A thought-provoking essay and overview of scientific research on the intelligence and mindfulness of pigs from a scientific researcher specializing in pig behavior, intelligence and cognition that questions why, given our knowledge of the cognitive and emotional lives of pigs, humans still eat these creatures.
That pigs are smart and sensitive is not in doubt. How can we justify continuing to kill them for food?
In problem-solving with computers, [pigs] match wits with little kids and win. They are able to plan ahead, and they live in complex social communities. They recognize other pigs as distinct individuals.
Pigs aren’t just cerebral, though: they have heart. When others are in distress, they can express concern and act with empathy. A description of pig behaviors, derived from scientific experiments and compiled by Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy and Christina M Colvin at Georgia Institute of Technology is so impressive, you might think it was about chimpanzees, elephants or whales.
We eat pigs, though, and we eat them on a scale unparalleled in comparison with the rate at which we consume other brainy mammals. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, pork is the most consumed meat in the world…
We value the taste of pigs far more than we value the lives of pigs…
Scientific findings on the intelligence of pigs
The biologist Donald Broom and colleagues at the University of Cambridge discovered that pigs, with only five hours of experience, can use a mirror to find the location of a hidden object. Mirror-naïve pigs search behind the mirror to find the treat, but after five hours’ practice, 10 of 11 pigs turned away to find the real location of the savoury items within 23 seconds. (A fan blew the food smells away, so that smell cues didn’t confound the process.) This is a cognitive feat because both the concept of the food and its position must be remembered, as interpreted from the non-real-world view of the mirror…
Biologist Candace Croney at Purdue University in Indiana described the cognitive research she’d done on pigs…
In an ingenious experiment, she and her colleagues carried wooden blocks shaped into Xs and Os around the pigs. Only the O carriers fed the pigs. The pigs soon followed the O and not the X carriers – not exactly a surprise. Next, the researchers, no longer carrying wooden blocks, wore T-shirts marked with either Xs or Os, and the pigs transferred their knowledge to a new situation: they approached only the O-wearers. They ‘got’ the meaning of the symbol, flattened to two dimensions from three.
Croney also tested the pigs, along with young human children, on a computer exercise. The goal was to move a joystick to a target – by snout for the porcine study participants, by hand for the small-human ones. The pigs were better at it than the toddlers…
Recent science, and storytelling, is revealing that pigs have a running internal narrative going on. They reflect on what happens to them, and what the past meant. Indeed, they think, they feel, they solve problems, they exhibit individuality.
New research by leading psychologists tells us two things: that people are less likely to perceive as food those animals that they believe to be intelligent; and, conversely, animals that are seen as food are perceived to be less capable of suffering and less deserving of moral concern… Should we be eating pigs at all?
About the author:
is emerita professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She writes for NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog and her latest books are Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat (2017) and How Animals Grieve (2013).