Do Animals Think


MR. JOHN BURROUGHS contributed some time ago to Harper's Magazine an article bearing the above title. The leading American naturalist is so weighty an authority that I feel chary about controverting any statement made by him; but I cannot believe that he is right when he boldly asserts that animals never . think at all. I agree with Mr. Burroughs when he says "we are apt to speak of the lower animals in terms that we apply to our own kind." There is undoubtedly a general tendency to give animals credit for much greater intelligence, far more considerable powers of reasoning, than they actually possess; in short, to put an anthropomorphic interpretation on their actions.

But it seems to me that Mr. Burroughs rushes to the other extreme. To deny to animals the power of thought is surely as opposed to facts as to credit them with almost human powers of reasoning. Says Mr. Burroughs: " Animals act with a certain grade of intelligence in the presence of things, but they carry away no concepts of those things as a man does, because they have no language. How could a crow tell his fellows of some future event or of some experience of the day? How could he tell them this thing is dangerous save by his actions in the presence of those things? Or how tell of a newly found food supply save by flying eagerly to it ? "

Even if we admit that a crow is not able to recount the experiences of the day to his companion, it does not follow that the crow does not remember them, or cannot picture them in his mind. With regard to the last question, I have frequently seen a crow, at the sight of some food thrown out to him, caw loudly, and his friends, on hearing his cry, at once fly to the food.

Of course it is open to any one to assert that, in this case, the crow that discovers the food does not consciously call its companions; at the sight of its food it instinctively caws, and its companions obey the caw instinctively, without knowing why they do so. No one, however, who watches crows for long can help believing that they think. The fact that they hang about the kitchen every day at the time the cook pitches out the leavings seems inconsistent with the theory that birds cannot think. The crows obtained food at this place yesterday and the day before at a certain hour, and the fact that they are all on the look out for food to-day shows, not only that they possess a good memory, but that they are endowed with a certain amount of reasoning power.

Many animals have very good memories. Now, in order that an animal may remember a thing it must think. Its thoughts are of course not clothed in language as human thoughts are, but they nevertheless exist as mental pictures.

According to Professor Thorndike, the psychic life of an animal is " most like what we feel when our consciousness contains little thought about anything, when we feel the sense impressions in their first intention, so to speak, when we feel our own body and the impulses we give to it (or that outward objects give to it). Sometimes one gets this animal consciousness; while in swimming, for example. One feels the water, the sky, the birds above, but with no thoughts about them, or memories of how they looked at other times, or aesthetic judgments about their beauty. One feels no ' ideas' about what movements he will make, but feels himself make them, feels his body throughout. Self-consciousness dies away. The meanings and values and connections of things die away. One feels sense-impressions, has impulses, feels the movements he makes ; that is all."

This is probably a good description of the state of mind of a dog when he is basking in the sunlight; he is thinking of nothing. But he hears the shrill cry of a squirrel -: this at once recalls to him the image of the little rodent and past shikar. In a moment the dog is on the alert; he is now thinking of the squirrel, and his instinct and inclinations teach him to give chase to it. Or he hears a footstep; he recognises it as that of his master, sees that the latter is wearing a topi, and at once pictures up a run in the compound with his master. But his owner chains him up. The dog looks wistfully at his master's retreating figure and pulls at his chain ; it is surely absurd to say that the dog is not thinking. The picture of a scamper beside his master rises up before him, and he feels sad because he knows that the scamper is not likely to become a fait accompli.

Again, you have been accustomed to throw a stick for your dog to run after and carry back to you. You are out walking accompanied by your dog; he espies a stick lying on the ground; at once images of previous enjoyable runs after the stick rise up in his mind; he picks up the stick and brings it to you, drops it at your feet and looks up at you. You pretend to take no notice. The dog then picks up the stick and rubs it against your legs. To believe that the dog while acting thus does not think, that he is merely obeying an inborn instinct, is surely a misinterpretation of facts. Animals have but limited reasoning powers, and their thoughts are not our thoughts, they are not clothed in language, they are merely mental pictures, called up either subjectively, as when a dog barks while dreaming, or objectively by some sight or scent, but nevertheless such sensations are thoughts.

While maintaining that the higher animals can and do think, I am ready to admit that a great many of their actions which are apparently guided by reason are in reality purely instinctive. Thus the building of a nest by a bird must, at any rate on the first occasion, be a purely instinctive action. The creature cannot know what it is doing. Nor can it have any thoughts on the matter; it suddenly becomes an automaton, a machine, acting thoughtlessly and instinctively.

Some internal force which is irresistible compels it to seek twigs and weave them into a nest. The bird has no time to stop and think what it is doing, nor does it wish to, for it enjoys nest building. It is, of course, impossible for a human being to understand the frame of mind of a bird when building its first nest. The only approach to it that we ever experience is when we are suddenly seized with an impulse to do something unusual, and we obey the impulse and are afterwards surprised at ourselves.

There is a story told of a wealthy man who had been out hunting and was returning home tired and thirsty. He dismounted at a farm-house, went inside and asked for a drink. While this was being obtained he noticed a lot of valuable old china on the dresser: seized by a sudden impulse, he knocked it all down, piece by piece, with his riding whip. His hostess on her return with the drink looked surprised. The hunting man smiled, asked her to name the value she set on the china, sat down and, there and then, wrote out a cheque for the amount.

It always seems to me that when a bird begins for the first time to collect materials for a nest she must act impulsively, without thinking what she is doing. Just as the hunting man was seized with a sudden desire to smash the crockery with his whip, so is she suddenly impelled to collect twigs and build a nest.

Another instinctive act which is apparently purposeful is the feigning of injury by a parent bird when an enemy approaches its young. Superficial observation of this action leads the observer to imagine that the mother bird behaves thus with deliberate intent to deceive, that in so doing she consciously endeavours to distract attention while her young ones are betaking themselves to cover. As a matter of fact, the bird will behave in precisely the same way if she have eggs instead of young ones. This has, of course, the effect of drawing attention to the eggs, and proves that the action is instinctive and not the result of reasoning.

Most people have remarked the cautious manner in which many birds approach the nest when they are aware that they are being watched. This has the appearance of a highly intelligent act. It is, however, nothing of the kind.

I have taken young birds from a nest, handled them and replaced them in full view of their frantic parents. Then I have retired a short distance and watched the parents. These invariably display the same caution in approaching the nest as they did before I had discovered its whereabouts.

Birds and beasts think much less than they are popularly supposed to do. It is absurd to attribute to them reasoning powers similar to those enjoyed by man; it is equally absurd to assert that they do not think at all.

Birds Of The Plains
Dewar, Douglas. Birds of the Plains, 1909.
Title in Book: 
Do Animals Think
Book Author: 
Douglas Dewar
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Common name: 
Do Animals Think

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