The distinction between humans and other creatures is under assault, and I have the greatest trouble suggesting to my students that we are rational beings and beasts are not.

We find it pleasant to suppose that Trixie the cat feeds her kittens because she loves them.  I hate to be a spoilsport, but Trixie does not even grasp that they are her kittens.  The evidence that she understands such relationships is just not there, and her behavior can be explained more easily without supposing that she does.

Even some animal researchers promote the idea that the higher animals are high-order reasoners.  A fascinating article by Holly Dunsworth in a recent issue of Scientific American* explains the fallacies of such research.  She begins by describing the popular YouTube video in which Koko the Gorilla appears to show that she understands about the birds and the bees:

In the video, Koko's caretaker, Francine “Penny” Patterson, presents the gorilla, who is too old to give birth herself, with a notepad outlining four scenarios by which she could become a mother.  A group of gorillas -- one adult male, two adult females and a baby -- could come live with Koko and her adult male companion, Ndume, Patterson tells Koko.  Alternatively, a newborn and one or two older babies could join them; in a third scenario, just a single infant could be added.  The fourth option, she explains, is that two adult females could be brought in to make babies with Ndume for Koko.  Patterson hands the list to Koko, who stops scratching her chest and appears to contemplate her decision.  With her right index finger, Koko taps at the last option on the notepad. “Very good idea because it would make Koko happy and it would make Ndume happy,” the caretaker tells the gorilla.

So there we have it: Koko must know how babies are made.  Why else would she choose baby makers over an actual baby?

Dunsworth responds,

I didn't just watch that one film of Koko.  I watched many others, and in so doing I noticed that Koko practices her signs and learns new ones by exposure to symbols on a notepad.  It seems that each time a symbol is presented to her she taps it with her finger first, whether she can recall and perform the correct sign or not.  Koko's motherhood choice, then, did nothing to demonstrate that she understood the question, let alone baby making.

But don’t silverback males keep other males away from their harems?  And don’t challengers often kill infants sired by the males they defeat?  Dunsworth carefully explains that such behavior can be explained without attributing human powers of understanding and imagination to gorillas.  Many behavioral dispositions are passed on in the genes.  There is no need to assume that the gorillas know what they are doing, and there are good reasons to believe that they do not.

To comprehend unobservable phenomena such as gravity or impregnation, a creature has to be capable of abstract reasoning, the ability to mentally form representations of unseen underlying causes or forces .... Although animals such as chimpanzees are far cleverer than scientists have traditionally acknowledged, they do not appear to have this particular cognitive skill.  I'm reminded of the time an astute sixth grader answered my question about “Why don't chimps play baseball?” not with their anatomical incompatibilities but with “Because you can't explain the rules to them.”

Besides, argues Dunsworth, “If apes comprehended that sex leads to babies, they would act a lot more like people.”


*Holly Dunsworth, “Do Animals Know Where Babies Come From?,”  Scientific American 314:1 (January 2016), pp. 67-69.