Despite the emotional attachment that most humans share with animals, there is always the lingering frustration that people feel about not being able to communicate verbally with them. Part of this comes from a complete misunderstanding of the essential similarities and differences between how humans and animals think.
Animals and humans reason things out based on many factors. Both creatures make decisions based on instinct, environment and experience and both are often wrong in their choices. Being wrong is more often the result of just not having enough information to make an informed decision or having too much, rather then anything to do with a flaw in the thinking process of either creature.
If wild land animals knew they would be killed and eaten by stronger predators, they might avoid places like watering holes where such attacks would be likely to take place at times of the day or night when the risk is the greatest. The best they can do is respond to instinctive knowledge that predators exist and watch for signs that they might be near. Their reasoning process just does not allow for much more. Does this mean that they are mentally inferior to us? The answer may surprise you!
Nature has a way of evening things out. If animals that often become prey eventually developed the ability to avoid their stalkers, Predators would also have to make mental changes or become extinct. Too many predators without prey would die. The suddenly expanded numbers of animals who would normally be killed and eaten by predators might deplete the food resources of their environment. This would lead to their deaths as well. The balance achieved by the animal kingdom essentially allows both predator and prey of different species to survive in the long term. This limited abilities that animals have to reason with are practical when applied to their situation. Can the same be said about the human reasoning process?
If animals are limited in their ability to reason based on too few choices, one could say that humans are handicapped in their ability to reason based on too much information. Like animals, people are forced to reason based on instinct, environment and experience. Nevertheless, for humans, reasoning becomes far more problematic with the addition to the process of so many more choices, emotions and moral validations. When we make wrong decisions that cause us pain, loss or even death, we often do so knowing the risk involved.
Years ago, I had a job that required me to travel through the New York City subway system late at night. That was not always a very safe place to be. Although nothing ever happened to me, it could have. I made the decision to take that risk because I needed to support my family and myself. In reality, I was throwing the dice of fate and hoping for the best outcome.
If I had been harmed or even killed, my decision to take the subway at night knowing the risk involved would have seemed like a very foolish one. The reason why is obvious. I could have lessened the risk a considerable amount by simply working during the day at a time when more people ride the subway and it's just safer. Like most people, my decision was complicated by additional factors.
The desire to make more money meant that I was willing to take more risk and work at night when I could receive a higher pay. That desire was motivated by an additional desire to provide my family with a comfortable lifestyle. A simple decision was complicated by additional factors that I had the mental ability to take into consideration. In the end, my ability to consider so many more issues during the reasoning process still lead me to make a decision that involved risk instead of taking the safest way out.
Rather the protecting me from danger, my reasoning ability had placed me directly in its potential path. That reveals a fault in the theory that we can measure intelligence by intellect. We assume that animals are not as intelligent as we are not just because they lack the ability to make the kinds of complicated choices we do, but also because they cannot talk. Does our ability to speak make us intellectually superior to animals?
Most animals communicate by movement and action as much as they do by making sounds. This may seem very primitive to humans, but is it? Humans debate subjects for hours, days, years and, sometimes, all their lives without a clear resolution. While animals live a far less complicated life, they also tend to resolve issues in a much more efficient way.
While still in high school, one of my teachers gave our English class an interesting essay assignment. She wanted each of us to describe how we might communicate with aliens if they landed on our planet. With a few days to complete the assignment, I gave the topic a lot of thought. Eventually, I came up with two ideas. If the aliens were like us in a physical and mental sense, communication could eventually occur through trial and error of various approaches. If not, we had a problem.
Suppose the alien creatures looked like us in the sense of having the same basic physical attributes with adaptive differences to fit their home world, but thought on a completely different level. What if they had no inborn desire for contact, lacked the ability to speak and were motivated by urges and emotions that we lacked? Even if communication could be achieved, would both parties understand and properly interpret what was being said? Probably not.
I believe that animals and humans are not separated by a higher or lower level of intelligence, but thinking processes that give them a different perspective on things. They use the same basic tools that we do to think, but resolve issues based on motivations that humans do not use or have abandoned. This makes them neither intellectually inferior nor superior to us, but they may possess some unique abilities that we lack.
During the recent Tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka and other nearby Countries, we learned that animals seem to have had a foreknowledge of what was coming. They sensed disaster and moved to higher ground. This is not a unique situation. Animals often sense environmental danger before it hits. But, how? The most likely answer is that they simply 'feel' the world around them better then we do. They may notice subtle changes in the air and react to stimuli that we do not or cannot sense. We, on the other hand, depend on technology to protect us. It is up to you to decide which system is better.
I once heard someone ask, "If animals could talk, what would they say?" It's a fabulous, thought provoking question that has no easy answer. Another question of equal importance would be, "If animals could talk and speak our language, would we understand what they had to say?"
If, as the old joke goes, Americans and the English are separated by a common language, then humans and animals are separated by a common thought process that serves each creature in its own way.