How Smart Are Bigfoots?

Hairy, bipedal creatures haunt the backcountry of our world. Science dismisses them as specters of our imaginations, while many who believe in their existence brush them off as just big, dumb agpes. Certainly, they lack the attributes we associate with sentient life: self-awareness, language, culture, burial customs, art, and music.

But we can really claim to own the copyright to those behaviors? How smart are Bigfoots? Animals possess keen intelligence, the ability to make crude tools, and emotions akin to human feelings. We can learn a great deal about Bigfoot intelligence by examining the intellect of animals.

Parrots can talk. Everyone knows this. But few of us realize that the vocal repertoire of these birds extends beyond mere mimicry into the realm of communication. Parrots can learn to identify objects and speak the correct names for those objects. A parrot named Alex, owned by Dr. Irene Pepperberg of the University of Arizona, can identify objects by color, shape, and material. He also understands relative differences: “bigger,” “smaller,” “same,” and “different.” Dr. Pepperberg refuses to label Alex’s speech as language, though the implications seem clear. If a parrot can identify objects, he must use deductive reasoning to rule out the possibilities. Is the material wool, or cotton candy? Even if the wool is pink like cotton candy, Alex can distinguish the materials.

Other scientists have dismissed Alex’s abilities as a fluke or, more cynically, as unconscious cues from Dr. Pepperberg. Detractors point to other instances of animals whose miraculous abilities were shown to stem from cues in the trainer’s body language rather than from the animal’s own mind. To date, however, no one has proven that Alex’s speech skills originate in Dr. Pepperberg’s actions instead of his intellect.

Apes have demonstrated considerable talents in the area of nonverbal communication. They’ve also shown signs of what can be interpreted as consciousness. Many skeptics continue to assert that animals cannot possess consciousness, since they lack the ability to formulate languages. However, we base our idea of what constitutes a language solely on our own species. Who can say that animals don’t have language? Does a dog’s barking convey different meanings to other dogs depending on the pitch and duration? Can gorillas converse through gestures? Until we can telepathically enter the minds of animals, and listen in to their thoughts, we shouldn’t presume to understand their mental processes. We can, however, examine their behavior for clues.

The most notable example of nonhuman communication comes from the ape world. A gorilla named Koko has learned to communicate with her handlers via sign language. She can modify her responses to indicate a specific request, such as “scratch my neck,” instead of just answering yes or no. Dr. Valerie Chalcraft spoke about Koko’s linguistic skills at the Gestural Communication in Nonhuman and Human Primates Workshop at the Max Planck Institute in March 2004. Dr. Chalcraft described how, when asked where she would like to be tickled, Koko would instruct her handler to tickle a particular part of her body, such as her foot. According to Dr. Chalcraft, this behavior echoes the way in which humans alter their signing to be more specific.

A study of chimpanzees found that they could both recognize their own images in mirrors and realize the image they saw as a reflection. When the researcher placed colored dots on the chimps’ foreheads, the animals would touch the dot on their heads instead of the dot in the reflection on the mirror. They seemed to understand the difference between the reflected image and their own bodies, while also recognizing they’d spotted themselves in the mirror. In another case, a chimp grasped the concept of death—when informed her baby had died, Washoe became withdrawn and depressed. Chimps also can learn to make and use stone tools. In some cases, chimpanzees travel great distances to find a good rock, suitable for tool use back at the food source.

Elsewhere in the animal kingdom, the caretakers of a dolphin named Ake taught her an artificial language consisting of gestures. Each gesture represented a word: the name of an object, an action, or the position of an object. Once Ake had mastered the language, the researchers complicated things by introducing grammar, constructing sentences of up to five gesture words. Ake excelled at this too. Not only did she comprehend the syntax of each sentence based on words already in her vocabulary, she could understand sentences built on completely new words. She even realized when her trainers tried to trick her with nonsense words, or instructions to perform impossible tasks.

The evidence does more than suggest animals possess incredible intelligence, it practically screams at us. Whether ape or hominid, Bigfoots are animals. If we underestimate the intelligence of animals whose existence no one disputes, then we must reevaluate how we measure the intelligence of a species about which we know so little.

Animals are smart. Why should we expect less from Bigfoots?

Reference: Madl, Pierre. “Is There Something Like Language in The Animal Kingdom?” in Proceedings of the 5th International Coral Reef Congress, 1985.

Copyright 2007 Lisa A. Shiel

Lisa A. Shiel is the author of Backyard Bigfoot: The True Story of Stick Signs, UFOs, & the Sasquatch, a ForeWord Magazine 2006 Book of the Year finalist. Critics have praised Backyard Bigfoot, saying “[it] is as informative as it is entertaining” (Midwest Book Review), “[it is] one of the best types of investigative reporting I’ve seen” (Reader Views), and “you may agree or not with her conclusions but you will be entertained by the discussions” (The Mining Journal, Marquette).

As a recognized Bigfoot expert, Lisa has been interviewed by big-city newspapers, drive-time talk radio hosts, local and national magazines, and TV reporters. In 2005, she founded the Michigan Upper Peninsula Bigfoot Organization (MUPBO) to explore all aspects of the Bigfoot phenomenon, from sightings to evolution to UFOs. Lisa has a master’s degree in Library Science. She currently pens a blog, Bigfoot Quest, as a companion to the MUPBO site.

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Published in: on May 4, 2007 at 12:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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