Orcas, like their close relatives, dolphins, certainly seem smart
The disparity between experiments that suggest sophisticated cognition in animals and those that find hard limits to animal intelligence has created a debate over animal “personhood.”
The recent fatal attack of a SeaWorld trainer by the orca Tilikum has led to renewed questions about how humans should deal with potentially intelligent animals. Was Tilikum’s action premeditated, and how should that possibility influence decisions on the animal’s future treatment? Orcas, like their close relatives, dolphins, certainly seem smart, though researchers debate just how intelligent these cetaceans are and how similar their cognition is to humans. Should we ever treat such creatures like people?
For centuries it seemed obvious to most people what separated them from other animals: Humans have language, they use tools, they plan for the future, and do any number of things that other animals don’t seem to do. But gradually the line between “animal” and “human” has blurred. Some animals do use tools; others solve complicated problems. Some can even be taught to communicate using sign language or other systems. Could it be that there isn’t a clear difference separating humans from other life forms?
Last week, Brian Switek, a science writer who blogs about biology and paleontology, found a study demonstrating that tool use in chimpanzees isn’t a new phenomenon. For decades, scientists have been observing chimps using sticks and other objects as tools. They have even seen chimps modifying these tools and transporting them for anticipated use in the future. But until recently, there had been no evidence that tool use among chimps had a very long history. Wild chimpanzees in the Tai National Park in Côte d’Ivoire have been observed using stones as hammers and anvils for cracking large nuts. A team led by archaeologist Julio Mercador found evidence that these tools were being used as long as 4300 years ago: Ancient stones shaped similarly to those being used today as tools. Their research was published in PNAS in 2007.