We posted an extra essay on my mom’s website this month. Since she originally wrote it for the June issue of the Pennsylvania Game News, it’s filled with summertime stories. Her subject: the about-face in scientific thinking about how non-human animals think and feel.
For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.
In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.
The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.
As an aside, I reprocessed an old porcupine photo for the article. It’s taken me many years to learn the simple truth that being slightly out-of-focus isn’t always a bad thing for a photo:
Not to mention the importance of proper light levels, color balance, etc. Here’s what I did with the same photo back in 2007: