Commentary, St. Louis Post Dispatch
by Jeffrey P. Bonner
12/03/2006

The media have paid a lot of attention to a recent study showing that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror. They now join humans, chimps and dolphins on a very short list of species that can pass this simple test. Cognitive scientists consider the test important because it indicates self-awareness.

As a scientist I find this interesting, but I also fear that such a finding is far too easily misapplied - even abused.

First, it's only one test, and a primitive one at that. Ask yourself this: "How many simple tests designed by an elephant could a human pass?" Here's one we'd flunk right off the bat: Elephants communicate over vast distances using sound frequencies that humans can't even hear, so we'd score a big fat zero on any test that required us to communicate by voice with another human who was farther away than, say, half a mile.

Add up the various times I've observed elephants in the wild, and it comes to about six months. It's always been pretty clear to me that they have knowledge of self - even, I believe, a sense of their own mortality. On more than one occasion, I have seen elephants gather around another's corpse, appearing to mourn. In fact, several studies of elephants include references to whole herds stopping to gently caress the bleached bones of their kin years after death.

In other words, I don't need to know they recognize themselves in a mirror to know that elephants are intelligent, sensitive and perhaps even aware that they will tread our earth for a limited amount of time before they die.

Second, making a short list of the animals that can pass the mirror-recognition test creates a terrible either-or dichotomy between those animals that "pass" and those that "fail."

I call it terrible because we know that intelligence is a wonderfully varied notion that is difficult enough to understand in our own species, let alone in others. And just because a chimp, for example, can pass the test and a gibbon cannot doesn't make chimps more important or more worthy of saving from extinction than gibbons. The same could be said of dolphins, which can pass the test, and whales, which cannot.

I fear, though, that people may have different attitudes toward species that "fail" the test as opposed to those that "pass" - that the latter are somehow entitled to better treatment. Here's an example:

On Nov. 20, a coalition of mainstream marine scientists and zoo and aquarium directors launched a campaign to end Japan's barbaric dolphin drive. In this annual event, thousands of dolphins are herded into shallow coves and slaughtered with clubs and knives. As a zoo director, I agree that the hunt should be stopped, but I disagree with some characterizations of the reason for our opposition.

One prominent national newspaper, for example, reported that the coalition wanted the hunt stopped because it is "nothing less than a ritual massacre of creatures that, according to a growing body of research, are not just intelligent but sophisticatedly self-aware."

Although this is true, to make it the justification for stopping the practice would leave us in an untenable position. If the reason for stopping the hunt turned solely on the fact that dolphins are intelligent and self-aware, where would that leave, say, the endangered Grevy's zebra? Is it reasonable to accept the slaughter of that species as somehow less despicable because the zebra cannot recognize itself in a mirror? Is the unconscionable and unsustainable killing of gorillas in Africa for table meat less odious because gorillas, unlike their chimp cousins, don't seem to notice themselves in a sheet of silvered glass?

More to the point, would the terror experienced by the dolphins killed in Japan's ritual hunt be any less awful if dolphins could not recognize themselves in mirrors?

I think we would be well advised to hold the mirror up to ourselves. We should ask ourselves if we truly value the beauty, richness and diversity of life around us. We should ask ourselves if our great intelligence can be balanced by great compassion, if we can leave enough space on our planet for living things other than ourselves to thrive.

If we do not answer "yes" to these questions when we take an honest look at ourselves, then it is our species that fails the simple mirror test.

Jeffrey P. Bonner is president and chief executive of the St. Louis Zoo.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Courtesy of STLtoday.com