Do Animals Think? by Clive D. L. Wynne

Do Animals Think? is accessible. The writing is highly educated but at the same time warm and gentle. The sense I get is that of someone who is so brimming with enthusiasm for the natural world that the enthusiasm bubbles out of him in all the conversations he has about nature and science—conversations he is eager to start because he is eager to share with anybody and everybody what it is that he knows and loves about the world. Reading this book made me feel like I was sitting in the author’s living room having a friendly chat. And a cup of tea.

The enthusiasm does not detract from the science; Wynne is ever careful to be clear and precise. Where there is room for misinterpretation, he stops and explains the intended implications of his words. And he never does it in an impatient or condescending way that makes me feel like I’m an irritatingly uninformed freshman, or, worse, a recalcitrant intellectual opponent.

Wynne shares with other authors whose work I have read the goal of re-enchanting nature. Even if—perhaps especially if!—animal behavior is not mysterious in any supernatural sense, we can still feel wonder and amazement when we observe or read about it. The two books I’m thinking of are George Levine’s book Darwin Loves You, for which I was the production editor assigned by the publisher, and The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. I’m sure there are some overlaps with the work of Daniel Dennet, too. Wynne’s mention of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea moves it up in my stack of books to read sooner rather than later.

I don’t agree with everything Wynne says, but I have the utmost respect for what he says and how he says it, and I would be willing to read any book he writes, on any topic, if it’s written like this one.

For more on Do Animals Think?, including what I disagreed with and some things I learned, see below.

What do I not agree with?

Very little, it turns out.

What is Reason?

Wynne says that unlike St. Augustine and many others, he does not believe the faculty of reason belongs exclusively to humans (49). I disagree because I believe that the word “reason” is only appropriate to describe… the kind of reasoning that only humans can do. (Whether the process by which I ascribe meaning to the word is circular is an issue I prefer to leave aside in this post.) Wynne does say that there are kinds of reasoning that humans have that other animals qualitatively and quantitatively do not (82), and characterizes some of this more narrowly defined kind of reason as Sherlock-Holmesian (80).

Wynne considers associative learning a form of reasoning. Examples of associative learning include that of Pavlov’s dog, which learns to expect food after a bell rings. Apes, dogs, fish, and even insects, as we shall see, are capable of this ” ‘powerful and adaptive’ yet ‘simple and mechanical’ ” form of reasoning (60).

What is Consciousness?

Wynne quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel as saying that for an animal to be conscious means that there is something that it is like to be that animal; the fact that animals experience something makes them conscious in this sense (84–85). This, too, seems a lot broader a definition than I am inclined to accept. Given that we cannot ever really know what it is like to be a bat, how is the unknowable experience of being a bat different in principle from the unknowable experience of being a virus, a fungus, a blood cell, or even a chair? Are all those things conscious, too?

What interesting facts did I learn?

Chapter three contains the amazing story of a kind of caterpillar that has evolved to be odorless as a way of hiding from wasps that hunt using smell. Evolution is a constant arms race, though: The plant whose leaves the caterpillar eats has evolved to give off a special distress smell if—and only if—it is bitten by that kind of caterpillar. In effect, the plant can “call out” to wasps for defense because it “knows” wasps eat those caterpillars and respond to smell! This situation is fascinating in its own right, but as Wynne points out is further valuable because it serves as an example of biological “communication” that does not imply consciousness. (In chapter two we have already been given the example of the personal computer that can “communicate” but which is also not considered to be conscious.)


Wasps can locate landmines by smell! That seems niftier to me than using robots, in some ways, but (apparently) Google searchers are more interested in finding out about electronic equipment that can find mines than in insects that can find mines. I can believe that effective electronic equipment for finding mines is more practical in that it is easier to replicate, transport, and store, but that doesn’t make it more inherently interesting than trained sniffer wasps, for crying out loud.

Animals are capable of transitive inference (70). That is, clever experiments have been designed to test whether they can solve problems like “If Alice is taller than Bob and Bob is taller than Carol, who is taller, Alice or Carol?” Of course, it makes sense that even birds can “reason” in this way because chickens are able to keep track of who’s who in the pecking order.

I knew that bats are good luck in Chinese culture; I’ve seen bat carvings decorating traditional wood furniture. I did not know the exact reason; unsurprisingly it’s because the word “bat” sounds like a lucky word, not because of anything about bats in particular.

I’ve often wondered, Where did pigeons come from, and why are they all over the world, and how did they live before they lived in cities? Wynne doesn’t exactly answer where they came from, but he shares some interesting facts about pigeons and doves (144–45). Doves are the same species, but we think of pigeons as pests and doves as symbols of love, hope, and faith. On the rare occasions when we still eat pigeon meat, of course we can’t call it that because of the modern connotation of filth, and probably nobody would want to eat a dead dove, either, so we call the meat “squab” (146). Go figure. (Maybe part of the reason we don’t say “pigeon” or “dove” for the meat, to be fair, is that English, fairly consistently, uses different words for living animals and the meat they become. Other languages don’t.)

On page 196, Wynne explains the appeal of dolphins: “[I]t’s hard not to assume that animals are the way we think we would be if we were they.” He also explains that the English word “porpoise” comes from the Latin “piscis porcus”, which literally means “pig fish” (97).

In his will, philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked that his body be preserved and displayed in a specific way, and it sort of was (237). You can see Jeremy Bentham’s clothed skeleton, topped with a wax head, at University College London.

What interesting ideas did I encounter?

Even if I had learned nothing else, it would have been worth reading the book for the sake of the concluding chapter, which is full of philosophy.

The chapter opens by mentioning the violent attack by and eventual death (by hunger strike) of an animal rights activist named Barry Horne. Wynne says, “It is tempting to dismiss Horne as a crackpot, but it is also possible to view him as an individual exceptionally true to his convictions” (222). Now that’s classy. Wynne doesn’t agree with Horne or his agenda, but kindly points out that whatever else he may be, Horne is not a hypocrite, and kindly suggests that we ascribe to him the virtue of sincerity! It’s easy to attack, belittle, or casually disparage those we disagree with, but Wynne gives the impression of being constitutionally incapable of doing anything of the kind.

Wynne which points out that there is a necessary relationship between rights on the one hand and responsibilities on the other (226). Somehow, those who argue that animals should have rights in the human legal system overlook (or, possibly, deny) the need for animals to shoulder the corresponding responsibilities—responsibilities for which even the cleverest animals are ill-suited. Interestingly, animals’ inability to understand and accept responsibility for the effect of their actions on others has not stopped humans, historically, for putting them on trial and even hanging them as punishment for wrongdoing (224–226). So you want animals to appear in court, do you? Careful what you wish for!

On page 106, Wynne has said “Language is a special case of communication.” This is an important statement, because it means that we are able to say, for example, that bees telling other bees about some flowers is communication but not language. Language doesn’t limit us to talking about locating flowers, or to any fixed set of subjects at all. Wynne further states that language is an ability that belongs to humans only (231) and that the “cultural” achievements of animals that have been observed are wonderful but fall far short of the cultural achievements of even the most primitive of human societies (235). It may be fashionable to praise the achievements of animals as being not so different from our own, but it’s actually wildly inaccurate to do so, and not a little insulting to people.

Peter Singer’s treatise on animal liberation is based on the idea of minimizing the amount of pain in the world. That idea is in turn based on Jeremy Bentham’s political philosophy of utilitarianism, which states that good government should as a primary goal seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number (rather than, say, protect individual rights). Wynne says “minimize pain” isn’t a very useful principle for making decisions except in trivial cases (237–42). He gives the following reasons:

  • We aren’t sure when, whether or to what extent medical research on animals will succeed, so we don’t know how much pain will be caused or averted.
  • Even if we do sometimes engage in interventions such as saving beached whales, we can’t police the wild, in part because there’s no obvious way to weigh the pain of a predator against the pain of its prey.
  • We are naturally more inclined to protect ourselves, our families, and our friends from pain than we are to protect strangers. Thus, it is not necessarily possible for two different people agree how one pain ranks with respect to another.

After Wynne rejects animal pain as a logical justification for protecting animals, he says in any case we already have one: they are important to us. We like them, scientifically and aesthetically (242–43). That is and should be enough.

When and Why I Read It

After I read The Language Instinct, which was fascinating if a bit smug, I eagerly picked out a pile of science books relating to psychology, brain, language, and writing from the large stock of books I own but haven’t yet managed to read.

First was The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics, which was quite similar in terms of topic, and interesting but written in a dull way.

After that, I picked Do Animals Think? Holy cow, what a contrast. This book was engaging and interesting!

Genre: nonfiction (biology)
Date started / date finished:  03-Oct-16 to 08-Oct-16
Length: 244 pages
ISBN: 0691126364 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2004
Amazon link: Do Animals Think