TIME animal behavior

What Are Animals Thinking? (Hint: More Than You Suspect)

The mind of an animal is a far richer, more complex thing than most people know — as a new TIME book reveals

Let’s be honest, you’d probably rather die than wake up tomorrow morning and find out you’d turned into an animal. Dying, after all, is inevitable, and there’s even a certain dignity to it: Shakespeare did it, Einstein did it, Galileo and Washington and Twain all did it. And you, someone who was born a human and will live your life as a human, will end your life that way too.

But living that life as an animal — an insensate brute, incapable of reason, abstraction, perhaps even feeling? Unthinkable. Yes, yes, the animals don’t recognize the difference, and neither would you. If you’re a goat, you possess the knowledge of a goat, and that can’t be much. But there’s more to it than that.

Human beings have always had something of a bipolar relationship with the millions of other species with which we share the planet. We are fascinated by them, often dazzled by them. They can be magnificently beautiful, for one thing: the explosive color and frippery of a bird of paradise, the hallucinatory variety of the fish in a coral reef, the otherworldly markings and architecture of a giraffe. Even the plain or ugly animals — consider the naked, leathery grayness of the rhino or elephant — have a certain solidity and equipoise to them. And to see an animal at what appears to be play — the breaching dolphin, the swooping raptor — is to think that it might be fun to have a taste, a tiny taste, of their lives.

But it’s a taste we’d surely spit right out, because as much as we may admire animals, we pity them too: their ignorance, their inconsequence, and their brief, savage lives. It’s in our interest to see them that way — not so much because we need to press our already considerable advantage over them; we don’t. But because we have certain uses in mind for them. We need the animals to work for us — to pull carts, drag plows, lift logs and carry loads, and stand still for a whipping if they don’t. We need them to entertain us, in our circuses and zoos and stage shows. And most of all, we need them to feed us, with their eggs and milk and their very flesh. A few favored beasts do get a pass — dogs, cats, some horses — but the rest are little more than tools for our use.

But that view is becoming impossible to sustain — as a new TIME book reveals. The more deeply scientists look into the animal mind, the more they’re discovering it to be a place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance. There are the parrots that don’t just mimic words but appear to understand them, for example, assembling them into what can only be described as sentences. There are the gorillas and bonobos that can do the same with sign language or pictograms. Those abilities are hard to dismiss, but they also miss the point; they are, in many way, limited gifts — animals doing things humans do, but much less well.

A better measure is the suite of behaviors the animals exhibit on their own: crows that can fashion tools, lions that collaborate on elaborate hunts, dolphins and elephants with signature calls that serve as names, and cultural norms like grieving for their dead and caring for grandchildren. There are the complex, even political societies that hyenas create and the factory-like worlds of bees and ants. There are the abiding friendships among animals, too — not just the pairs of dolphins or horses or dogs that seem inseparable but the cross-species loyalties: the monkey and the dog, the sheep and the elephant, the cat and the crow, members of ordinarily incompatible species that appear never to have thought to fight with or eat one another because, well, no one told them they had to.

Animals, the research is proving, are creatures capable of reflection, bliss, worry and more. Not all of them in the same ways or to the same degrees, surely, but all of them in far deeper measures than we’ve ever believed. The animal mind is nothing like the wasteland it’s been made out to be. And if it’s not the mind you’d want to have as your own, it’s one that is still worth getting to know much better.

(The Animal Mind is now available on newsstands.)

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