The March 2008 issue of National Geographic recently published an interesting article on research into animal minds. If the reported facts are reliable, then animals may have some ability to isolate similarities and differences between percepts. Here is an excerpt from the article on scientist Irene Pepperberg and her parrot Alex:
…[B]ecause Alex was able to produce a close approximation of the sounds of some English words, Pepperberg could ask him questions about a bird’s basic understanding of the world. She couldn’t ask him what he was thinking about, but she could ask him about his knowledge of numbers, shapes, and colors. To demonstrate, Pepperberg carried Alex on her arm to a tall wooden perch in the middle of the room. She then retrieved a green key and a small green cup from a basket on a shelf. She held up the two items to Alex’s eye.
“What’s same?” she asked.
Without hesitation, Alex’s beak opened: “Co-lor.”
“What’s different?” Pepperberg asked.
“Shape,” Alex said. His voice had the digitized sound of a cartoon character. Since parrots lack lips (another reason it was difficult for Alex to pronounce some sounds, such as ba), the words seemed to come from the air around him, as if a ventriloquist were speaking. But the words—and what can only be called the thoughts—were entirely his.
For the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes, and materials (wool versus wood versus metal). He did some simple arithmetic, such as counting the yellow toy blocks among a pile of mixed hues.
Of course, researchers have to be extremely careful not to anthropomorphize when interpreting such results. And even if animals are able to perform this sort of mental integration and differentiation of their percepts, this is not the same as being able to reason in the human sense. Hence, this post should not be construed as endorsing any form of “animal rights”.
But it is plausible from an evolutionary perspective that the human mental abilities that allow us engage in concept formation and reasoning would have primitive precursors in some of the higher animals, and that human cognition has a foundation based on those pre-existing building blocks. Hence, the exact abilities of various animal minds is a fascinating scientific subject worthy of study, even if it may not have any primary philosophical import.
(I’ve been told that some Objectivists believe that animals are essentially automatons without any feeling or consciousness, like rocks or plants. In my opinion, this is untrue, and data such as this is further evidence against that erroneous position.)