What Are The Animals Becoming?

Brenda Cooper @ 16-12-2009

Since I went for things made of metal skins and electrical guts last month when I wrote about weird robots, I decided to opt for warm-blooded carbon-based life forms this time around – so welcome to the December column on smart animals!

Now, we’re a dog family, and we have a golden retriever and two border collies.  My partner just bought a puzzle for the dogs. It’s a wooden base with cups for treats, and sliding doors that move and hide the treats.  The object is for the dog to slide the doors out of the way and get the treats inside.  One of the stated purposes of the toy is to increase animal intelligence.  Mind you, if the border collies get much smarter we’re in trouble.  The golden?  Well, that’s another story.

We aren’t the only ones trying to increase the intelligence of dogs; see this dog-blogger’s post on the same topic. Also of note, science has now apparently decided that a dog’s intelligence is on-par with a two-year old human’s, which might explain why they sometimes act a lot like toddlers.

Of course, in many cases, we’re still grappling with how to even assess animal intelligence.  National Geographic did an excellent article in March of last year called Animal Minds. The article talked about a parrot named Alex with a spoken vocabulary of around a hundred words, and a border collie named Betsy who could demonstrate an understanding of over three hundred words. By the way, it’s worth dropping by the photo journal on animal minds associated with the same National Geographic article.

Struggling to understand how the mind works and to increase intelligence with puzzles and games are all things we also do to humans, or as humans.  But of course, the scientific experiments on animals go a step farther.  For example, there’s Hobbie-J, the smartest rat in the world.  He was made smart through genetic engineering: an over-expression of the gene NR2B.  The rat work, of course, is research that hopes to solve human problems.  But it could leave behind smarter rats.

My prediction?

What the animals are becoming is smarter.  To some extent, they’ve been smart all along, but we’ve characterized them as “dumb animals” and set ourselves up as above them. After all, we eat them. But to be more concrete, I suspect we’ll see increasing animal intelligence in three ways.

The first is simply that we’re learning to recognize it.

Secondly, we’re breeding and training them for smarts.  This is largely plain old evolution, although we’re guiding it selectively. With dog agility competitions all the rage, top breeders are creating dogs that can think on the fly. Our companions who understand 300 words (and more commands when you include the body language an agility dog can read) may soon have the vocabulary of a five-year-old rather than a three-year-old.  But did you know there is also rat agility?

And what about all those working dogs out there with police forces or in the armed forces?  The ones we’re training to be effective companion animals?

While it appears to be a bit of race to see whether we can teach robots enough mobility or dogs enough computation to be the best partner for a human with support needs, the network of people that are part of the companion animal programs around the world is pretty big and pretty effective.

For three, we will use genetic engineering on animals, and we will make them smarter.

I expect that many experiments that can’t politically be done on humans can still be done on animals.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see drugs used to increase intelligence in any working animal or in any lab animal.  I also wouldn’t be surprised to see them get opposable thumbs – whether robotic or grown. [And a billion cat owners gasp in justified fear… – Ed.]

I find it pretty near-fetched that a team of scientists makes dogs or dolphins smart enough to do more work than they are now – probably in a military application, and they get smart enough to complain or get a patron who gets offended.  The animals get legal rights through the efforts of PETA or the ACLU, or both acting together.   This could change a lot of things.

Science Fiction and Animal Intelligence

Science fiction writers have been fascinated with animal intelligence for a long time.  I’ll point out three stories from three different time periods.

One of the first absolute hits is, of course, Flowers for Algernon; shades of Hobbie-J there, for sure.  There are three forms of this story out (at least) – a novel, a movie, and the original novella.  The novella is the best way to consume this story, and if you haven’t read it, your education is just not complete.  Flowers for Algernon is a literary and science fictional masterpiece that tracks the events that happen to a retarded man who has his intelligence enhanced after a successful trial with a test rat named Algernon.

The second is a set of six novels that helped me discover David Brin, a fellow futurist and science fiction writer.  This, of course, is the Uplift series, which is two trilogies set in a future where space flight becomes available only to species that have been “uplifted” by a patron.  Humans, however, got there all by themselves.  We think.

And for a current story that I heard – and loved – last week, drop by escape pod for “His Master’s Voice” by new writer Hannu Rajaniemi.  Now this is excellent science fiction, post singularity, dense, and very, very well done.  The heroes are a pair of animals, although not the cat or dog of today’s hearthside.  The Escape Pod version (originally recorded at StarShipSofa) is fabulous and the story is well-done in audio.  I don’t recommend listening while driving though, it’s a story you have to pay some attention to.  It worked well on the exercise bicycle. The story originally appeared in Interzone, and I expect to see it in more print venues as various Year’s Best anthologies come out.

If you want to do more research:

I think I’ll research the movement toward more animal rights for a future column – writing this column has sparked my interest. Thanks for stopping by Today’s Tomorrows!

Be Sociable, Share!

4 Responses to “What Are The Animals Becoming?”

  1. bfwebster says:

    Actually, one of the earliest ‘enhancing animal intelligence’ novels is “City” by Clifford D. Simak (1952). It’s actually a collection of stories told and re-told by (intelligent) dogs about the now-legendary Men. Like most of Simak’s work, it’s thoughtful and groundbreaking; for example, there’s more than a hint of “Avatar” in the story set on Jupiter.

    It’s also the only novel I’ve ever read — and I’ve read quite a few — that has a character with my name in it. 🙂 But that’s not why I like it. Mostly. ..bruce..

  2. Brenda Cooper says:

    Thanks — I’ll look for that. That does pre-date “Flowers for Algernon,” which appeared in 1958.

  3. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    Predating either tale is Olaf Stapledon’s SIRIUS (1944).

    Of course, the biggest question is how long it will take to overcome the speech impediment that characterizes Reorge Retson’s reloved Rastro.

  4. Brenda Cooper says:

    Funny. I just ordered SIRIUS since someone else who read this commented to me in email and recommended it. It should be here in a few days and I’m looking forward to reading it.
    Nancy Kress’s current blog also mentions a number of current stories about genetically altered animals.