The science of what separates us from other animals

Are you a romantic or a killjoy? This question is the essence of Thomas Suddendorf’s terrific book. I have been both. Ten years ago I wrote a novel in which the world’s creatures got fed up with our human neglect of the planet and, in one turbulent day, took over civilisation. A couple of border collies ran Europe and did far better than the suits in Brussels.

That yarn (2007, published in 2001) was meant as a frolic – romantic, with serious undertones – and did not really intend to imply that dogs, as Suddendorf insists, are quasi-people in furry disguise. Nor, as I look out on my deck as I write this, do I expect the birds I feed either to recognise me or feel gratitude for my largesse, though the magpies, with their double-tracking song and pointed demands for more, do push the boundaries of engagement.

I like my animals to be authentic. I marvel at the latest research showing corvids (crows and magpies) and parrots as being much smarter than most of us dreamt, but I want the science, as Suddendorf puts it, to put a ‘leaner’ interpretation on the evidence, not to give me an overblown ‘romantic’ interpretation that will, inevitably, soon crash. But nor do I want a bleak view of the life of animals such as that proposed by Descartes, the ultimate killjoy. He saw them as mere robots and felt free to perform hideously cruel experiments on them accordingly.

So what does a ‘leaner’ interpretation look like? Here is another example involving magpies. Last year I interviewed Paul Johnson from The Entrance, who told me about his father’s encounter with the birds. They came regularly to the shed where Johnson Sr looked after his bonsai. A dish of food was put out, and the magpies made the most of it. One day a magpie with its foot in fishing wire came into the shed. Paul’s father called his son. They threw a cloth over the bird, used the bonsai clippers to free its foot, and then let it go. The magpie finished lunch and flew off. Two days later it returned, with another magpie, also with its foot mangled with wire. The men repeated the procedure and then, as you would, spoke in amazement of birds that could communicate surgical need and plan accordingly. This, then, is the romantic version. The leaner one, using Occam’s razor, says: animals can communicate, but, in this instance, it’s more likely they’re saying: ‘Oi! Food. This way.’ If one of them happens to carry an injury, well, that’s a coincidence, no more.

Suddendorf gives many examples such as this to tease out the essence of the Gap. He shows how intention and planning may often be inferred in animal behaviour where an immediate, restricted response to a standard trigger may be operating instead. This can be tested.

He also analyses the influence of time. This is his own experimental field at the University of Queensland, where he is a professor of psychology. We humans are immersed in time and history, and are constantly thinking of the future. Are animals? Well, they build nests and store food, as if they are ‘thinking’ of things to come; but is this just another essential genetic program without which they would perish in a generation?

Take scrub jays (another corvid), which store food in multiple ways. If they bury both worms and seeds and time passes substantially before they return to the cache, will they bother to look for the rotted worm or go straight to the preserved seeds? It turns out that they do discriminate and seem to have an understanding that time passing will have changed their stores in different ways. But, of course, in the hallowed phrase of science, ‘more research needs to be done – and more grants sought’.

 ‘ ... we have much to learn about what set off our own cultural revolution that exploded 40,000 years ago, after we had been around as modern humans for five times that span.’

What is unlikely, if not impossible, is that any creature will have our capacity to run scenarios in the mind, have a kind of theatre of the imagination, as all of us naked apes do all the time. Our nearest relatives, the chimps, gorillas, and orangs, do nothing remotely like it, though proving this absence is technically hard. Above all, as extensions of our minds we have stored culture, what Richard Dawkins calls the Extended Phenotype, which gives us access to all the information, ideas, and wisdom ever acquired. No ape can read a book or go online. We have minds and language that are open-ended,unlimited in their potential.

Suddendorf takes us systematically through the ‘language, mental time travel, theory of mind, intelligence, culture, and morality’ that animals may demonstrate and compares each domain to our own. He does so in delightfully direct, even evocative language and is prepared to give personal anecdotes and history to make these ideas shine. I was somewhat distracted by his unending footnotes and found a few of his small, black-and-white pictures somewhat opaque, but these are small quibbles.

He is also provocative. Suddenly he orders ‘Now stop farting’ and asks whether this reminder of our animal connection offends us. He notes that bonobos use sex as a means of reconciliation after conflict and adds, ‘Perhaps there is a lesson here.’

And when describing gorillas which rely mainly on plants for their diet he asks why would these beasts lying on their backs in a giant bed of ‘salad’ need their large brains when all they have to do is reach out for another handful of leaves to scoff? And the answer? You need brainpower to keep up with a complex social life, even if you are a powerful silverback with a compliant harem and a sex life that lasts mere seconds.

Yes, other animals have all the basic ingredients we enjoy, but the gap between us and them is gigantic. The story is far from settled, so the killjoys haven’t won the argument and we have much to learn about what set off our own cultural revolution that exploded 40,000 years ago, after we had been around as modern humans for five times that span. The development of language and the use of more sophisticated tools had much to do with it. But it could also have been our close relationship with animals, especially with dogs, that accompanied our rise from the nasty, brutish, and short. Without succumbing to the romantic in me: there could be a big story here.

Another influence, which Suddendorf explores, is neoteny. This is an evolutionary shortcut that allows the ‘juvenile’ phase in our life history to become extended into adulthood, allowing us and, interestingly, dogsto be more playful, social, and charmingly youthful in looks. Naked apes.

Why does the Gap matter? For several reasons: First, our humanity is excruciatingly recent and our bestial heritage needs to be understood. Second, we gain immense pleasure from the company of animals but must admire their true natures, not fictions. Third, as Suddendorf warns, as our civilisation expands and dominates, so the Gap gets bigger. If we are not very careful those animals, so precious to our history and, yes, our future, will disappear. Then, marooned alone on the other side of a gap that’s become an abyss, we shall be very much bereft. That’s the real killjoy!

This is a very important book.

Published in March 2014 no. 359