Personality: not just for humans

Next Monday and Tuesday, biologists, philosophers and psychologists will gather at the Royal Society to discuss the minds of animals - and how they relate to ours.

It's likely that anyone listening in on the conversations will hear evidence that both surprises and inspires. At the frontiers of animal mind research, very few people now dare to draw a clear distinction between us and them.

It is nearly 20 years since the Great Ape Project, fronted by the biologists Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins, pressed the United Nations to consider bestowing human rights on primates (of the non-religious variety). The idea was to protect them from experimentation and torture, but the campaign went nowhere - except in raising the hackles of certain primates (of the religious variety). However, the intervening decades have given us reason to revisit the matter.

We have learned that apes think about the future. That is why Santino the chimp, kept in a Swedish zoo, stockpiled bits of concrete to ensure he had a good supply of missiles to hurl at visitors. Not all chimps think hard about opportunities that come up, just as not all human beings try to work out theories of physics. But that at least one or two are able to do so is enough to show an unexpected degree of capability in the chimp brain.

Similarly surprising are the animals that question the extent of their own knowledge and understanding. Orang-utans, chimps, bonobos and gorillas all show self-doubt. Having been encouraged to memorise which of a number of closed containers contains food, they will recheck when given the chance before making their final choice of which container to open.

This awareness stretches to appreciating the minds of others. Macaques have been shown to understand and predict what other creatures - including human beings - will do when given a particular task to perform. The tests are identical to those used to show when human children gain the ability to think about the behaviour of others.

Gorillas, as it turns out, have the capabilities of a nine-month-old human being. When they are playing games with other gorillas, they know when their playmate is losing interest and will adopt losing strategies, or encourage continued interaction, in order to keep their opponent's interest alive. As if that weren't impressive enough, they also display a sense of humour: one gorilla has been seen poking other gorillas with a stick, then looking away as if he had nothing to do with it.

All in the mind

It's not just primates that show signs of personality. Within a species, many individual animals vary in their response to what is going on around them. Salamanders, spiders, octopuses and fish all show a range of personalities from daring to timorous. Animal minds are complex enough to create characters that will affect an individual's ability to survive in a changing environment.

And that is why such research is important. As we know, environments are changing fast, and warming oceans, say, are inhabited by creatures that respond emotionally to stress. Although scientists hate to anthropomorphise, it is no longer scientifically unsound and it might offer a spur to protecting species under threat.

Our new understanding of primate intelligence should result in their sharing the same basic protections as human beings. Hearing that all animals seem to have personalities might make us less inclined to shrug our shoulders at our wanton destruction of their habitats. It's not just our pets that have feelings - timid tilapia get terrified, too.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama