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A Mind for Animals: An Interview with Virginia Morell

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Young male chimp (Credit: Frans de Waal/Emory University)

Young male chimp (Credit: Frans de Waal/Emory University)

When I was little, I often consulted our family cat, Scoots, about how we might spend the day. I don’t remember when I realized my parents were teasing me when they asked what he thought of my suggestions, but I do remember wishing there was a way for them to join our conversations. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, the mid-1960s, but my parents’ view of animal minds, or the lack thereof, sat squarely within that of mainstream science—which remained stubbornly stagnant on this point for decades.

Science’s slow recognition of the rich inner lives of animals is a subject that has long fascinated Virginia Morell, a frequent contributor to National Geographic and Science and author of the new book Animal Wise. One of the stories that laid the conceptual foundation for her book, “Minds of Their Own,” was largely responsible for an all-time best-selling issue for National Geographic. Morell thinks it resonated with readers, who finally got a chance to see that scientists—not just crazy animal lovers—believe that animals think.

Morell will read from Animal Wise at Book Passage in Corte Madera, May 15 at 7 p.m. I spoke with her last month.

Gross: What inspired you to write this book?

Morell: It was a logical spinoff after doing the book about the Leakeys, which explored our fossil ancestry. Then, after seeing chimpanzees in the wild, there were just so many clearcut moments you saw our shared ancestry. My husband and I would come back to the visitors’ guest house where we were staying and describe what we’d seen and we’d talk about people, and then we’d say, I mean chimpanzees. And that fascinated me. Then having my own dog made me interested in these issues. So I began to write about the discoveries that scientists were making about what animals do, both in the wild and in the lab, and you could feel the chipping away of the old standard that everything was a response to a stimulus.

And it puzzled me because, it’s having that evolutionary perspective that makes you wonder, well, if everything’s a response to a stimulus in human animals, what’s changed, how did this dramatic change come about. Why are we unique, why are we special? The focus originally even among people who wanted to understand that cognitive shift was solely on what chimpanzees or other great apes were like, sometimes maybe monkeys, but always on the primate mind. And then as discoveries began to come out of other fields and other animals that people were looking at, you could see that there were more similarities out there than there were differences.

I began to wonder what the scientists themselves felt about their discoveries and I wanted to show how we know these things. How do you get around the problem of not being able to ask an animal. When journalists report on the latest science news, we rarely talk about who the animals are and who the researchers are, what drew them to studying their animals. I was quite interested in that too. I always wondered who are the rats who are pressing the levers. Who are these pigeons? What draws a person to [study] that? Surely it’s more than wanting to see the animals as stimulus-response machines.

Gross: Some of the scientists in your book are pushing the boundaries of what we know about animal cognition. How did you deal with ideas that other scientists might consider “fringe”?

Morell: In the case of Victoria Braithwaite (whose studies suggest fish feel pain), there have been challenges to her studies, that’s true. But the question for me was how would I deal with it? Would I do a he said/she said kind of a book, which can be very boring and insider baseball. Or was I going to let these scientists present their side of things and add this to the public debate? And that’s what I chose to do. Certainly her team’s studies were published in high-profile journals, and I was also struck by the comparative study she did, where she showed the fish that were injected with the bee venom versus those that had the saline injection, and the fish with the bee venom changed their behavior. Those fish were adversely affected whereas those with the saline injections were not. To me, that spoke volumes.

Virginia Morell and her dog, Buckaroo

Virginia Morell and her dog, Buckaroo

In Irene Pepperberg’s case I think she was hamstrung from the beginning. A lot of the questions she was faced with at the beginning we know now were not valid questions because birds have all the key parts of their brain for doing the type of cognitive tasks that Alex [the famed African gray parrot] was capable of doing. When she first started, it was thought that they lacked some key neural anatomy. Now we know Alex had the mental equipment, the basic biology needed to do the sort of abstract thinking he was doing and that he’s a lifelong vocal learner as we are.

I was also struck by the fact that most of the younger scientists, such as Karl Berg and other bird researchers that I’ve spoken to, very much respect Irene’s work. It’s a generational change. I was hesitant when I first started the [National] Geographic story when people asked if I was going to go see Koko and Alex, and I thought, “I don’t know. Those are kind of tainted studies.” And then Alex Kacelnik said, “My God, you’ve got to. This is the only animal in the world that’s going to open its mouth and speak to you. And in English!”

Gross: Were there any behaviors or discoveries the scientists told you about that really surprised you?

Morell: I think with every single animal I had that experience. Take the ants. When you saw the size of them, any ant is minuscule but with these, you had to have a magnifying glass to see them, and they were making these amazing decisions. They can go into a crack, they can measure the size of a space and know how large a space they want and how high the ceiling needs to be, how many entrances. They have all these different ways to judge the different requirements they have for just the size of their homes, let alone all the other things they do in their lives. That astonished me.

And the fish being able to watch and copy another’s behavior, almost immediately. That requires the fish, the archerfish, to put themselves in the position of the other fish that’s shooting, to make that shot themselves.

And Alex was a puzzle. I try and think how on earth a bird would spend its life for Irene, practicing. And the attention to detail that the elephants have, these big animals the size of ships moving across the landscape, they’re paying attention to everything. Joyce Poole told me one time she marked off three-meter-square areas with string for a study of vegetation, and the elephants came through and were jumping aside, like, “Whoa! That string wasn’t there yesterday.”

We don’t think of animals being that aware, but why would we think that way? They’re the ones that are out there living in the wild where it’s dangerous, they’d better be paying close attention. But we picture them as if they’re drifting along in a dream world.

The chimpanzees of course were fabulous both at Jane Goodall’s site and in the laboratory. But looking at a chimpanzee like Keo and all that he’d been through as a zoo animal, who was trained to take part in tea parties with children and then made to stand behind bars and have people just stare at him–that has to be hard for any animal. At least he has a better life now. I look at those animals who were brought from somewhere in West Africa and end up at a little dungeon room in Japan sitting under a bare light bulb, and wonder about the animal that does this to other animals.

It’s funny that we would question the fact that beings with all the neural anatomy that they have wouldn’t be using it in some way beyond simply a stimulus and response, that they wouldn’t have some way to alter their behaviors. And you think about all the challenges they’re faced with in life and not all of them happen in a repetitious manner as it does in a lab setting. If you could only manage repetition, it doesn’t seem to me that you’d last very long on this planet.

Gross: What do you hope people get from your book?

Morell: I hope my readers would step back and realize that the birds they listen to, it’s not just an automatic program, but there’s some thinking that’s involved in what they’re doing and their choices in life and to celebrate that. I hope that people stand back and marvel, because it’s a marvelous thing that we’re living on this planet that’s made up of many, many different kinds of beings that all have some kind of mental processes going on, thinking, feeling, experiencing the world. That’s got to be one of the most wonderful things about our planet, that it’s filled with sentient beings. I’m an evolutionary biologist at heart, and I think it’s a marvel that through the processes of natural selection we have a planet of thinking beings.

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About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.