News FocusAnimal Cognition

'Killjoys' Challenge Claims of Clever Animals

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Science  02 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6072, pp. 1036-1037
DOI: 10.1126/science.335.6072.1036

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It seems that hardly a week goes by without a new report about animals performing marvelous feats we once thought only humans could do: Crows make tools, chimpanzees seem to mourn their dead, and rats supposedly empathize with one another's pain. For many researchers, the new evidence represents a welcome shift from behaviorist paradigms often associated with psychologist B. F. Skinner, which denied nonhuman species anything approaching advanced cognition. Yet recently, some researchers have been pushing back against attributing humanlike qualities to other animals without considering cognitively simpler explanations. This more skeptical contingent was present in force at two recent meetings* sponsored by the Royal Society. At both, researchers explored what animals are really doing when they engage in seemingly complex behaviors, rather than reported still more discoveries of their impressive abilities. Some researchers blamed the news media, and even some scientists, for exaggerated interpretations of animal behavior.