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© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, minutes before snow squall

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Darwin’s cognitive continuum

Recent media stories about ‘dumb dolphins’ (apparently taken out of context) require some antidote and here’s just the thing. Pour yourself a coffee, settle back and listen to this podcast, which features some of the famous names in chimpanzee, dolphin, parrot, prairie dog and wolf research, to name just a few. The discussion ranges from mimicry, language, syntax, mirror-self recognition, cooperative behaviour and play, the roles of individuals within their societies to animal emotions and empathy.

Darwin described the difference between the minds of humans and other ‘higher’ species as being a difference in degree, rather than kind – the logic being that human intelligence didn’t miraculously metamorphose out of thin air, but evolved over time, likely, in incremental steps. Whilst humans are supremely well adapted for exploiting a wide range of habitats, there are some cognitive challenges, such as spatial memory, for which other species can outperform us (such as the Western scrub jay’s ability to recall where they have cached food). So, intelligence is a mechanism for survival and its development and the relative usefulness of certain traits relates to the ecological niche which a species inhabits.

Although quite a lengthy podcast, this it is well worth your time. The fascinating accounts challenge all of us to observe other species more closely and to at least try to take off our anthropocentric goggles when thinking about why another species might be behaving in a certain way.

The next century promises fascinating insights into the minds of many of the other species with which we share our blue planet, as we shake off our prejudices and shine some light into the Darwinian continuum.