it’s the story, ‘My grandfather was a beekeeper.’ But those are getting less.”

She retreats to a beehive behind the house and applies the pheromones of 100 queen bees to her bare chest. Then an entomologist (someone who studies insects) helps release the hive, and the bees swarm. “He’s one of two people in the country that would do this with me,” says Mapelli.

She walks forward slowly, branching her arms out like a tree. The buzz is incessant. Twenty four thousand beating wings make it pretty hot under the black and yellow coat of armor as the bees swarm their mother.

“That’s what they do,” she says. “They like to keep things a certain temperature.”

Slowly, they creep towards her eyes and begin to lift her up. Mapelli feels a pulse. It’s their wings, and she starts to dance with them.

Most of animal behavior is conditioned by evolution. The part that isn’t, the part that’s learned, is the part that still separates the men from the apes.

Humans are the dominant species, evolving to have bigger and better brains than the other animals, but that’s no way to judge morality. Animal rights icon Tom Regan argues that any animal that wants, prefers, believes, recalls, and expects things is an experiencing subject of life and has its own individual welfare that matters to them regardless of what we might think.

“We test antidepressants on mice because we know that they feel depressed,” says Reese.

But researchers have this bad habit of turning the science around and denying that mice had emotions in the first place to protect against the fact that the animals they’re studying are suffering, says Reese.

“We don’t need to cut animals’ brains out to know that they can feel it,” says Marc Bekoff, biologist, and co-founder of the Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall.

This concession isn’t so easy for us humans. Let’s call it a culture of believing badly. How far each of us goes to promote this culture will vary. So will our waggle. The only difference is that we have to teach it to ourselves.

“Humans love stories,” says Reese. “We want to explain the world in black-and-white terms like a good guy facing off against the evil villain. This desire for simplicity leads us to think of animals as physical embodiments of abstract ideas like the intelligent owl, the friendly dog, and the monstrous shark.”

To most TV junkies, sharks are still mindless underwater invaders that will sink your boat and bite off your leg. The American wolf was nearly hunted to extinction. Even the world’s most charismatic animals are at risk of falling on the wrong side of history.

Culture is only applauding a few smartly dressed animals on Instagram. But in a small shed on the outskirts of Berlin, 1907, a horse earned the name Clever Hans because he could count. And Clever Hans taught humans a valuable lesson about how smart animals are.

Again and again, the horse correctly stomped the answers to mathematical equations. The Prussian Minister of Education and the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, zoologists and Prussian military were all honestly curious and definitely amazed when they checked the horse’s math.

Even when someone other than the retired schoolteacher studying the animal asked a question, Hans got it right. But for Hans, it was all a clever trick.

The horse noticed that whoever asked the question gave a nod invisible to the human eye when the horse tapped the answer correctly. Even the slightest purse of the lips was a tell. If Hans was patient enough between taps, he would arrive at the answer—and the crowd would exhale a sigh of relief. Hans knew when he was right, but he couldn’t write the answer on a chalkboard (for more than one reason).

The lesson of Clever Hans wasn’t about counting at all. It was about projecting. Everyone from the Duke of Saxe-Coburg to the retired schoolteacher studying the animal oozed with excitement that the animal could, in fact, count. Even The New York Times had a hand in this cognitive wizardry by spreading the story. But Hans, like your pet dog or that monkey making faces at the zoo, only understood what people wanted from him.

Not all responses animals have to human behavior are voluntary. A bark is; yawning isn’t. Exactly which part of the dog brain sees and repeats the yawn is still out for debate.

What we have learned from Clever Hans and yawning dogs is that the simplest explanation for animal behavior is probably the right one. In this case, the dog isn’t yawning just out of empathy for a human being. Or—the horse can’t count. But bees can dance? That’s the wrong question, according to Mapelli.

“How do we move into a place of accepting things without having to dissect them,” she asks.

Everything feels different every time—including the bees, she said. This time they feel strong, alive, and by now, she knows to follow their lead.

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