With our tendency to anthropomorphize everything, from playful puppies to temperamental automobiles, it stands to reason that the animal mind is a topic of hot debate.
Literally. Animal rights activists have torched and bombed facilities associated with medical research or product testing on animals. Wynne finds these zealots baffling. Why, he wonders, focus on researchers rather than farmers, who, for sheer numbers, do away with a lot more animals? The Animal Liberation Front, he notes, in 2001 documented "the rescue of 5,000 animals, not one of them a pig. Why not?"
People simply do not bring an objective eye to bear on the subject of animal minds and that includes scientists. In lively and provocative style, Wynne, psychologist and professor, attempts to remedy this. He devotes chapters to four well-studied species: the honeybee, the pigeon, the bat and the dolphin. Others, particularly apes, also make frequent appearances.
He examines what makes these animals different from us, and what we have in common. What is special about these creatures? What is it like to be them? Are animals self-aware? How can we know? Chapters are devoted to the faculties that - supposedly - set us apart and above the animal kingdom: reasoning, language, and "the ability to put oneself imaginatively into the position of another - what we would call `theory of mind.' "
No one argues for the intelligence of bees. Yet the dance of the honeybee conveys detailed information about the whereabouts of high-quality food. The bee knows her food is better than what her sisters are bringing in because unloader bees serve her quickly. Mediocre loads have to wait. But some bees, even when informed their offering is hardly worth unloading, do their dance anyway. They are able to reason that near and plentiful is worthwhile even if the quality is below average.
Most, perhaps all, animals learn from experience. Even the sea slug learns to anticipate a poke. But reasoning was thought to be the province of humans until monkeys were shown to do it in the 1980s. A few years later even pigeons demonstrated the ability to make fairly complex deductions.
But then, a setback. Monkeys who could negotiate complicated patterns to predict the next in a series, were unable to judge where a peanut would fall through a curved tube. Although the simple mechanism was right in front of them, they still assumed the peanut would fall in a straight line. Wynne deconstructs these experiments to show how the simple logic involved for the animal in each step contributes to a complex task, while what seems to us the simplest diversion of a curve could stymie another primate, unable to make the leap.
The language discussion naturally devotes a lot of its energy to ape studies, which seem to show that apes can learn to use sign or symbol language. Wynne debunks this by giving us chunks of original data alongside the researcher's conclusions, showing a clear bias for enthusiasm. Readers of the popular books he refers to may counter with numerous endearing or amazing chimp anecdotes, but Wynne would probably agree that these show a complex and fascinating animal, while not a user of language.
Chimps don't have the brain mechanisms for language, but we don't have the bat's echolocation or the dolphin's sonar. He likens the relationship of species to a similarity sandwich with commonalities in a squishy middle, dissimilarities on the bottom and qualities unique to each species on top.
Wynne is clear about his own biases - he is basically a skeptic, with an open mind. He has a great appreciation for animals, which does not depend on them being like us. And, like most scientists, he relishes demolishing his colleagues, particularly the ones who, like himself, have written books for the general reader.
His writing is clear, well-organized and witty. The jury is still out on whether (and what) animals think, but Wynne's book is a highly entertaining and informative contribution to the debate.