Ed Wasserman, comparative psychologist

As he explores how animals think, a cognitive crusader wants to bring the most arrogant species down a notch or two. Interview by Lizzie Buchen

May 25, 2009

Photo courtesy of University of Iowa

Scientists ground their understanding of the natural world in the principles of evolution. But when it comes to their own behavior, Ed Wasserman thinks many scientists let creationist thinking take hold. For nearly 40 years, the University of Iowa psychologist has been searching for the roots of cognition, hoping to debunk the myth that our behavior has an intelligent designer: a rational mind.

Wasserman has studied the minds of pigeons, chickens, rats, baboons, and humans of all ages, searching for insights into mental evolution. In the process, he's uncovered the abilities of pigeons to read human facial expressions, perform abstract thinking and analogical reasoning, and stretch the limits of their short-term memory. He's found cognitive tasks mastered by pigeons and baboons but failed by four-year-old humans.

His goal is to break down cognition to its most basic components, which he thinks pigeons and humans may share. Even our most exalted behaviors, from creating music to theorizing special relativity, may be the products of these common foundational processes—not of the fantasy concepts of reason and ingenuity.

At the 2009 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Wasserman organized a symposium on animal cognition to showcase the most impressive products of the savage, primordial minds of nonhuman animals. Afterward, he spoke about what it means to be intelligent—and what it means to be human.

Research into the intelligence of animals has started to receive a lot of attention. Why do you think it has such broad appeal?

People love animals. They really connect with them. That's why they watch Animal Planet, even though all they're doing is watching stupefying videos of animals doing something cute. They're not actually learning anything about them. So I think there's a real hunger among the general public for understanding them, to try to understand the mechanisms that are responsible for the behavior.

And I think the idea that their cognitive abilities not only can rival our own, but can exceed our own, really surprises and intrigues people.

The concept of intelligence is so broad. How do you study it in pigeons?

It is broad—that's precisely why it doesn't make any sense to say one animal is more intelligent than another. So we focus on abstract thought, the ability to form general ideas about concrete things. People think this is beyond what animals can do, that it may actually be what sets humans apart from all other animals. But my research, and research by many others in this field, shows that this belief is completely unjustified.

Now we're focusing on the ability to form abstract concepts of same and different. This isn't trivial. It's vital to human intelligence, and it's the backbone of complex thought and reasoning. It requires animals not only to form concepts, but to compare them and make a judgment.

Few people would have given pigeons enough credit to make this discrimination. But we've done extensive behavioral testing to show that they are capable of it, and they can do it very well. And in some cases, they do it much better than human children.

"The natural world is to be understood as it is, not as we would like it to be. We exalt ourselves, but we do so at the detriment of understanding ourselves and the rest of the planet."

What's an example of a test where they outperform humans?

One basic test is to show them an array of items that are all the same, and an array of items that are all different, and they have to tell them apart—hit the same one, say. Pigeons and children can both learn this. But if we change it a little—hit the same one if the background is red, hit the different one if the background is blue—four-year-old children just can't learn it anymore. Pigeons and baboons still pass with flying colors. They learn it the first day they try it. But children? They're terrible. People find this so hard to believe, that pigeons can actually outperform their own kids.

What can pigeons teach us about our own intelligence and cognitive capacity?

It's evolution. Our biology is all connected, and like it or not that includes our brains. The roots of higher cognition, including abstract thought, lie deep in our animal ancestry. So our own sense of same and different is rooted in a more primitive process, and pigeons can teach us about this process. There's clear evolutionary significance.

Why do you think people find this so surprising?

People are always looking for simpler explanations for animal behavior. They're quite content to accept highly elaborate explanations of human behavior, almost pathologically disposed to create the most complex interpretation, even when simpler ones would do. We prefer the explanation that attributes the most highly advanced cognitive capacities to people.

Basically, the pendulum swings from reason, deliberation, and purpose on the human side, to mechanical, blind reinforcement on the animal side. It's this sense of an organism determining its own destiny, as we think do, versus the product of genetic make-up interacting within an imperfect environment.

So it's sort of like the free will idea. We like to attribute our actions to our own innovative thought, but in reality we do this all retrospectively, to rationalize our actions.

Exactly. It's intelligent design for the mind. Some people see intelligent design as a silly idea when it's applied to the origin of species. But [when it comes to] the origin of their own behavior, of course they're going to attribute that to their own choice, their own decision-making, their own reason, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth.

Our behavior at any given moment is a decidedly mechanical response, based on our experiences—what we've been rewarded for or punished for in our past. And we have no clue what most of these are! For decades, social psychologists have been documenting instances where we learn things, but we're completely unaware of having done so. Our behaviors are guided by forces that not only can't we name, but we don't even know we're being controlled by them.

Why do you think we do this?

Anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism, the belief that we're so special, and so different from animals. There's a tremendous sense of arrogance in humans, and this idea of the special, exalted status of the human mind. People don't want to admit to any fundamental similarities—the animals have to be doing something in some other way.

But Darwin put us into one fabric of nature. He talked about the human and the animal being netted together. There's an interlacing, an interconnection. We're not apart from nature, we are part of nature. The natural world is to be understood as it is, not as we would like it to be. We exalt ourselves, but we do so at the detriment of understanding ourselves and the rest of the planet.

But there is certainly a difference between what our minds are capable of and those of, say, chimpanzees. Chimps have been around for a very long time, but they still haven't come up with anything like quantum mechanics. They're not going to build a computer.

What are you going to come up with? Could you build a computer? We are the beneficiaries of, how many billions of us are there? How much time, with written language? Just imagine anything being accomplished without written language. There would be no way to pass it along. Our minds have done more complex things, yes, but there's a continuity of intelligence. It's a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference. The basic mechanisms are the same.

If the basic mechanisms are the same, what is the difference? Just more neurons?

The bigger brains and more neurons aren't just a quantitative thing, necessarily. They can reorganize in a way that smaller brains can't. A quantitative difference could translate to a qualitative difference. It might allow us to hold more ideas in our mind at the same time, or deal with them in more complex ways.

Why don't you study crows or gorillas, which are known to use tools and sign language?

Right, pigeons aren't your valedictorians. They're like your C- students. But they can still learn these tasks, and show us the basic mechanisms. It's interesting because if animals other than pigeons did these tasks, we wouldn't hesitate at calling it cognition. Certainly if people had exhibited it, we'd be quite comfortable saying it's intelligent behavior.

If we want to understand the general laws of learning and cognition, one species isn't better than another. These are foundational issues, general principles of behavior, and the hope is to apply these laws across normal and abnormal behavior, and generalize them to natural and laboratory situations.

There's been some criticism about these types of experiments, that you're not learning about the animal's intelligence because it's in the very unnatural setting of the lab. Why don't you study their intelligence in the wild?

Yeah, people ask us: “Why do you put these pigeons in boxes, where it's all unnatural, all perverted, all strange?” The answer is: That's an organism adapting to its environment. Just like we have to adapt to this one. You think we were genetically engineered to deal with cities and technology? Nonsense. The fact is that organisms deploy their abilities as best they can in the circumstances at hand. The animals are just doing what they do, same as they would in the wild. They're not trying to be clever. They're just trying to get food. But the experimenters are trying to design these experiments so the animals betray what they know. We're trying to learn things about animals that they wouldn't otherwise give up.

Now, it is true that naturalistic observation is great. It provides insight, gives you problems to study, potentially ways to study them. But the laboratory affords you opportunities to really understand what lies behind the behavior. We can ask and answer questions about the very nature of seeing and understanding. And when you do these experiments with animals, and have the opportunity to control their experience, you can learn things you could never have learned if you just watched them. Or even just watched people for that matter.

Has this work changed the way you look at animals in your daily life?

Oh certainly. We're not cold, aloof, heartless experimenters. We love the animals we study. You couldn't work on them unless you loved and respected them more than most people do. Other people would kick a pigeon out of the way. I look at a pigeon and I say, “You're smart, buddy. You're doing a lot of stuff out here.”

Lizzie Buchen, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned bachelor's degrees in biology and psychology from Tufts University and a master's degree in neuroscience from UC San Francisco. She has worked as a reporting intern at the Monterey County Herald, KUSP radio in Santa Cruz, and the science unit of Wired.com. She will work for six months as a science writing intern at Nature in Washington, D.C.

© 2009 Lizzie Buchen