Animal cognition

The real potential of animals

The 5th edition of the World Animal Cognition Day is an opportunity to look back on the advances of ethology, which recently have been able to discern the potential of other animals.


The article is also available in French via this link.


Animal cognition


The preface by Karine Lou Matignon in Révolutions Animales introduces the subject very well: "It would seem that we cannot see differences without immediately establishing a hierarchy. Here is a very convenient arrangement of the world, repeated since millennia: first the man in the fact of the absolute genius followed by very far by the insignificant, the without history and the supposed poor in the world that are the animals.”


Whether in the philosophical, religious, or scientific field, animals have never been considered intelligent by humans, as evidenced by their appellation of "beasts". Between the sheep that only seem to be interested in food, reproduction, hierarchy, and the number of animals that do not pass the mirror test, this inferiority appears justified.


Behaviorism, one of the branches of ethology, began in 1913, according to some, with a text by John Broadus Watson. He wanted to make psychology an objective science limited to the study of observable behavior. Over time, the elimination of the animal mind and the descriptive attitude of ethology came to be seen as unproductive and inadequate. In the late 1940s, ethologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen advocated for a study in the natural environment.


Perhaps the most significant turning point came when ethology stopped attempting to measure the mental capacities observed in humans. Since sight is essential in humans, what could be more normal than that visual perception is part of our capacities? But what meaning can we honestly draw from the failure of the mirror test in dogs or pigs, whose identification relies on the sense of smell?

Cognition revolution


Awareness of research methods is emerging, and the biases of laboratory experiments are now known: the hierarchy observed in monkeys only came from humans, who baited them to study them, thus creating competition. Primatologist Jane Goodall, living among apes, learned far more about them than many years of laboratory experiments. She was the first to report that chimpanzees use tools to feed themselves. The cognition, reasoning abilities, and emotions of animals are no longer a theory.

A rat is imprisoned in a cage. A second rat has the opportunity to free it by pressing a button. With or without a reward, the rat will always free his fellow rat, each time the test is repeated. Later, a chocolate is placed next to the button. The rat starts by pressing the button even if it means sharing the chocolate; it even goes as far as leaving it completely.

Révolutions Animales, Vinciane Despret

One by one, the apparent idiocies observed in other animals have now been refuted; we even question instinct, which was attributed to them instead of intelligence as being an innate capacity that does not require reasoning. The so-called instinct of bees cannot be an instinct, because their genetic code does not allow them to memorize as much information as the variations of climate, the distribution of places to find nectar, pollen, resin, water, nesting sites, as much information that a bee must memorize. Charles Darwin himself said "there can be extraordinary mental activity in an absolute mass of extremely small nervous matter."

"If you put a bee in a bottle lying horizontally, with the bottom on the light side, it will try to escape through the bottom, but it will never succeed. To consider this behavior as proof of the bee's stupidity would be to ignore species-specific adaptations. In its bee world, for example in a hollow tree or a barn, light usually indicates the way out."

Randolf Menzel, 2021

The stupidity observed in animals is only due to laboratory biases, biases in the questions asked, or biases on the very definition of intelligence often too anthropocentric. Once out of their experimental cages, sheep establish long-lasting relationships, resolve conflicts by avoiding brutality, build friendships, and know how to reconcile. Animals are not stupid if you ask them the right questions.

Sources : 

Karine Lou Matignon, 2016. “Comment les animaux sont devenus intelligents”. Les liens qui libèrent.

Marino, L., & Merskin, D., 2019. “Intelligence, complexity, and individuality in sheep”. Animal Sentience, 4(25), 1.

Natasha Daly, 2019. “Comment mesurer l'intelligence animale ?National Geographic.

Menzel, R., 2021. “A short history of studies on intelligence and brain in honeybees”. Apidologie, 52(1), 23-34.