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Can Animals Think Abstractly?

A mother mountain gorilla holds her baby in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda on Sept. 4, 2015.
Ben Curtis
A mother mountain gorilla holds her baby in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda on Sept. 4, 2015.

In her January Scientific American piece titled "What Animals Know about Where Babies Come From," anthropologist Holly Dunsworth makes a convincing case that despite popular assumptions to the contrary, animals generally — and our closest living relatives, the great apes, specifically — don't understand that sexual intercourse produces babies.

Dunsworth leads off with an example (something I also wrote about here at13.7) in which the captive gorilla Koko, who knows some American Sign Language and comprehends some spoken English, is asked to make choices among several options presented verbally and in diagram form related to "family planning." Dunsworth dismisses the suggestion that Koko is cognitively equipped to understand the four different scenarios by which she could potentially become a mother — and I couldn't agree more.

I also think Dunsworth is spot on when she argues that "reproductive consciousness" is unique to our own species. But outside the realm of strange anthropomorphic assumptions made by caretakers of media-star apes, do people really go around thinking that wild animals, farm animals or their dog and cat companions grasp where babies come from? I don't know of evidence one way or the other.

People do often assume that animals' behavioral choices are highly cognitive and strategic when they may simply be products of natural selection — and this is part of Dunsworth's main point. When a gorilla silverback male, for example, takes over a new group of females and offspring from a resident rival male, he may commit infanticide; at the point when a female's young baby dies, lactation hormones no longer suppress ovulation and she comes back into estrus, thus becoming a likely mate for the conquering male.

"We love to narrate observations of animal sex and parenting with language that implies common ground between them and us," Dunsworth writes. But, "animals may carry out all kinds of seemingly complex behaviors without actually anticipating the outcomes."

This lesson is one I brought into my anthropology and animal behavior classrooms over and over again. Students would write or say something like, "Gorilla males kill infants to make females mate with them," as if the whole thing were masterminded in just the same way that Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood plots his next move in the political drama House of Cards. If gorilla males who carry out this strategy have comparatively greater reproductive success than males who don't, that may be enough for the strategy to be maintained across the generations: There need be no cognitive underpinning at all.

Dunsworth goes further, though, in suggesting there's no evidence for any abstract thinking in great apes. "Although animals such as chimpanzees are far cleverer than scientists have traditionally acknowledged," she asserts, "they do not appear to have this particular cognitive skill." She defines abstract reasoning as "the ability to mentally form representations of unseen underlying causes or forces."

Well, this is an excellent question to with which to kick off a new year. Do animals really not think abstractly?

I asked Dunsworth, by email, about evidence — published by researcher Dan Hanus and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany — that some chimpanzees spit water into a vertical tube to raise a floating peanut to within their reach? That act fits with Dunsworth's definition. Or, broadening the definition in reasonable ways, what about fieldwork by primatologists Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney at the University of Pennsylvania that suggests wild vervet monkeys use abstract concepts when they classify social relationships into types?

Dunsworth replied to my question this way:

"I am convinced that the category 'abstract reasoning' is a difficult one, sort of like the 'theory of mind' category, since it's possible there's a level, degree, or kind of it that's present in other animals but different from how humans think. That is, it's difficult to abstractly reason about a form of abstract reasoning unlike our own. I don't think that innovation — like with the chimpanzees and the floating peanuts, and like the myriad examples in crows — necessarily requires abstract reasoning. In fact, I think much of our own behavior that we believe is due to abstract reasoning is actually the same mechanistic, conditioned, plastic, and innovative behavior that's occurring in other species. That is, not only do we anthropomorphize gorillas and other animals too much, but we anthropomorphize humans too much.

Caution is always warranted in teasing apart these cognitive questions, yet there's convincing evidence that some animals reason abstractly under some circumstances (some other examples regarding nonhuman primates can be found here; data are available, too, for animals as diverse as dolphins and pigs).

Sharing thoughts, questions, hypotheses and data back and forth like this is, of course, highly valuable, especially when scientists don't fully agree; it's part of the way science moves forward. Whereas Dunsworth worries about excessive anthropomorphism, I worry more about our long history of underappreciating animals' cognitive abilities. Animals don't know where babies come from, but they know a great deal more than we once suspected.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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