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Just How Smart Are Animals, Anyway?
Science and Technology track
Sunday, 2:30-3:45 p.m.

Did you know that dogs laugh, and wolves can count? Elephants and dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors; ravens display senses of humor; bears have figured out how break into practically every food container designed to keep them out; and cuttlefish apparently communicate by changing color. What do we really know about animal cognition and communication ... and what, if anything, sets humans apart?

M: Cat Hanna, Carol Emshwiller, Paula L. Fleming, Tom La Farge, Heather Kinast Porter

firecat's review:
I felt very fussy about panels this year. This one was not as bad as I feared it might be and not as good as I hoped it would be. It ended up being mostly a forum for people to discuss what smart things they noticed their pets or local wildlife doing. Some longer-term / scientific studies about animal behavior were mentioned, but I had already heard about many of them. One of the panelists talked a lot more than the others, and a couple of the ones I would have liked to talk more were fairly quiet.

Following are some general notes I want to remember.

Tom La Farge said a lot of interesting things. I want to look up his Mole Place series. He used the phrase "images of the intimate space" in a comment about how humans and animals both inhabit space in emotionally similar ways. That is, humans respond emotionally to concepts like "home" and "family," which are about our animal natures more than about our intellect.

One of Carol Emshwiller's inspirations for The Mount came from thinking about humans - predators - riding on horses - prey animals. (I think the words "omnivore" and "herbivore" might be more accurate, but I'm repeating what she said.) She wondered what it would be like if prey animals rode on predator animals.

The idea that tool use distinguishes humans from animals ignores the way animals use parts of their bodies as tools. For example, cats use their claws to open doors that have had childproofing applied. (My cats use their body weight to open doors.)

La Farge mentioned a book about the behavior of wild dogs written by the husband of Jane Goodall. Amazon shows me the following behavior study, not by Jane Goodall's husband: The African Wild Dog: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation (Monographs in Behavior and Ecology) by Scott Creel (Author), Nancy Marusha Creel. It also shows me Solo:the Story of an African Wild Dog, by Hugo Van Lawick, her first husband, but that's a children's book along the same lines as Born Free.

I liked the term "multimindedness" used to describe the bonding that creates a dog pack.

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Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
sasha_feather
May. 30th, 2007 03:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the write-up... I agree. Tom La Forge also mentioned something about an "affective" approach to things, as in animals probably have an emotional reaction rather than an intellectual one, which does not mean they aren't intelligent. It just means the emotional reaction is more dominant. I think everyone in the room agreed that animals are intelligent.
firecat
May. 31st, 2007 12:59 am (UTC)
I think the emotional similarities between humans and other animals are profound and fascinating.
mjlayman
May. 30th, 2007 09:04 pm (UTC)
My dear departed Smokey was a very smart cat -- he knew 200 words and responded to them, and after he went deaf, I pounded on the floor to get his attention and he responded to hand signals. He was able to open standard doors and was working on the deadbolt when he died of renal failure at age 15.
tlafarge
Jun. 3rd, 2007 02:47 am (UTC)
African wild dogs
The van Lawick book is titled _Innocent Killers_, published by by Houghton Mifflin in 1971 -- don't know if it ever came out in paperback, but I believe van Lawick participated in a National Geographic special on these dogs. Haven't seen it myself.

Thanks to everyone for the interest. I also really enjoyed this panel.
firecat
Jun. 3rd, 2007 04:10 am (UTC)
Re: African wild dogs
Thanks! Wow, I can get it from abebooks.com for $1.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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