The minds of other animals

Dec 12, 2016

By Antone Martinho

I have recently decided to bring two small parrots into my home. They are celestial parrotlets, originally from Ecuador and Peru, and one of the smallest parrot species that can cohabit with humans. I call them Dandolo and Madeleine. They fit well into my apartment life in Oxford, despite the burgeoning beak-scars on my fingers, and they fill my weekends with rainforest twittering.

They are the first birds I have kept as pets – which is surprising, because my professional life is entirely concerned with birds. I am interested in how they learn, what they learn, and the behaviours that made them such a successful group of organisms. Birds are directly descended from dinosaurs, and have diversified into more than 10,000 species, far more than mammals, amphibians or reptiles. In the past, I have worked with crows and pigeons, and am currently focused on ducks.

Recently I’ve been investigating whether ducks can learn the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’. First, my colleagues and I trained ducklings to recognise, for example, two red spheres, via imprinting. This is the process by which young birds can learn to identify and follow a moving object, normally their mother. The shapes were attached to rotating booms, and the ducklings followed them around like a mother duck. Then we gave them a choice between two more pairs of shapes: two red pyramids, and a red cube and a red rectangular prism.


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8 comments on “The minds of other animals

  • Quotes from article:

    “Previously, only members of the big-brain club of clever animals had been shown to be able to grasp such abstract ideas: parrots, chimps, other primates, and crows.”

    “Recently I’ve been investigating whether ducks can learn the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different’.”

    Responding to stimuli and being able to perceive or recognize things that are the same or different is not the same as being able to form abstract concepts. An animal can feel the difference between greater or lesser degrees – or experience the same degree – of pain and pleasure; but that is a far cry from being able to think ‘same’ or ‘different’ or ‘pain’ or ‘pleasure’ and understand what these ideas mean, that is, from being able to form conceptions of what pain, pleasure, sameness, difference, etc. are.

    A dog may feel bored, but to be able to form a concept of boredom, is another matter altogether.

    Not long ago, I was feeding a dog. I said “Food?” The dog started shaking with excitement. The sound triggered a response. But it is unlikely to say the least that a dog can comprehend ‘food’ as an idea. It also knows when its dish is empty. But ’emptiness’ as a concept is quite foreign to them.

    Again, this worthy and well-meaning author lacks a clear understanding of what a concept is.

    The great philosophers, who are looked down upon by all too many scientists, excel in precision and remain unsurpassed in this regard.



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  • As a child, I raised a duckling to adulthood. She imprinted on me fairly quickly. In her early days, she’d fall asleep in my hand, nestling her bill under her wing. As she grew, I found her to be surprisingly smart in some ways but not others. She escaped from every container I ever devised to hold her. I could tell by her calls when she needed attention, was distressed or satisfied. But she couldn’t resist the lure of food, to the point that if she ate too much she’d fill up her crop so far that she fell over and couldn’t get up! She loved attention, but as she got older didn’t like to be picked up. If I had to, it became harder and harder to catch her. She could predict whether or not I was trying to do so, and knew where to run to confound any attempt to catch her unassisted. I still miss her sometimes.



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  • A tender story (above), and yes, animals are remarkable – but I don’t like it when people insist that they can conceptualize. They want to be free and have the right to be free. They don’t like to be confined and they do feel emotional pain, a great many feelings, presumably.— They are capable of loyalty and have capacities that have astonished many who work in this field; but no animal can conceive of justice or loyalty. They can feel hungry or frightened and exhibit signs of these states of mind, as it were – but I do not think they can think about these states, to form ideas about them.

    Everything does form a continuum. It is possible that the bare rudiments of conceptual thought in its germ is present in some animals, that is, in some larval psychic form. But a duckling “learning the concepts” same or different? No. They are exhibiting intuitive responses based on perception and following upon stimuli. “Sameness” and “many” are very sophisticated concepts; there is no way that a duckling can understand what they mean. My proof of this is the absence of words. Concepts exist for the purpose of communication only. A concept is simply a word (sound) for heterogeneous things that have a uniting quality: hungry today, hungry yesterday, hungry when I am not fed, hungry now, not hungry now. — In all of these heterogeneous cases there is a uniting element, namely hunger. Feeling the hunger is a perception; naming it implies understanding of an idea. And think of how many other concepts are presupposed when one naively argues that such things as “hunger” can be “learned” as a concept!—An “I” is presupposed, an ability to compare different states at different times, an ability to distinguish between hunger and other forms of displeasure (pain), etc.

    When a dog barks or a duck quacks – and they will do that when hungry – they are actually communicating. I do not think that that justifies arguing that the animals can therefore think hunger, and know what it is as an idea; they are merely crying out in pain. (The difference between feeling and thinking, between communicating and speaking –employing concepts – is analogous, perhaps, to the difference between inorganic and organic nature.)

    And that’s how we (homo sapiens) all were at one time, before we could speak, think, form ideas…. A continuum, as I said.



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  • @Dan

    I agree with you about the continuum. I’d even go so far as to suggest that not all humans are on the thinking/idea-forming side of any line you care to draw that excludes other animals. Yes, they can speak. But can they think? Can they conceptualise? Where’s the evidence?

    And while we’re at it, you’ve told us your thoughts on the matter. What do you think the animals in question think of you? Well, of us — humans in general — as well as specific individuals?

    Back at your continuum, it doesn’t have all humans at one end of it and all other animals distributed down the other end. There are probably animals a good deal better at abstract thought than some humans. Or to put it another way, the variance within our species is comparable with the variance between us and the other “big brained” species mentioned. (Big is relative, seems to be more a ratio of brain/body mass, not absolute brain size).

    Perhaps the distinction – if there is one – is that some humans tell us they think about thinking. Animals, well, how would you know?



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