“May Day! May Day! We’re sinking!” radioed the distressed captain from his ship.
The German coast guard immediately replied, “What are you sinking about?”
There I was drifting peacefully along, blowing bubbles out of my regulator, marvelling at the fish, when I floated over a snake eel. Snake eels belong to a group of fish that spend most of their lives buried up to their necks in sand, with just their heads sticking out. Occasionally they will dine on small fish and crustaceans but most of their day is spent just watching the world drift by.
And I started wondering, “What is he/she thinking about?” If it was me my mind would have been wandering over a huge range of subjects including last night’s dinner, the latest sports results, the situation in Syria/Egypt/Mali (insert the name of your preferred world hotspot), our chances of being kidnapped by Filipino pirates, and, “Is that a fish louse attached to that grouper?” (You can take the man out of the veterinary practice but you can’t take the veterinary practice out of the man). In fact this has always been one of my major problems whenever I’ve tried meditation or mindfulness: my complete inability to still my mind and think of nothing, or at least just my breath. So what about this eel? Was he a sentient being passing the time by reminiscing about last night’s delicious crab, or former eel girlfriends or perhaps that huge typhoon that destroyed half the reef last year? Or had he achieved eel nirvana and lay there with a completely blank mind tuned only to the passing currents and the possibility of a meal? What really goes on in the non-human mind? Obviously animals experience the same basic emotions as us: fear, aggression, lust, and some of the so-called higher ones display more complicated emotions such as affection and grief. But do they actually think the way we define thought, or do they just produce an automatic response to a defined stimulus, like tapping the knee elicits that leg jerk reflex?
In order to have abstract thought some form of language is surely necessary. Otherwise how could these concepts roll around our minds? Conversely if an animal has language, and many species do, it must have evolved for a purpose, presumably to convey thoughts and ideas. What would be truly fascinating would be to look inside their brains and see how these thoughts are conveyed and processed. I suspect we cannot truly communicate with intelligent animals like dolphins, not because they are not clever enough, but because they think and process data in a way that is completely different to the way we do. Interestingly, while dolphins have been taught to mimic human speech, I don’t think any human has ever been accused of being able to speak delphinese.
Many years ago I was in Thailand watching a gibbon torment a dog. The gibbon would wait in a tree above the dog, until its back was turned. He would then swing out of the tree, give the dog’s tail a hefty tug, and then swing back into the tree before the frustrated canine could nail him. The gibbon did this repeatedly, each time the dog turned its back. Surely there can be no greater proof than a well-developed sense of humour to show us that animals are capable of abstract thought.
Dr. F. Bunny
Black-finned Snake Eel