Can Animals Think?

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The same experiment was conducted with children. Four-year-olds realize that if they point to a smaller amount of food, they will be rewarded with more. Three-year-olds don't. This suggests that sometime during human maturation, children's cognitive abilities develop to the point that they realize they can be rewarded for restraint. The evidence also suggests that Sheba and other chimps are right on the cusp of that threshold. "In the course of an afternoon, we could toggle between Sheba reacting like a three-year-old and a four-year-old simply by switching what she was looking at," says Boysen.

Even if intelligence is shackled in animals, we can see it break out in flashes of brilliance. Countless creatures draw on their abilities not only to secure food and compete with their peers, but also to deal with, deceive and beguile the humans they encounter. Every so often, they do something extraordinary, and we gain insight into our own abilities, and what it's like to be an orangutan or an orca.

What is intelligence anyway? If life is about perpetuation of a species, and intelligence is meant to serve that perpetuation, then we can't hold a candle to pea-brained sea turtles who predated us and survived the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. As human history has shown, once minds break free of religious, cultural and physical controls, they burn hot and fast, consuming and altering everything around them. Perhaps this is why higher mental abilities, though present in other creatures, are more circumscribed. Still, it is comforting to realize that other species besides our own can stand back and appraise the world around them, even if their horizons are more constrained than the heady, perilous perspective that is our blessing and curse.

(c)1999 by Eugene Linden. Reprinted with permission from Dutton. In the U.S., call 1-800-253-6476 for more information

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