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No. 947:
The Humanity of Animals

Today, we find human intelligence where we hadn't meant to. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Theodore Barber, a behavioral scientist, has been studying animal intelligence. In his book, On the Human Nature of Birds, he speaks much like a boy telling us the emperor has no clothes.

He uses case histories about birds, and other creatures as well, to puncture our old belief in a gulf between human and animal intelligence. Each case has a ring of familiarity.

A zoology professor rescues a hurt horned owl, nurses it back to health, and releases it. The owl returns daily to demand petting and friendship. A tern is hurt. A pair of his nestmates comes. Each takes a wing in its beak and they fly him as far as they can. Then another pair comes and continues the task. The action is far too calculated and unusual for instinct.

Why is this human side of birds so unfamiliar? Because, says Barber, we deal with two kinds of birds. Free birds know we're a threat and avoid us. Caged birds know us only as oversized jailers. Few of us have ever really made friends with a free bird.

Barber certainly isn't the first to make such an argument. The Russian naturalist and political theorist, Petr Kropotkin, said much the same thing a century ago. He made careful observations in Siberia. Then he argued that the human characteristic of cooperation was the common currency among all species.

Barber shows us the whole range of human behavior: intelligence, altruism, love, tool-making, play, negotiation. Of course we've all seen that. I spend much of my life in transactions of this sort with my dogs and cats. To do that, I have to turn off my slavish committment to verbal intelligence and read body language. Then I can enjoy the very human face of animals.

Barber focuses on birds because it's there we've been most willing to accept the old myths about animal intelligence -- that beasts are not self-conscious, that they're little more than preprogrammed, instinctive robots.

The zinger is Barber's point that we practice doublethink. Most of us interact with the human side of animals. We negotiate. We exchange affection. Yet when it comes to eating, hunting, and caging animals, our experience goes into the closet. Giving human attributes to an animal is what we do for children, or for the child within us. We separate that from reality because those human qualities stand to inconvenience us terribly.

So Barber asks: "What'll change if we accept our vast kinship with other living things? What'll become of our theology or our exercise of power?" Accepting what we already know about that kinship means huge change -- benificial change, no doubt, but greater change than most of us are ready to accept.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Barber, T.X., The Human Nature of Birds, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Kropotkin, P., Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, (with an introduction by George Woodcock), New York: Black Rose Books, 1989.

I am grateful to Dr. William Howell, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Baylor Medical School, for bringing Barber's remarkable book to my attention.


Image by John Lienhard