Are Animals as Smart as Some Say?

Scientists analyze animal cognition.

“There’s an arms race to identify the most clever animals,” says animal psychologist Lars Chittka. “But what are we trying to demonstrate?” Birds make tools and seem to plan for the future and even to sense the motives of other birds. Animals like border collies seem to have a sense of purpose and to know how to work for their shepherds. Two recent Royal Society meetings explored what we really know about the cognitive abilities of animals—or more like what we think we know.

Humans have probably been anthropomorphizing for millennia, projecting our own feelings and thoughts into our favorite animals, as well as marveling at the brilliance of some animals. But Darwin asserted in The Descent of Man, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals . . . is one of degree and not kind.” Evolutionists who claim humans evolved from ape-like ancestors assume language and bigger, better brains gradually evolved, making humans just a higher animal.

Even though Royal Society meetings about animal “minds” did nothing to express disbelief in evolution, scientists did call into question some of the more recent claims to animal brilliance. The tale of the empathetic rats1 able to feel one another’s pain drew a “blistering critique” in a talk entitled “Animals Aren’t People.” Domesticated dogs are acknowledged to “be very good at understanding us . . . But we don’t know whether that’s real ‘understanding’ or not,” said James Thom of Cambridge during a subsequent LiveChat about animal cleverness.2 Even chimps, the scientists suspect, are not so altruistic as recently thought, despite their supposed status as “close human relatives.” (The group examined a study in which chimps appeared to make choices designed to give extra treats to a fellow chimp and concluded the altruistic chimps possibly just liked the sound of crinkly treat wrappers.)

Even though Royal Society meetings about animal “minds” did nothing to express disbelief in evolution, scientists did call into question some of the more recent claims to animal brilliance.

The scientists at the meetings focused on the need to search for alternative explanations for apparent animal cognition. Many derided the increasing popularity of “exaggerated interpretations of animal behavior.” For instance, a study of blue jays prone to bury and re-bury their food stashes found the birds tend to respond to stress by re-burying their food. The presence of other birds, instead of prompting jays to think about the plans of other birds (as some assert), simply creates stress, probably due to previous experiences of being robbed. Furthermore, forgetfulness—not recalling some cache locations—also causes stress when food seems to be missing, leading to an instinctive tendency to re-cache what they can find.

Yet even amid these voices of reason questioning the notion that rat empathy is an evolutionary homolog for social behavior, the “evolutionary history [with] the unique expansion of the prefrontal cortex”3 remains the popular ruling principle to explain animal and human behavior.

Human beings were created in the image of God. And while many animals are endowed with remarkable and interesting abilities, human beings possess not only the ability to express and understand original abstract thoughts through language but also the ability to know their Creator. And while man shares certain common designs with some animals, humans have unique attributes that enable us to communicate with God and with each other. Evolutionary thinking pretends we humans are just animals and not accountable to God or responsible to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Creator and Redeemer. But fooling ourselves with assumptions from secular science will never get us “off the hook” with God.

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  1. L. Sanders, “He’s No Rat, He’s My Brother,” ScienceNews, December 8, 2011,
  2. M. Balter, “Live Chat: Do Animals Think Human Thoughts?,” Science March 21, 2012,
  3. Ibid.


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