Rational Thinking In The Animal Kingdom Might Be More Common Than We Thought


Rachel Baxter

Copy Editor & Staff Writer

Lions in South Africa's Selous Game Reserve have worked out that when a giraffe is stuck in a river bed, it is safe for them to hunt it. Alexandra Giese/Shutterstock

It has long been debated whether animals’ abilities to remember specific events and solve problems are a result of rational decision-making or simply thoughtless reflexes controlled by the environment.

Now, Cameron Buckner, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has argued that a wide variety of animals use executive control when making decisions. This means that they consciously consider their goals and how to achieve them before they act.


It's often assumed that non-linguistic animals can’t use rational inference, which is basically the ability to use reasoning to move from premises to conclusions. People have tried to teach language to animals like chimpanzees before, but they've never been able to grasp complex thought and language structures. Nevertheless, Buckner opposes the claim that language is needed for rational inference.

In an article published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, he covers a wide range of previous studies and concludes that many animals use rational decision-making to determine their actions. Just some of the animals he mentions are elephants, ravens, and chimpanzees.

Buckner said in a statement that the overall goal of his research was "to see that we've accumulated enough evidence to say that animals really are rational in a distinctive way."

In the new paper, he uses a number of examples to highlight his case. One of these concerns lions. Giraffes aren’t normally prey for lions in Africa due to the risks that hunting such large, strong creatures pose. However, the lions of the Selous Game Reserve in South Africa have worked out that when giraffes are in a sandy river bed, they can get stuck or fall over. So, when the lions see a giraffe in this sticky situation, they make the decision to hunt it as they know it is an easy target.


Another instance also comes out of Africa, but this time it involves elephants. The matriarchal elephants that roam Kenya’s Amboseli National Park can work out the threats posed by different people, and hence act accordingly. The elephants use cues like age, gender, and ethnicity of the humans they encounter to determine those that pose a danger and those that don’t. Adult Masaai tribesmen occasionally kill elephants if the animals have killed one of their tribe or if they're causing competition for resources. Meanwhile, tribesmen and women of the Kamba tribe pose no threat. The elephants know this and don’t react to these peaceful people.

Animal intelligence and consciousness have been a hot topic of debate since the times of the ancient philosophers. We like to think that we are far superior to everything else on Earth, but Buckner’s research suggests that perhaps animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.  


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  • rationality