We’re Running Out of Things That Separate Us From Animals

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader’s Digest, The...

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One of the ways we make sense of what it means to be human is by looking at animals. It’s simple arithmetic. Discover what they are, subtract that from what we are, and the remainder should be the essence of humanity, no? Minus all that primitive dross, you’re left with that animating spark that separates us from the kingdom of beasts.

In this spirit, Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe has spent his life showing paintings to animals. He has displayed art by Picasso and Monet to pigeons and asked them to tell the two apart. He’s shown art to Java sparrows and determined that “six of seven birds preferred cubist paintings to impressionist paintings.” He’s taken good paintings by children and terrible paintings by children and made his pigeons choose their favourite. It is safe to say that nobody knows more about how animals feel about the impressionists than Shigeru Watanabe.

The results of Watanabe’s most recent art show for animals were published this month in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. In this test, Watanabe used mice, displaying paintings in two different compartments and then observing how long the rodents hung around each artwork. “Contrary to birds, rodents are generally considered non-visual animals,” Watanabe writes. If your life passion is showing paintings to animals, however, you better show paintings to all sorts of animals.

When asked to choose between a Kandinsky or a Mondrian, a Renoir or a Picasso, the mice remained indifferent. They cared about as much as you’d think a mouse would care. According to Watanabe, however, the rodents were able to discriminate between paintings by the pairs of artists. “When exposure to paintings of one artist was associated with an injection of morphine (3.0 mg/kg), mice displayed conditioned preference for those paintings, showing discrimination of paintings by Renoir from those by Picasso, and paintings by Kandinsky from those by Mondrian after the conditioning.”

Presumably Watanabe doesn’t keep up these experiments just because he likes making little art exhibitions for animals. “Art and aesthetics seem to be unique human abilities,” Watanabe writes in his introduction. By continually searching out art appreciation in animals, Watanabe keeps testing that uniqueness.

His experiments may be goofy, but they’re part of a larger movement that is gradually blurring the lines between animals and humans. It’s something we’ve always done naturally; the temptation to anthropomorphize is irresistible. The dog, we decide, is jealous of the baby. The cat is not only hungry but also, it seems clear, a little condescending about the whole thing. In the past, ascribing these kinds of human emotions to other creatures was dismissed as ridiculous and childish. Increasingly, however, legitimate scientists are talking more about the way that animals feel.

piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker in this week’s New York Times Magazine describes the death of a chimpanzee named Pansy. The fifty-year-old ape died surrounded by her daughter and her best friend, a chimp named Blossom who had arrived at the same Scottish safari park as Pansy thirty years earlier. As Pansy grew weaker, the other chimps groomed her and stroked her hand. When she died, they examined her body. Blossom sat with the body throughout the night. The other animals refused to sleep on the platform where Pansy had died for five days.

“The results of primate-behavior studies can be humbling for humans because they often call into question our anthropocentric view of the world,” Koerth-Baker writes. Though Darwin disabused us of the notion that we are god’s special creatures, we’ve still managed to keep up a steady belief in human exceptionalism, continually coming up with new benchmarks and attributes that definitively separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The difference between humans and animals, we decide, is that animals can’t use tools. Then we find a chimpanzee using a blade of grass to find termites and are forced to seek out new differences. Only humans have consciousness, we declare, and then notice that zoo elephants seem to be able to look into a mirror and recognize themselves in all their elephantness.

The thing that separates animals from humans is our ability to derive pleasure from art. Mice aren’t there yet, but I’m sure Watanabe’s already planning his next exhibit.


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