WILD MINDS: What Animals Really Think

Read Time:
1m 24sec

Animal cognition is a rich and vital topic, and Hauser, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Harvard University, aims to popularize it. Unfortunately, he has written a book that will appeal mainly to his fellow scientists.

He opens in the contentious style of a scientific paper, criticizing previous works (including my own) that, in his view, have too quickly drawn analogies between human thought and animal thought. Then he sets forth his own theories. Animals, in his view, lack self-awareness. They communicate by rote, and cannot combine sounds to form novel and meaningful expressions. They lack emotional self-awareness. They are incapable of empathy. They cannot be considered moral agents.

In support of his theories, Hauser trots out a virtual menagerie—vervet monkeys, honeybees, Clark’s nutcrackers, desert ants—and describes field observations and laboratory experiments intended to demonstrate aspects of their cognition. It takes a skilled and experienced author to make behavioral studies come alive for the nonscientist, who tends to care less about experiments and theories than about animals. Hauser doesn’t succeed.

But it can be done. In The Nature of Horses (1997), Stephen Budianski covered much of the same ground by concentrating on one species. He showed how the horse evolved from a solitary, forest-dwelling browser into the socialized athlete of the glacial steppes, for whom the seemingly simple act of running requires data processing powers almost beyond our imagination. We find ourselves in awe of horses and their remarkable abilities. Like Hauser, Budianski may not share all of my views on animal cognition, but he shows how an author can bring important scientific questions to a wider audience.

—Elizabeth Marshall Thomas


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