Tuesday Book: Animal rights: time to talk turkey

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS the time of year when we are reminded that dogs aren't for Christmas, they are for life; to which I recall a laconic Alexei Sayle responding: "We usually have a turkey round our place, actually." After the hunger strike by the campaigner, Barry Horne, and huge rows over vivisection and "animal rights", it is interesting to find in Stephen Budiansky a writer who emphatically will not stick up for the fluffy bunnies - at least, not if you want to suggest to him that they have thoughts, memories and intelligence that resemble ours.

In the 19th century, the Prussian horse "Clever Hans", it was claimed, was able to do maths by tapping the answer to multiple-choice questions with a hoof. Its reward was a sugar lump. However, investigators found that if the people watching didn't know the answer to the question, Hans got it wrong. The smart horse was reacting to tiny changes in the observers' reactions as it reached the correct answer. So was Hans just a stupid horse? One could argue that it was really very clever to spot a piece of body language that none of the humans had noticed.

Budiansky, shortlisted twice for the Rhone-Poulenc science-writing prizes, wants to examine what animals experience in their "consciousness" and what intelligence means. The book's title is taken from Wittgenstein, who said: "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him." Budiansky argues that if a lion could talk, we could understand him fine - but its "mind would no longer be a lion's mind".

Everyone - even scientists - does want animals to "talk". Rather than observing horses as herd animals well adapted to open grasslands, we want them to play the mathematical games we would demand from children. Rather than trying to see what makes chimpanzees unique, we want to teach some of them American sign language so we can feel gratified at how many words and simple "sentences" they can produce.

Even when describing such tests, language gets in the way. "The monkey went to the food" contains an undercurrent of intentionality that may be lacking in the animal. Even amoebae can direct themselves towards food sources. At what level of the evolutionary ladder should we say that simple response ends and intention begins?

The truth is that every animal has been equipped by that ultimate school of hard knocks, evolution, to deal as best it can with its environment - though all have ideal niches, determined by selection. Being among a bunch of twitching 19th century humans who offer sugar lumps for picking up subtle inflections of movement is not a horse's ideal spot, but it will do its best. But it is not doing, and never will do, mathematics. Budiansky manages the neat trick of drumming this into the reader's head without ever seeming to be preaching.

However, he also manages an equally valuable task. Although behavioural scientists are always taught about Clever Hans in their first seminar, the syllogism of "this is the answer, so that is the process by which the animal reached it" persists in modern research. Work with apes, chimpanzees, rats, mice, birds and worms all comes under sceptical inspection. Little passes the test. Budiansky wields Occam's razor like Sweeney Todd, slashing through sloppy thinking about what animals might be "capable" of and bringing high-flying results (such as the chimp that appears able to add numbers for a food reward) crashing to earth.

One could argue that scientists, too, are driven by similar logic, in that the simplest way to get your name on a big scientific paper with attendant rise in status is to achieve a "conscious-like" response from an animal. But what sets the scientist apart is that paper. Humans stand on the other side of a Rubicon of evolution. Language separates us from all other species, "a rocket that has allowed us to escape the gravitational pull of biological adaptation". Horses tap the ground for sugar, but only we worry about the possibility that we are being deceived.

Language also takes us into that peculiar realm where we can pose ethical questions. Is it "right" to kill turkeys? What "rights" can turkeys have? Does our position confer special rights on us or on the animals mutely left on the other side of the divide? Budiansky evades this point, except to say: "We try so hard to show that chimpanzees or monkeys or dogs or cats or rats or chickens or fish or frogs are like us in their thoughts and feelings; in doing so we do nothing but denigrate what they really are."

Personally, I will have turkey for Christmas. I will also offer a gift of thanks to evolution, and especially language, which means that I'm not spending it on the savannahs, trying to avoid the attention of silent lions. Animals, after all, don't recognise human rights.