Friday, June 2, 2017

The biologist: I. Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?  

This is the title of a book written by the famous biologist Frans de Waal, who studied behaviour and empathy of primates and other mammals. Biologists are strange men and I am one of them.
You can find biologists in nature, usually on muddy boots, collected around a tiny little plant, with a butterfly net,  as a bird-spotter carrying a too heavy tele-lens, but also in arctic areas being on the run from a polar bear or in a laboratory, wearing a white lab-coat and concentrated looking to complicated electronic equipment. Natural scientists and certainly also biologists, should be good observers.
Most biologists consider themselves as a temporal phenomenon in the long evolutionary line of life on earth, contrary to most other human beings, who see themselves as completely different from all other forms of life.
Our human brain is subject to various limitations and we are less rationally thinking than most of us will believe. One of these limitations is that we are inclined to ignore what we cannot see, even if there is a lot of evidence for it and/or rationally thinking would force us to accept the idea.
As earlier described, we believe that our environment may strongly influence our life, since anyone can see its effects. But many of us do not believe that our genes may influence it equally strong, since our genes are not an open book for us.
The fact that the difference between men and the other animals (especially mammals) is generally overrated by members of the first species, is based on the same principle.
We do not know the other animals and cannot communicate with them. As a consequence we believe they are stupid. We could have argued: That we know so little about them does not support the idea we have about our own astuteness.

If I look to our cat "Meneertje" (a Dutch name, to be translated as "Little Sir"), I sometimes wonder who of both knows more about the other. As an example, he often seems to know my next action if he observes my present action. In contrast many of his actions are a complete surprise for me.
Men who like dogs will tell you how smart they are but you will less frequently hear about an intelligent cat. The difference is that a dog will learn all tricks his boss wants to teach him. A cat teaches himself all the tricks he wants to learn himself.
My response to people considering dogs as intelligent animals and cats as stupid animals is usually: Indeed you can teach a dog all imaginable tricks except to shit on a permanent place. In contrast, you can teach a cat nothing, except to shit on a permanent place. The cat wants to learn it himself.  Frankly speaking, I prefer the last option.

"Meneertje" considers the attic floor of our house as his territory. He allows me to use it as my working place. He is knowing earlier than I do that anyone is going up the stairs. He also knows whether he likes the person who will appear shortly. Whereas he likes most persons coming up and takes position on the back of the  couch in order to welcome them, in a few cases his reaction is opposite and he flees immediately behind one of the radiators, where nobody can reach him and even see him. If a visitor asks me later: "Do you have a cat? I did not see him", the implication is that "Meneertje" did not like this visitor.
If anyone did forget to shut the door in front of the stairs to the attic, Meneertje knows, because he did not hear the second noise confirming that the door might be shut, but was not really closed. The door is a little oblique. As a consequence not only the handle should be drawn tighter, but also the additional handle at the upper side of the door.
He will going down the stairs and try to get the door open in order to be able to investigate the rest of the house. He is not interested in the third floor, but especially in the second floor of the house where "Tiger" the other cat in our house has his territory. Tiger in turn allows Alice (my wife) to work in his territory on the second floor.
Given that Meneertje is 6 years old, comparable to an adult man of ca. 40 years and Tiger is 18 years old, comparable to an old man of ca. 88 years, the result will be that Tiger becomes afraid and will hide himself in his own territory. We try to prevent that by carefully keeping all doors closed between their respective territories.

In his youth,  Tiger did also show both a remarkable memory and logic. At that time, he was the only cat in our house. As a consequence he did consider the entire house of 4 floors as his territory.
Before I was going to sleep, I used to drink a glass of port-wine and took some pieces of cheese.
Also, the door of the kitchen could be shut, but not be closed. So, Tiger could open it easily.
At first, I did open the cupboard in the kitchen in order to get the port-wine. The door made a little creaking noise. Subsequently, I opened the refrigerator to get the cheese. This produced a little rumble. Finally, I opened one of the drawers of the kitchen unit in order to get a knife to prepare the blocks of cheese. Also this action produced some creaking. All sounds were different.
The various actions were carefully performed as if I was a burglar who suddenly liked a delicacy.  I tried to prevent what appeared to be unavoidable.
After the last noise, the door of the kitchen was immediately opened by Tiger, who slowly entered as if I did call him. He took a seat next to me on the floor and turned his tail around him as you can see on old Egyptian sculptures made at a time a cat was still considered a holy animal.
Both Tiger and I were equally lazy. The consequence was that Tiger did not enter before he did hear all of the three different sounds.
He did wait patiently for a first piece of cheese. If I was lost in thought and forgot him completely, he did jump on the table and placed carefully one of his forepaws on my hand with the knife in order to remind me to his presence.
If I changed the sequence of actions and with it the sequence of the resulting sounds, there was no difference in his reaction. Only after the third sound he entered the kitchen.
I have seen many other examples of astuteness of Tiger and Meneertje, confirming their high level of understanding.

Nico van Rooijen, Haarlem; 2017, June 14

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