Published: November 2, 2006
To the very short list of animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror — i.e., humans and apes and possibly dolphins — scientists have now added the Asian elephant, or at least three female Asian elephants in the Bronx Zoo. Faced with the presence of an enormous — and rugged — full-length mirror in their enclosure, the animals displayed clear signs of grasping that they themselves were the origin of the images in the glass. One elephant, named Happy, was even able to touch a mark on her own face that was visible only in the mirror. It is still not known whether male elephants are as self-aware.
Such tests appear to mark a boundary between animals that display some form of consciousness and those that don’t. But what they really do is raise questions about the value we attribute to consciousness and our inevitably human definition of it. It is always us setting the rules. How many tests set by elephants could we pass?
Can we even pass the very simple test of allowing them to survive in the wild? The clear implication of the mirror test is that animals who pass it are somehow closer to us and thus more deserving of our protection. But as the fate of chimpanzees makes plain, we are no more likely to save species with a proto-human form of consciousness than animals whose mental life bears no resemblance to our own.
We keep probing the animal world for signs of intelligence — as we define it — and we’re always surprised when we discover it. This suggests that something is fundamentally wrong with our assumptions. There is every reason to value other life-forms as much for their difference from us as for their similarity, and to act accordingly. That may be the only intelligence test worthy of the name.