Q&A: "Animal Wise" Author Virginia Morell

Ants vote, birds make art, and elephants grieve. Morell talks about the science of animal minds in preview of her Powell's reading on Feb 27.

By Aaron Scott February 21, 2013

Ashland-based science writer Virginia Morell used to watch her mixed-collie, Quincy, play a game where the dog pushed a pine cone down a hill and then chased after it. The dominant scientific thought of the last century held that dogs aren't supposed to be much more than instinctual, stimulus-response driven machines, and yet here was Morell's pet inventing what for all purposes appeared to be a cognitive game. Inspired, Morell, who has countless articles and three books under her belt, delved into the cutting edge research exploring animal intelligence and emotion. What she found is simply mind boggling, from birds who create art using perspective to elephants that bury their dead. In Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures, she takes readers on a journey around the world, into research labs and natural settings, where scientists are discovering exciting new insights into how the creatures with whom we share this earth think and feel.

Morrell will read at Powell's on February 27 at 7:30pm.

Culturephile: You take the reader on quite a voyage across the planet and through the animal kingdom. What of the findings you came across most surprised you?
Virginia Morell: It’s difficult to choose just one. The ants were surprising on many levels: They teach other; they know exactly the size and shape of the most suitable ant-home and have ways to measure and compare spaces; when they need to reach a group decision, they basically vote. And these are microscopic ants; their brain matter is smaller than the head of a pin. Listening to the laughing rats was delightful—I never would have guessed that rats laugh. The attentiveness of elephants surprised me; they seem such stolid creatures, yet they are paying attention to everything—sounds, movements, rocks, and trees. They know when something in their environment has changed—“That rock wasn’t here yesterday!” And they know each other as individuals. Other surprises: Betsy, a border collie, could remember hundreds of names; dolphins love studying themselves in a mirror; a chimpanzee named Ai is an astonishing memory whiz—he can instantly recall all the numbers spread randomly across a computer screen. 

What most delighted you?
Hearing Alex the Gray Parrot speak. In Animal Wise, I describe his voice as having a “slightly nasal and digitized quality, but it was also tinny and sweet, like the voice of a cartoon character. It made you smile.” In my mind, I can still hear him saying, “Want wheat,” when he thought he should be fed a treat. “Yel-low,” when Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who worked with Alex, asked him to tell her the color of a cup. He also scolded one of his fellow parrots, telling him, “Talk clearly! Talk clearly!” when he mispronounced a word. And he thought of himself as a “Good birdie.”

We're an arts and culture site. You write almost as an aside that the bowerbird is the only animal known to have an artistic sensibility. Can you tell us more?
Bowerbirds are found in parts of Australia and on the island of New Guinea. There are several species, and in most of these the males build some structure (or bower) which they use as a platform for singing and dancing; like rock stars, it’s their way of attracting females. Some species’ bowers are extremely elaborate, and yes, artistic, decorated with flower arrangements, nuts and seeds, bits of glass. I’ve seen these in the wild, and you can’t quite believe that a bird made these, until you see him managing and re-arranging his treasures. Scientists studying one species discovered that the males actually use the technique human artists do to create the illusion of perspective—which is what artists do when, for instance, painting train tracks that seem to lead to the horizon. The birds arrange their items so that they will appear bigger—and presumably, more impressive—to the female.

Virginia Morell
Powell's Books
Feb. 27 at 7:30pm
We're also a Portland site. Is there interesting research in these fields happening in Portland or Oregon?

Yes. The Portland Zoo is working with the National Primate Research Center on a study of orangutan cognition, and Dr. Frances White, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon, has a wonderful study underway about the social intelligence and behaviors of bonobos, which are closely related to chimpanzees and us.

As you say, rats laugh and play and have a sense of self and personalities, to say nothing of the other amazing findings about the animals in your book. Is it still ethical then to use them in labs? Has what you've learned about animal cognition and emotion changed your mind about the scientific method? Or about consuming animals for food, leather, or other purposes?
These are questions I wrestled with while writing Animal Wise, and still do, as do many people who are concerned about our treatment of animals. There is research underway that may one day replace the rats, mice, and other animals used in medical experiments—but that can’t come soon enough for the animals now being used for these. There is also growing concern that rats and mice—which are supposedly stand-ins for humans—are not as representative of the human body as researchers once thought. It may take many years before these animals are no longer used for such research. We’re just now—as a country and society—re-assessing the use of chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, in medical studies. My biggest worry is the future of wildlife because the human population is exploding, and we’re leaving very little room for other creatures in our wake.

How has what you've learned about the way animals think affected how you understand how humans think and function? For instance, at one point the ant researcher Franks asks how much are humans just algorithms with a gloss of reasoning. Do you think that's true?
Algorithms are a set of rules for making a decision; and yes, our brains function on a very basic level through algorithms—although ours have the added complexity that comes with being very large and flexible, and having emotions. We actually prize the form of thinking that looks as if it is instinctual. You don’t get to Carnegie Hall if you have to think about how to play the piano. You get there by practicing until it becomes “second nature” or “like an instinct”. We differ from ants because many of our algorithms are learned—that’s what you do when you practice—while ants’ are largely inherited.

Morell with her dog. Photo by Michael McRae

How has it changed your relationship to your own dog?
Quincie, a mixed-collie who was our first dog, was actually the inspiration for my book. She invented a game, pushing a pinecone down a hill, and chasing after it once it picked up some speed. You could see her face change from pet to predator when she played that game.  She had a very active imagination. We have another collie now, Buckaroo, who also loves “pretend” games, as does our cat. And, yes, after writing Animal Wise, I make a point of playing with them every day—to exercise their bodies and their minds.

Several of the scientists you've written about are controversial in their fields. Did this give you pause, or do you see them at the forefront and think that their controversial ideas about animal intelligence will soon be standard understanding?
No matter how controversial their studies, all of the scientists I interviewed are highly regarded; they publish their research in the leading science journals, such as Nature and Science. They’re the men and women who are at the forefront of their fields, making discoveries that unless shown to be wrong will change the way we think about animals. (Science is always a matter of questioning and testing ideas—so other researchers will continue to test and probe these discoveries.) I think several of the discoveries, which were initially controversial, such as the finding that older elephants are the wisest and are key to their herd’s reproductive success, or the fact that fish can feel pain and suffer, are increasingly accepted. Targeting the oldest animals in a herd or among predators turns out to be a bad way of managing wildlife, because you’re removing the smart elders, the ones who help maintain their social order.

Were there studies you wanted to include but couldn't, due to space, controversy, or what have you?

Yes, I had to leave out my visits to the octopus and bat researchers. It broke my heart to do so, but I had to finish the book. The deadline was looming, and I didn’t have time. I’m writing articles about them now. 

What do you see as the next frontier of animal research?
Two areas: First, the study of animal emotions, especially love, happiness, and joy. We readily acknowledge that animals can be angry or vicious or fierce. But we pretend they don’t have the opposite feelings. Second, finding ways to better manage and live with wildlife.


Filed under
Show Comments