Chimpanzees in the Crossfire: Are They Really More Clever Than Us?

There's much continued debate about how clever we are and how clever other animals are. This was among the wide variety of topics discussed at a recent meeting about the similarities and differences between us and other animals, mainly the great apes. While we certainly are exceptional in many arenas, so too are other animals, so the question of who's cleverer loses a good deal of force when we try to compare one species to another.

We really shouldn't be asking who's cleverer than whom, but rather try to come to an understanding of what individuals of different species need to do to be card-carrying members of their species. This information will help us learn more about who we are and who "they" are. And, we shouldn't be the standard against which other species are compared. What usually happens is that when we outperform other animals on some task we claim we are cleverer or smarter than them but if they outperform us we rarely make that claim. Then, the conclusion that we're smarter, takes on all sorts of speciesist meaning such as we're more important or more valuable and this leads us down the road to much animal abuse

A recent newspaper article reporting on comparisons in performance between five-year-old chimpanzees and adult humans in a test of mental agility and memory asks "are chimps cleverer than us?" It turns out the chimpanzees won. So what does that mean? The author, Michael Hanlon asks, "Are chimps really brighter than us, even in this sort of memory test? And if so, what does this mean for the way that we treat them? After all, how could it be right to lock up creatures more intelligent than ourselves in zoos or laboratories?" He goes to write, "In fact, the more science discovers about the animal mind, the less comfortable, philosophically, the findings become. And this has led to a small but growing movement that says we have to rethink our relationship with the animal world." This was precisely some of what was covered in the Arcus Foundation meeting mentioned above, that was called "Humans and other apes: Rethinking the species interface"

Mr. Hanlon covers many of the important questions and concerns that center on comparative measures of intelligence and animal ethics. He asks, "So what does this mean? Should the fact that we now know that some animals have hitherto-unsuspected mental skills change our attitude to them? ... If we accept that other animals are far more sophisticated, intelligent and sentient creatures than we thought, it would seem to be illogical not to grant them some rights too." And perhaps in the future after this is accomplished, other animals will also be granted rights. This is a huge and complex project on which the lawyer Steven Wise has been tirelessly working for decades (see also).

Finally Mr. Hanlon notes, "What the Japanese research does prove is that once again, a new and hitherto unsuspected ability has been unearthed in animals. And as science uncovers more and more about the animal mind, it seems as though the voices of those clamouring for a change in the way we treat these creatures will become louder and more plausible."

I couldn't agree more. The scientific literature concerning the cognitive skills and emotional lives of a wide variety of nonhuman animals is growing almost daily and right now we know enough to change the ways in which we treat other animals. We don't have to make up stories about who they are -- intelligent and emotional beings -- and what they want and need from us when held in captivity and living in the wild -- to be treated with respect and dignity and to be able to live safely and in peace. They want to be treated better or left alone. That's not really asking too much, is it? We really do decide who lives and who dies and why, and we must be very careful not to abuse this power. Power does not give us license to do whatever we want because we can.