Conservation Can Be Enhanced By Human Study of Animal Cognition

Understanding similarities in the cognitive and moral capacities of humans with animals can make humans better conservationists, speakers told journalists at an event organized by AAAS’ program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.

Irene Pepperberg, a Harvard University research associate and lecturer, reviewed her work with African grey parrots at the annual meeting of the Religion News Association in Silver Spring, Maryland, on 23 September, highlighting similarities between children and birds in tests of self-control.  The meeting drew nearly 100 journalists.

“We tend to conserve what’s like us,” said Pepperberg. “The more I can show people that these birds are like us, the more I hope they will be conserved.”

In early October, the triennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the world’s largest wildlife trade conference, granted the African grey parrot the highest level of international protection, including the prohibition of international commercial trade of the animal.

Pepperberg has studied the grey parrot for three decades. She is recognized for research on a parrot named Alex who learned the names of about 100 different objects, seven colors, five shapes, and quantities up to and including the number eight. Her studies showed how the parrot was able to understand the concept of categories and the meaning of “same” and “different.”

“You could take an object out of your pocket and ask what’s the  ‘same’ or ‘different’ and he would say ‘color,’  ‘shape,’ ‘matter,’ or ‘none’ if nothing were the same or different,” said Pepperberg.

Alex made up words like “banery,” a combination of banana and cherry that he used to identify an apple and “banacker,” a combination of banana and cracker that he used to communicate his dislike for dried bananas.

Pepperberg focused her research on how the avian brain works: “How are resources allocated within the avian brain — a brain that is physically smaller and somewhat differently organized from, but that is still evolutionarily similar to, that of primates?”

Since 2007, after Alex’s death, Pepperberg has continued studying other African grey parrots, including their perception and cognition – optical illusions, delayed gratification, liquid conservation, and probabilistic reasoning.

Her work on delayed gratification is based on the “marshmallow test” designed in 1960s by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel that offered 4-year-old children two marshmallows instead of one if they could wait to eat the first. The 30 percent of the preschoolers who succeeded at waiting 15 minutes found ways to distract themselves by looking away from the marshmallow, closing their eyes, among other strategies. Years later, Mischel surveyed the same group and found that the children who had exhibited self-control experienced more success as adults.

Variations of the test have been done with non-human animals. Researchers, for example, tried this type of test with African grey parrots for ‘more’ and failed. But Pepperberg’s bird Griffin understood the English word “wait” and did not require the kind of pre-training that hindered others, she said. He was accustomed to waiting for food, but she wanted to determine if he could choose to delay gratification to get something better.

Wait times were randomized and a variety of treats were used so that Griffin was not being trained to wait. He succeeded on almost all of the trials. “He got better at figuring out ways of delaying himself,” Pepperberg said.

In a side-by-side video of Griffin and the children, similarities between the human and non-human participants are obvious. Both birds and young children took a variety of approaches to resisting temptation through distraction, including pushing treats away and closing their eyes.

“Knowing the intelligence of these birds, maybe we will use this knowledge to improve the care of companion animals, use these birds as models for how to teach children with disabilities, and improve our efforts at conserving them in the wild,” she said.

Kelsey Dallas, a Deseret News national reporter, urged journalists to consider how Pepperberg’s research, and studies like it, enhance understanding of the capacities of animals. “I want to encourage you to dive into this intersection of religion and science,” Dallas added. “You can share surprise, joy, and interest with other people.”

A video aired at the meeting also examined traits humans and animals share. Called “To Be Human,” the video was produced for AAAS’ Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) project known as Science for Seminaries.

“Human morality is not something we developed from scratch,” said Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, noting in the video that building blocks of morality like empathy and reciprocity are found in other species. Chimpanzees, for example, comfort each other after a fight. “Whether other species have the whole thing that we call human morality, that’s a different issue,” he said.


One thought on “Conservation Can Be Enhanced By Human Study of Animal Cognition

  1. If anything, many other animals are superior to humans in morality, cognition, survival. Humans mostly have an advantage in one aspect, tool makers which explains, houses, cars, cell phones, computers, weapons, etcetera. Religion, philosophy, are mostly superstition, existential angst to make sense of a it all. Humans have not claw, fang, fur, feather for survival. Without tools which shelter, clothes, and protect us, we are pitiful creatures. We have appointed ourselves as special and created in God’s image. We commit genocide against our own kind and other animals for sport and fun and greed. Humans are monsters, destroying other creatures, the planet, ourselves. That we consider ourselves superior is absurd, at best.

    Are Animals Conscious and Sentient and If So any Form of Animal Killing for Sport or profit (AKA hunting, esp trophy hunting, trapping) Is Serial Murdering & Hunters & Trappers, Ranchers and Farmers Are Serial Killers. Exploitation is essentially wrong as is speciesism. So is animal farming (aka ranching), which is genocidal in scope, killing millions to billions of animals annually.

    Are non human animals conscious and sentient? Can they think, feel pain, feel a range of emotions (anger, guilt, love, hate, friendly, anxiety, depression, sadness, and more)? Can they make a plan, engage in purposeful behavior, use consequential thinking in choosing actions? Are they aware of individual self in relations, the environs, their family, their needs of food, safety, shelter, belonging? Do they adapt to the environs, to living with other creatures including man? Do they teach their young and protect them and the family? Do they play? Do they evaluate and solve problems? Do they coordinate their actions? Do they mourn, grieve, show empathy? Do they communicate with their kind, and others? Some animals demonstrate all these qualities. They show signs of stress, desire for affection, attention, and belonging. They communicate with vocalizations, body language. Most approach humans with caution, even our pets, and they are stressed with insecurity about our show of affection for them. My dogs approach, sometimes with ears laid back, averting gaze, then are relieved when I reciprocate affection. They seek affection, companionship, belonging, love.Yet, despite sentience, humans raise other animals for food (aka ranching), trap them for their fur, kill them as a recreational opportunity (aka hunting). State and federal wildlife agencies primarily manage (aka kill) them to “control their populations”, remove “nuisance” animals, some of which certainly would control their own populations. So humans ranch, hunt, trap, use as source of food, use as a source of recreational killing opportunity other sentient and conscious animals. Are humans then “humane”? Humans kill with kindness and with a vengefulness, and wantonly. We humans justify and rationalize our treatment of the animal kingdom by perceiving and treating animals as not sentient and conscious, while perceiving ourselves as special, self-appointed special and above the rest of the animal kingdom, created in God’s image with all else created for us, and as center of the universe. What arrogance, self-centeredness, selfishness! Stupendous narcissism! What horror! Without our tools, superior not. Man is weak without clothing and weapons and more of a parasite than useful niche in the ecology. We appoint ourselves as special and superior with our self-centered perspective on our place in the universe. The Earth and her ecology, wildlife would be better off without us. That is our worth and place in the ecology.



    June 11, 2014
    June 28, 2016
    October 27, 2016

    ]Roger Hewitt
    Great Falls MT
    June 11, 2014

    Humans kill 27 million land animals daily for consumption, millions more yearly from hunting and”management” and this is not counting the sea life. Humans kill a million sharks every year. Animal farming is one of the most damaging, not to mention cruelest things we do in harming the planet, the environment (land, sea and air); it is also eating up wilderness and forest and jungles. Man is crueler than any alien so far imagined or presented in alien movies. Man is working himself toward extinction by meat and most everything else with him. We may have the planet at a tipping point in global warming which also has disastrous effects on much land and sea animal life. We have several major species on the brink and trophy hunters and poachers and farmer/ranchers are still going at the slaughter. What humans are doing is not healthy for us or the planet or the other anima Harambe the gorilla, animal exploitation

    Animal consciousness – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Wikipedia

    Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are ……/animal…/scientists…Psychology Today
    Aug 10, 2012

    After 2,500 Studies, It’s Time to Declare Animal Sentience …

    Prominent scientists sign declaration that animals have … – io9…/prominent-scientists-sign-declaration-that-animals-have-co…io9
    Aug 23, 2012 –

    Brain Researchers Acknowledge Animal Consciousness ……/animal-consciousness_…The Huffington Post
    Sep 5, 2012

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