We’ve all seen a puppy or kitten bewildered by their own reflection. Regardless of what your parents or any other ill-informed persons may have led to to believe, your pet’s infantile antics are not a a sign of intelligence. The curious canine is most likely just trying to play with his or her newfound companion rather than showcasing an exceptional ability to recognize oneself in a mirror. This inability is especially exaggerated among species that have never seen their reflection before. Here is a video showcasing various animals reacting to a mirror set up by French photographer Xavier Hubert Brierre in the jungles of Gabon.
An obvious outlier in the video was the reaction of the chimpanzees. Initially they were wary of the mysterious object but eventually their inquisitiveness overcame them. The chimps began to gather in large groups around the mirror and even returned after the mirror had been removed to see themselves.
The intelligence of our closest animal relative is well documented and recognized but some may wonder what enables us and them to far excede the intelligences of other mammals. I believe that it all stems from this seemingly simple innate ability to look at ones reflection and immediately determine that the being staring back at you is you.
Morals. I have had many discussions about where our morals have derived from. Consider the hallmark proverb of kindergarten: “Treat others how you want to be treated.” If not for our idea of self, and therefore the idea of cooperation, we would have no values. Whether bonobos or capuchins, our ape friends show signs of sympathy and comradery. It’s rather simple really. You could look at it from an evolutionary standpoint in which an argument could be made that it is “safer” to share and be in groups or you could look at it like, “Hey, I really like cookies and I have some. That other human doesn’t have any cookies. He must also like cookies so why don’t I share with him so that he may give me cookies some other time.”
Now for animals that cannot understand the mirror. Those who cannot suffer intellectually. Pigs will fight for the opportunity to suckle from the sow, dogs will fight for food (a dog can be trained to share but it is not a natural instinct like the orangutan which will always give back half of the fruit you give it), birds for prey, and the list continues. One can easily argue that these animals are less “intelligent” than we and chimpanzees are.
I apologize for not wrapping up my post in an eloquent manner but I had to leave the computer for a few hours and lost my train of thought. My writing isn’t structured or planned because I feel that I sound more genuine without an outlined plan of attack. I believe that I was going to conclude with something about how my reason for speaking about mirrors and chimpanzees is that I was fascinated with my dog who was barking at his reflection during a thunderstorm and thought of how dumb he was. This led to me remembering the absurd intelligence of the bonobos and wondering about the implications of being able to recognize oneself in a mirror.