Brandon Keim investigates the field of animal consciousness:
The whale biologist Shane Gero is part of a research team that has conducted long-term sperm-whale studies off the island of Domenica in the Caribbean. These studies describe the dynamics of whale families in which children are, in a very real sense, the centre of their lives. Yet Gero told me of being chastised by colleagues for referring to animals by name rather than number. Pressure still exists to think not of individuals, but of general species traits that happen to be manifested in a particular animal. Gero has helped to decode the vocalisations that sperm whales might use as names, something that’s also been observed in dolphins, but this remains controversial.
That’s why a visitor to the ‘Whales: Giants of the Deep’ exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York can learn a lot about their skeletons, heart capacity and navigational abilities, but barely anything about their intelligence and social lives — arguably the most dynamic area of contemporary cetacean research. …
[I]n some respects the general public outpaces much of the scientific community, at least when it comes to the familiar animals we live with and know well. All those cute cat videos, reliably mocked as a symptom of our unintellectual internet habits, bespeak our era’s willingness to acknowledge the inner lives of companion animals. Not that they’re tiny humans in kitten suits, of course — indeed, part of the fun in knowing a cat (not to mention watching those videos) is the obvious disparity between their view of the world and our own. But neither are they entirely incomprehensible, per Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enigmatic statement: ‘If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.’ Wittgenstein probably never saw a pair of lion cubs at play.