TT: Our Planet is Full of Aliens!

JANE: For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been chatting about aliens.  So, have we covered all the bases on types of aliens?

ALAN: No, not quite. We actually live on a planet that is full of aliens. Animals are completely alien to us in the same sense that SF aliens are. They think differently; they react differently; they have different priorities.

Flossy, Mephitis, and Harlequin

Flossy, Mephitis, and Harlequin

JANE: I’m the last person who would disagree with you about that.  As I mentioned a while back, my novel Marks of Our Brothers is rooted in my awareness that how humans view animal intelligence is rarely based on judging them on their own terms.  All too often, how “intelligent” an animal is thought to be is based on how human they seem or at least how well they can mimic human behavior.

I’d rather view animal behavior on their own terms and leave the question of “smarter” or “dumber” out of it entirely.

ALAN: Yes, indeed. And if SF teaches us anything about aliens, it teaches us to judge them on their own criteria rather than to try shoehorning them into ours. Though having said that, I think there’s a definite spectrum of intelligence – even animals of the same species can be “smart” or “dumb” in comparison with each other.

JANE: I agree…  We both like animals and share our homes with them.  I’m sure if we were visiting over coffee, we’d have fun telling each other about the interesting things our co-residents have done.  Typing out stories isn’t quite the same, but we can give it a try.

Let me start with the story of how Jim misinterpreted Flossie the guinea pig.  That way we’ll start off with a creature that most humans would consider at the “bottom” of the spectrum.

ALAN: Tell me more! How do you misinterpret a guinea pig? Enquiring minds want to know…

JANE: We have several guinea pigs.  When the weather permits, we put them outside in a hutch.  We always bring them in at night, though.  One day, Jim commented to me that Flossie really didn’t like coming in.  “She’ll run to the side of the hutch, then try to climb the side to get away from me.”

Now, I’d noticed the same behavior but, knowing guinea pigs (Jim had only been living with them for about five years at that point), and knowing they don’t really climb, I had interpreted it differently.

“She’s not running away.  She’s helping you to pick her up.  She’s noticed that you always scoop her around the middle, then lift.  She’s making it easier for you.”

And, after observing, Jim agreed I was right.  Over time, Flossie taught her “trick” to her hutchmates, Mephitis and Shandy.  The habit did not pass on to the next generation.  (Flossie, Shandy, and Mephitis have all gone on.)  However, Usagi, one of our current residents, does not like being held around her middle.  She’s perfectly fine with being picked up – only on her own terms.  If you hold a hand level in front of her, she will let you slide it under her and even walk on.  Again, her roommate, Silver, has picked up the trick, so we have two guinea pigs who behave rather like large, furry parakeets.

ALAN: Do they perch on your shoulder and say “Pieces of eight!” as well?

JANE: No!  They say “pieces of carrot,” though…

ALAN: It’s clear to me that animals can, and do, think about the situations they find themselves in, then work out a plan to achieve their goals. We took our dog Jake to the park where he can run freely off the lead. There’s a small river running through the park which many of the dogs like to swim in. Jake hadn’t learned how to swim yet. He was happy to paddle in the shallows, but he wouldn’t go out of his depth.

However, one day he was playing chase with another dog and he got so involved in the game that he chased the dog through the water, all the way across the river to the other side. Once the excitement died down, Jake realised that he had a problem. He was on one side of the river and we were on the other side! How on earth was he going to get back to us?

He stood there for a moment, and then he looked both right and left, decided which bridge was the closest, and then he raced to that bridge, came across the river and rejoined us. I was very impressed. Naturally, he got a treat for being such a clever boy. I don’t think many dogs could have solved that problem so quickly and so elegantly.

These days he can swim like a fish, so the problem has now completely gone away and he criss-crosses the river willy-nilly.

JANE: And doubtless shakes water all over you when he arrives.  Oh, well, everything can’t be perfect.

One thing that really bothers me about tests meant to judge animal “intelligence” are those that involve running mazes.  Often these tests are used on creatures that wouldn’t perform a task like this in normal life.  Moreover, how well an animal “remembers” a maze is then used to judge length of memory.  By this standard, I’ve read studies that say that most animals have very short memories.

I don’t know about you, but if my memory (which is excellent) was judged on the basis of running mazes, I’d fail abysmally.  Jim, whose memory is rooted in visual associations, would probably score as a moron, since most of those mazes are without features.

ALAN: I’d be the same – I’m hopeless at mazes. Robin, on the other hand, loves them and is quite brilliant at navigating them. We’ve visited several mazes here in NZ and I’m always astonished at how expertly she finds her way through them. I just tag along, hopelessly lost…

Clearly I’m even more moronic than Jim.

JANE: My point is that none of us non-“maze runners’ are dumb, and neither are those animals who fail to live up to this challenge.

ALAN: Yes, that’s quite true. But, nevertheless, I’m sure that maze-running is measuring something significant about the way that the animals fit into their world. My cats Ginger and Milo never saw a maze in their lives, but I’m certain they’d have been really good at solving them. When we moved to a new house, they both used maze-running techniques to explore it. Ginger used a strict left-hand rule. She circled the house (in and out of every cupboard) hugging the wall as closely as she could and taking every left turn that she found until she ran out of them.

Milo had a different, but equally successful, technique. He started from his food bowl from which he took a revivifying snack. Then he set off in a straight line. Once he’d explored as far as he could in that direction (no turns allowed), he came back to the food bowl for another mouthful and then set off again in a new direction.

JANE: That’s really neat! Ginger was motivated by preserving some sense of personal safety, while Milo was motivated by assuring himself he would not lose his source of food!

I’ve seen many incidents that prove that housecats (who are usually judged by these tests as having short memories) have excellent memories.  One of these is what I call the story of Talli and Great Cthulhu.

I actually related the story a few months ago. But it’s so appropriate to what we’re discussing that I’d really like to tell it again.  I’ll give the short version, promise…

ALAN: That’s a good idea – I’d love to hear that story again.

JANE: Okay.  I’ll start with it next time.

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5 Responses to “TT: Our Planet is Full of Aliens!”

  1. Paul Says:

    Good point about the intelligence tests. Even with humans, there have been complaints abut kids not doing well on them because they are not geared to city (or country) places where some kids live. Some of our animal tests, as with the mazes, are probably foreign to various animals. I have a horse who comes when I whistle only if there’s something in it for him – if he has a grazing muzzle he thinks I will remove, or if he thinks I might have a carrot. Otherwise, he continues grazing. So he’s smart enough to listen, think it over, and make a decision.

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      Did you see the Rhymes with Orange panel earlier this week [Monday?] Two rats running a maze: “It’s the height of autumn! The least they could do is give us a corn maze.”

      AFAICT, the intelligence being measured in most of these tests is the tester’s.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Well, that’s the way multispecies civilization is supposed to work, as a series of accommodations. Another interesting thing is that our domesticated species (our symbionts, really) are those that can crack our communications code sufficiently that we can accommodate each other, as when guinea pigs teach us how they want to by picked up. Most other species haven’t managed this trick, even when (like, say, African elephants) they are extremely intelligent and social. Even with some social species (and here I’m thinking of the parrot family) our accommodations are usually pretty hard on the non-human members of the group.

  3. chadmerkley Says:

    I highly recommend the book Alex and Me by Irene Pepperburg. She talks about her experience working with an African Grey Parrot in a variety of research settings. She specifically mentions that Alex (the bird) would do very intelligent things that simply could not be formally described according to research protocol.

    At the book signing with her that I attended, she also said that most lab experiments on birds at the time she started her work was done in ridiculously artificial settings on birds that had been starved down to about 80% of a healthy body weight (with things like Skinner boxes).

    The questions you have to ask about animal behavior are “what problems it is naturally trying to solve?” and “What kind of toolkit does it have to solve them?” Domestic dogs are very good at understanding and manipulating humans for instance, because humans define their environment.

  4. Jane Lindskold Says:

    Excellent comments! For those of you interested in parrots, I’d recommend THE PARROT DETECTIVE by Gerald and Lorretta Hausman. The parrot in the book is based on their own parrot, George, and they claim his behaviors in the book are within keeping with what they’ve observed over the many years of their co-residence.

    Full disclosure… I’ve known the Hausmans for many years. Gerry co-wrote WILDERNESS with Roger Zelazny.

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