Animal Cognition: The Mental Lives of Animals


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This is a textbook on the subject of animal intelligence, and is a more academic version of Wynne's 'Do Animals Think?'. Though 'Animal Cognition' is designed for undergraduates, it is very accessible for anyone with an interest in animal intelligence, so it's worth choosing this version for a bit more depth than is offered by Wynne's 'Do Animals Think?', which is aimed at the general public. Wynne carefully avoids overloading his writing with jargon, and writes in clear English. There are plenty of anecdotes to enliven the text, which means that you can read it for enjoyment. The book is also well-illustrated, which makes it easier to understand the text. Wynne's 'Animal Cognition' does not go into the subject in as much depth as Pearce, Shettleworth and Reznikova, but it is easier to read than are their introductions.

'Animal Cognition' covers a lot of ground, so is a very useful book for students coming to grips with the subject. Read it together with Sarah Boysen's 'The Smartest Animals on the Planet', and you will have a good grasp of the main debates in the field of animal cognition, as well as an idea of how exciting it is to research in this area.

This book, then, has a lot to offer people who are beginning to explore the field of animal cognition. On the minus side, it is likely to frustrate people who have already explored the field in some depth. Wynne targets people who perceive animals as humans in furry suits, and attribute too much human intelligence to them. Yet the fact that, for example, dogs can understand some human sentences is remarkable, even though they do not perceive the separate words or grasp human grammar.

One problem with this book is that Wynne is writing in an American context, and has been caught up in the contentious debate on 'animal rights', which in the USA involves some quite extreme positions, such as the argument that animals should not be kept as pets because it is demeaning, or that domestic animals are property, so humans have the right to do what they want with them. One of Wynne's arguments is that animals do not have the intelligence that some people claim, therefore the American animal rights movement has no intellectual validity.
Wynne's urge to undermine the animal rights movement leads him to be dismissive of much of the research on animal intelligence. However, this is a rapidly developing field, and the book could do with some updating. There is more and more evidence that many animals are smarter than we thought, and smarter than Wynne believed when he wrote this book. Other species are not necessarily smart in the way that humans are, and may even be smarter in ways that humans cannot achieve. Dogs, for example, can often read humans better than humans can read dogs, partly because they are better attuned to non-verbal cues, and also because some of their senses, such as smell, are superior, so they can pick up cues that we cannot. Likewise, sheep can distinguish one human from another, coming towards their shepherd or other carers, while being warier of strangers, while humans are often less able to identify individual sheep.

There is another flaw in Wynne's arguments. Intelligence, or lack of it, is not the deciding factor in whether we treat people well. Most of us believe that brain-damaged humans should be treated well - as we would like to be treated if we were in their position. The same principle can be applied to non-human animals, except that we need to understand something of what it is like to be a dog, or a cow, to understand what 'if we were in their position' means, for if we were a dog or a cow, we would then look at the world as a dog or cow does. Humans have to develop and use knowledge of the needs of different domesticated species, in order to know how to fulfil those needs.

Temple Grandin's 'Animals in Translation', which is reviewed on this page, is an account of her work improving the lot of farm animals, through her efforts to understand how they perceive the world, and what they feel. She also tackles the moral issues of raising animals for meat, and talks about our responsibilities to animals in our care. Per Jensen's 'Ethology of Domestic Animals', also reviewed here, goes into the species-specific needs of domestic animals in more depth than Grandin. Though his book is more academic than Grandin's, it is still very accessible to non-biologists, so is well worth reading as a follow-on. Both Grandin and Jensen suggest practical ways to improve the quality of life of domestic animals, so their work is useful for people interested in this issue. Wynne's work is less useful. He is looking at just one area of ethology, how animals think. It is a fascinating area, but ethology covers far more than this, for example  reproductive and foraging behaviour. Debates on whether or not animals could be said to have 'rights', based on just one aspect of animal behaviour, cognition, can be counter-productive once they move away from species-specific needs.

So, yes, this book is worth reading, though it will not tell you all you want to know about animal cognition, and it is not especially helpful if your concern is animal welfare. It is a step in understanding both the heated debates within the field of animal cognition, and a useful, if somewhat sceptical, introduction to research on how animals think, solve problems and communicate.