Phenomena, Comment and Notes | Science | Smithsonian

Phenomena, Comment and Notes

As scientists probe deeper into whether animals really have consciousness, peripheral questions arise. If they think, do we really want to know what they think . . . about us?

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For a good part of this century, while the behaviorists ruled, science gave animals little or no respect. They were thought to be automata or, as we would say today, "hardwired." Dogma had it that animals could not think, that they did not even have consciousness. Case closed.

In recent years, however, a few intrepid souls, inspired perhaps by Donald Griffin of Harvard University, have started to take another look. Papers that would have been sneered at a generation ago are being published in research journals. "The Problem of Animal Consciousness in Relation to Neuropsychology" is printed in Behavioural Brain Research. Science magazines are not far behind: "The Emotional Chicken" appears in New Scientist. And Smithsonian ran an article in March 1985 that showed animals not simply acting consciously but apparently with Machiavellian intent.

All this is exciting, but it is not surprising to those members of the population who share their lives with what are now known as companion animals. There's no doubt in my mind, for example, that dogs not only have consciousness but also a sense of humor. It is very nice to see animals at last getting some respect from the cold hearts of science. But it also makes me nervous . . . very, very nervous.

At the moment a dog named Gizzie shares my life, not to mention my food and a substantial fraction of my bed. He seems content but who can say? My great fear is that we will not only concede that animals have consciousness, we will find ways to piece together at least a general idea of what they think.

It could be a rude awakening. My dog loves to go for long walks across pastures and into the woods (I think), but recently I've begun to worry about what he's thinking as we wend our way together. Suppose, just suppose, he sees a typical walk as something like the following. (Having no idea of how a dog might actually think, I've given him a mostly human vocabulary.)

"They're so hard to deal with. Disappear upstairs for hours until in desperation I have to give my strangled-puppy yelp. He looks down the stairs and says ŒJust a minute.' Yeah, sure. Finally he comes down and takes forever to put those heavy things on his feet and then layer after layer of pelt. It must be so tedious to be a two-foot.

"Outside I have to walk toward the back gate over and over to show him the way. He doesn't see the flier sitting on the fence, its feathers all puffed out against the cold, until it flies. Something wrong with his eyes. 'Bluebird,' he says. So what, I say. It's too hard to catch and too small to eat.

"The wind is coming from where the sun goes down. It is heavy with the smell of the oversized grass eaters. But the smell of fresh manure makes me feel warm. I run this way and that, getting the kinks out. He straggles. As we walk across the field I have to stop every 50 yards to make sure he is still coming.

"When we come to the creek, I just walk across. What else? He stops, sticks out a foot, makes a big deal of stepping from rock to rock, finally gives a little jump to the other side. Why is he so afraid of water?

"Then the ground starts going up toward the sky. Big deal. I just keep walking. He comes up on an angle so he has to walk twice as far to get to the top. He is breathing hard like he has been running, but he has barely been moving. I'm feeling so good I can hardly keep my feet on the ground. So I race along the side of the hill, back and forth, in sheer exuberance. He finally makes it to the top, to the end of the pasture, to a fencerow that has come straight up the hill. Now I'm getting good smells, fresh ones. In and out of the bushes. Mice. Foxes. Weasels. Dogs trying to mark my territory.

"Across the top of the hill. On one side of us now are the trees that always stay green. I can smell the leaping wild ones. They're here; I know they're here. Sometimes I find places full of their scent where the grass is all mashed down: the places where they sleep.

"We're alongside the naked trees now, walking easily where eight-foot-high flowers made it tough in the summer. He always crosses the barbed wire at the same place, where a rotting log makes it easier for him to step over. Being vertical must be a drag. I can walk under the fence in a hundred places.

"As we make our way through the bushes on the other side of the fence, we emerge into another pasture. He follows a grass-eater trail that descends the hill on an angle, moving slowly down. I go straight down (the slope isn't that steep!) and get to the bottom in one-fourth of the distance. Here there's a truly tiny stream, and yet he looks for a shallow place to cross.

"Red alert! A hot scent fills my being and I'm off, running effortlessly with my nose only inches from the ground. I start the wrong way and feel the scent cooling. Reverse direction, and the scent gets warmer and warmer . . . and then ends in that same little stream.

"Across this pasture we come to the big stream and the pond below the dam. He always stops here and looks around, but I know there is nothing of any interest because we have walked into the wind and I would have smelled it. To go upstream we have to climb over a stone wall that extends out from the dam. I walk up and jump down on the other side and start to walk. Oops, no two-foot. I look back and there's Old Clumsy, carefully putting one foot on a rock in the wall, then another foot on another rock. The wall only comes up to his shoulders, but he acts like he'd be killed if he slipped. Finally he's on top and drops down to the other side, which is only a little jump.

"It's so much easier now than it was in the summer. But still the long skinny green stems catch in his outer pelt (fur is so much easier); sometimes he actually cuts a path. Across the stream a flier is making a sound just like a two-foot laughing.

"We're both alert now, because we're coming to where the underwater animals live. A furry face silently pops up out of the water; the animal swims slowly to no place in particular, dragging that flat, hairless tail behind it. Then it makes a loud slapping sound and rolls under the water. A few minutes later it is up again, swimming just as slowly. Old Clumsy always looks at me to see what I'm going to do. I watch it for a while, and then look away and pretend it's not there. He surely can't expect me to retrieve something as big as that, especially while it's still alive.

"The sun is beginning to feel warm now. Clumsy is taking the extra pelt off the top of his head.

"We get to where the ground is collapsing and there are lots of dens, some of them almost big enough for me to walk into. But most of them have no fresh scent, so I move on. Clumsy never checks them. Across the stream a flier is hitting its head against a tree.

"I climb down the bank and swim across to the other side. Another hot scent: I'm off, nose to ground, coursing back and forth up the hill through the trees. But up on top I lose the scent, come back, swim back across and have a good roll. He watches.

"Ever so slowly, we walk farther up the stream, past the place where last summer the underwater animals had built a dam clear across a shallow part of the stream. It's not there now. Ice hangs down from the roots of trees that have blown over. In one place the stream pushes us into a grass road that smells of gasoline and oil; this is where the two-feet play on their noisy carts that are too small for them. We go about a mile and then come to where wire stretches across our path. There are only a couple of strands, and I go under them like they're not there and try to lure him farther up the stream. But Clumsy always turns around here. There's so much more stream to explore . . . I really don't get it.

"On the way back I try to lure him into going in another direction, but nothing doing. He just kind of slogs along. I hear one flier singing and another singing the same song right back at him. Another one flies down the stream, making a rattling sound. The big fliers that swam where the underwater animals do and honked at us all the time are gone. The big dark ones that just glide around all day are in the sky, though.

"Climbing back up the hill to where the log is under the wire fence, I hit pay dirt. A hot den entrance. I dig my fastest, but it's tough going, with all the roots and rocks. I keep pushing my head in the hole and sure enough, the scent gets hotter and hotter. But the digging gets tougher and tougher, and so I break off.

"Under and over the fence, through the naked trees and past the green ones, and then down the hill again. Clumsy takes his same path; I gallop up the ridge just for fun. I time it just right so when he gets to the creek I come racing out of nowhere and cross just in front of him. It takes him just as long to get back over. Through the gate and back to the house. We both head for the kitchen: it's time for a biscuit. Then I climb up on the couch for a quick nap, while he touches the magic box and sits down to watch the flickering images."


Now I'll cheerfully stipulate that Gizzie is faster, has a better sense of smell and seems immune to cold. I'll certainly bow to his night vision, which allows him to run across pastures on moonless nights while I stumble along. But does he really think of me as Old Clumsy? If I could find out, would I really want to know? The sensible thing, perhaps, is to let sleeping dogs lie.

By John P. Wiley Jr.

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