Are we more like animals than we know?

Our editor Jon Sutton attends the recording of ‘The Evidence’, a BBC World Service programme.

Are capuchin monkeys spiteful? Might elephants grieve? Do fish fake orgasms? Have we the slightest idea how an octopus thinks? (If it’s a baby, maybe an inkling?) Just some of the topics on the table in the Reading Room at London’s Wellcome Collection, for a live and lively discussion presented by Claudia Hammond and Tim Cockerill.

Sharing the platform were Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, and Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex. Both were called on to explain whether us humans may have unjustifiably placed ourselves on a pedestal: sure, we’re the only species having a radio broadcast and sharing it, but once you strip out teaching, language and culture are we fundamentally that different? In fact, are even those exalted highs of human achievement that unique to us? Some animals have systems that look a lot like language, and abilities which we once considered the preserve of humans, such as tool use, are now found to be relatively widespread.

These characteristics are considered the ‘better side’ of human nature, allowing us to create and appreciate beauty in our world. But we’re perhaps increasingly aware that we are also idiots – the work of psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman, and pretty much every news story of the last few years, has shown that we fall prey to a whole host of biases and irrationalities. We cause economic crashes, we make the same mistakes over and over.

Do animals do the same? The panel considered loss aversion: we are really averse to losing out, so much so that we take on more risk. You see this in the housing market, stocks and shares, even on the golf course (a study suggesting the bias is behind risky putting in the PGA tour). Well, it turns out that monkeys trained to trade tokens for food will do the same: they go with the guy who gives the small safe bonus, but when playing with losses all of a sudden their behaviour becomes risky. Presumably the strategy of avoiding losses may have been good for something back in our evolutionary past. Consider food storage – there’s not much point in having extra, but you definitely don’t want to go with less than you currently have. The problem humans have, Professor Seth pointed out, is that the consequences of our decisions are amplified by our numbers, and by our technology. The heuristics that served us well in the past fail us big time now.

Any discussion around the similarities between humans and animals treads carefully around the language of anthropomorphism. But when you hear Professor Santos, who clearly spends a lot of time with animals, talk about ‘things in some species that look a lot like love’, it’s easy to be persuaded. Behaviours such as selective grooming and mating recruit the same hormones as human ‘love’, and Santos says ‘when I watch it I can’t help but describe it using those same verbs’. On its reverse, hate – or, at least, spite – Professor Santos extends the research of Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal to show that capuchin monkeys not only care about the equity of others’ actions, they can get so upset when this is breached that they will work to do something bad to the other monkey.

Professor Seth agrees that a consideration of emotions in animals is a useful counterpoint to the focus on intelligence. The most important question, he says, is whether an animal has the capacity to suffer, feel disgust etc. Did you know you can distinguish between disappointment and regret in rats? ‘Do they wistfully gaze over to the nose-poke thing? It’s a stretch to say they experience regret,’ Seth admits, ‘but they do show sensitivity to the action not taken.’

The fascinating facts kept coming. Or not: fish can fake orgasms, Professor Santos announced. ‘I briefly stopped eating fish when I found this out’. Brown trout females will fake the dance that leads to the release of her eggs, but only if the male is ‘not so good’. Again, it might be a stretch to use the word ‘fake’, but they are showing a ‘complex set of reasoning abilities that I didn’t expect fish to have.’ And you can change the extent to which a cleaner fish cleans merely by giving it an audience. ‘They’re definitely tracking a lot of the same things we do.’

The evening even touched bravely upon consciousness. Studying animals can reveal how arbitrary, fragile and contingent human consciousness is. Take that octopus. ‘You have the sense of being in the presence of an alien intelligence’, said Professor Seth. They have lots of neurons outside the central brain, including in each arm. ‘We feel our body as this thing that moves around with us. Maybe each octopus arm has the sense of being an octopus arm.’

There was so much more, I won’t spoil the programme. If it has made the edit, I hope you’ll hear about putting dolphins in the dock in 1596 Marseille, about trees sharing minerals with other species across root networks, and of course about those clever crows (I wish they all could be New Caledonian). So much that I didn’t know we know, but as Professor Santos concluded, a ‘humbling’ amount that we haven’t got the first idea about. Essential listening.

- ‘The Evidence’, a series of five episodes looking at the relationship between humans and animals, is due to be broadcast on the BBC World Service during one week in April. 

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