Betes Savants

DANIEL S. GREENBERG

March 30, 1993|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--It's a clear sign of a dry spell in science when the press brings the public up to date on research about whether animals can think.

Scientists should pick on other problems, since anyone familiar with dogs knows they are capable of profound feats of thought, and surely other species are, too. The answer is plain. But no matter. Science, inherently suspicious of the obvious, dotes on measurement, even of what's easy to see.

As a result, the study of animal intellect has attained a respectability on a par with physics and chemistry, and the news media tag along. A periodic favorite on television, animals' capacity for thought recently received cover treatment in Time. It's certain to be back again soon in some prominent place because of the appeal of porpoises, dogs and other winsome creatures in friendly association with scientists. The public is fond of them individually. In combination, they're irresistible.

The question of whether animals can think is especially appealing to people who know little about animals and won't bother to learn from simple observation. Samuel Johnson, renowned for wit and learning that still radiates from the 18th century, often alluded to dogs to make a point. He is best remembered for his over-quoted, smart-alecky assertion that ''a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.''

The great sage can also be faulted for another foolish reference to dogs, this one concerning an easily tested proposition: ''Did you never observe,'' Johnson asked, ''that dogs have not the power of comparing? A dog will take a small bit of meat as readily as a large, when both are before him.''

No great skill is required to devise an experiment to settle this matter in a scientifically objective manner. Such was performed with Walter, a black Labrador retriever resident in our household until his death at an advanced age several years ago, and recently with Ben, age 5, also a Labrador.

Raw hamburger, much favored by these beasts, was formed into shapes approximating ping pong balls and tennis balls. In a series of experiments, these objects were placed at various distances from each other on the floor of a room. Observation revealed that when the dogs were admitted to the test area, they first consumed the nearest meatball, small or large. But if the lures were equally distant from the starting point, they invariably went for the larger one first.

While Johnson cannot be excused for failing to research the simple question of canines' ''power of comparing'' -- a key element of thought -- modern research has mobilized excessive scientific firepower for what is, after all, a settled matter.

Walter Labrador, for example, thought his way to preferred food by prying open the refrigerator door and helping himself to choice items -- bypassing dull cheese in favor of roast beef. He refrained from this thievery only after a booby-trap arrangement tipped a can of water on his head when he budged the door.

Ben, on the other hand, is a law-abiding Labrador, but insistently makes his desires known by staring you in the face and issuing gurgling sounds from deep in his throat. When he feels that he has locked on for attention, he takes communication to the next level by banging his bowl for food, standing at the door for a walk, pointing to an inaccessible spot for a plaything beyond his reach, and so on.

Labradors have prodigious strength, and use it when they're playing with adults. But with small children, they're as gentle as a kindly nurse. They will modulate their natural boisterousness when a dear one is sick or low, and turn it on again when spirits are high.

The real question isn't whether animals can think. That's settled. Rather, the problem that remains to be examined is what do they think? My own feeling is that they think their human colleagues are, by and large, pretty foolish and misguided about what's important in life.

Is there a basis for that feeling? Yes. Anyone who has spent time being thoughtfully observed by a dog will understand.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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