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Do Animals Think Rationally As Well?

Rational Decision-making Might Not Require Language

{Then Allah sent a crow searching in the ground to show him how to hide the disgrace of his brother. He said, “O woe to me! Have I failed to be like this crow and hide the body of my brother?” And he became of the regretful.} [Surat Al-Ma’idah 5:31].

Previous research has shown that animals can remember specific events, use tools and solve problems. But, whether they are making rational decisions or reacting to their environment through mindless reflex, this remains a matter of scientific dispute. Jeannie Kever of reported on November 1.

Dr. Buckner aimed to compile the empirical research. He wanted to see that we’ve accumulated enough evidence to say that animals really are rational in a distinctive way.

Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, argues in an article published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research that a wide range of animal species exhibit so-called “executive control” when it comes to making decisions, consciously considering their goals and ways to satisfy those goals before acting.

He acknowledges that language is required for some sophisticated forms of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. But bolstered by a review of previously published research, Buckner concludes that several animals engage in rational decision-making. This includes elephants, chimpanzees, ravens and lions, among others.

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“These data suggest that not only do some animals have a subjective take on the suitability of the option they are evaluating for their goal, they possess a subjective, internal signal regarding their confidence in this take that can deploy to select amongst different options,” he wrote.

The question is there since the days of ancient philosophers, as people considered what it means to be human. One way to address that, Buckner said, is to determine exactly what sets humans apart from other animals.

Language remains a key differentiator. Buckner refereed to some serious attempts in the 1970s and ’80s to teach animals human language. These experiments tried teaching chimpanzees to use sign language. Researchers found that the chimps were able to express simple ideas. Yet, they didn’t engage in complex thought and language structures.

Ancient philosophers relied upon anecdotal evidence to study the issue, but today’s researchers conduct sophisticated controlled experiments. Buckner, working with Thomas Bugnyar and Stephan A. Reber, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna, last year published the results of a study that determined ravens share at least some of the human ability to think abstractly about other minds, adapting their behavior by attributing their own perceptions to others.

Amazing Examples

In his latest paper, Buckner offers several examples to support his argument:

  • Matriarchal elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park were able to determine the threat level of human intruders by differentiating ethnicity, gender and age, suggesting an understanding that adult Maasai tribesmen sometimes kill elephants in competition for grazing or in retaliation for attacks against humans, while Kamba tribesmen and women and children from both tribes don’t pose a threat.
  • Giraffes aren’t generally considered prey by lions in Africa, due to the long-necked animals’ ability to deliver skull-crushing kicks. Lions in South Africa’s Selous Game Reserve, however, are reported to have learned that giraffes found in a sandy river bed can get stuck and even trip, making them suitable prey.