Is free will unique to humans?
We are far from unique in our ability to control our emotions. Chimps, monkeys, parrots, pet dogs – and perhaps many other creatures – can, too.
Are we superior in our ability to control our urges, or can other creatures make rational choices, too?
Even if no one knows exactly what free will is, most of us would agree that if free will exists at all it is limited to just our species. We are proud enough to capitalise free will, saying that only we can set our impulses aside. We can override our emotions, whereas all other animals are the slaves of their emotions and instincts.
Yet, obviously, all animals make choices. They decide between approach and avoidance, choose which prey to single out from the flock, opt where to build their nest, and so on. They often hesitate, or abandon a course of action. A young male chimpanzee who’d love to mate with a female may hang around her, hoping for an opportunity. But when the alpha male looks his way, he will sneak off, knowing it’s not going to work.
Even more striking are the occasions when a high-ranking male comes around the corner and catches the young male spreading his legs to present his erection to the female – his not-so-subtle courtship signal. Upon seeing the high-ranking male, the young male quickly drops his hands over his penis, concealing it from view, well aware that he would be in trouble if the other male so much as suspects what is going on. All this requires insight into what others know, as well as the capacity to suppress or override one’s urges and show restraint.
We are getting close here to the way free will was defined by American philosopher Harry Frankfurt. He defined a ‘person’ as someone who doesn’t just follow his desires but is fully aware of them to the point that he may wish them to be different. As soon as an individual considers the “desirability of his desires”, he or she possesses free will, Frankfurt asserted.
To test this idea, all we need to do is subject animals to a situation in which they would like to satisfy one desire but are also given a chance to refrain from action so as to satisfy another. Do animals ever abandon their first desire? They must be capable of doing so, because an animal that would give in to every impulse would constantly run into trouble. Migrating wildebeest in the Maasai Mara hesitate for a long time before jumping into the river they seek to cross. Juvenile monkeys wait until their playmate’s mother has moved out of view before starting a fight. Your cat snatches meat from your kitchen counter only after you have turned your back.
Animals are keenly aware of the consequences of their behaviour, and often inhibit their first impulse to arrive at a smarter course of action.
One great test of restraint, routinely applied to human children, is the marshmallow test. Most of us have seen the hilarious videos of children sitting alone behind a table desperately trying not to eat a marshmallow – secretly
licking it, taking tiny bites from it, or looking the other way to avoid temptation. The children have been promised a second marshmallow if they leave the first one alone while the experimenter is away. The marshmallow test measures how much weight children assign to the future, relative to instant gratification.
What do apes do when subjected to similar circumstances? In one study, a chimpanzee patiently stares at a container into which a sweet falls every 30 seconds. He knows he can disconnect the container at any moment to swallow its contents,
but he also knows this will halt the sweetie flow. The longer he waits, the more sweets will collect in his bowl. Apes do about as well as children in this regard, delaying gratification for up to 18 minutes.
But what about, say, birds? Do they need any self-restraint at all? Many birds pick up food that they could swallow themselves, yet carry it to their hungry young instead. In some species, males feed their mates during courtship while going hungry themselves. Again, self-control is key.
Irene Pepperberg, who studies animal cognition, conducted many famous experiments on her African grey parrot, Alex, over a 30-year period. After he died in 2007, she continued the research with another African grey, Griffin. When she tested the parrot on a delayed gratification task, he managed long waiting times. As he sat on his little perch, a cup with a less preferred food, such as cereal, was placed in front of him, while he was asked to wait. Griffin knew that if he waited long enough, he might get cashew nuts or even sweets. He was successful 90 per cent of the time, enduring delays of up to 15 minutes.
The critical question in relation to Frankfurt’s definition of free will is whether animals understand that they are fighting temptation. Are they aware of their own desire? When children avoid looking at the marshmallow or cover their eyes with their hands, we assume they feel the temptation. They talk to themselves, sing, invent games using their hands and feet, and even fall asleep so they don’t have to endure the terribly long wait.
The father of American psychology, William James, long ago proposed “will” and “ego strength” as the basis of self-control. This is how the behaviour of children in the marshmallow test is typically interpreted, because they use conscious strategies to distract themselves from their predicament.
The same may apply to apes. In the test with the falling sweets, for example, apes hold out significantly longer if they have toys to play with. Focusing on the toys helps to take their mind off the sweet machine. That they do so intentionally is indicated by the fact that they manipulate the toys a lot more during sweet tests than otherwise.
Griffin the parrot, too, actively tried to block out the inferior food in front of him. About one-third of the way through one of his longest waits, he simply threw the cup with cereal across the room. On other occasions, he moved the cup just out of reach, talked to himself, preened himself, shook his feathers, yawned extensively, or fell asleep. He also sometimes licked the treat, shouting “Wanna nut!”
This is one of the misunderstandings about animal emotions. Not only do we think they have only few simple ones – a view for which there is absolutely no evidence – but we also believe that animals surely must be the slaves of their emotions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Take the case of a mother chimp whose infant is picked up by a well-meaning
female adolescent. This is a daily scenario, as young females are irresistibly drawn to babies and always want to hold and cuddle them. Unfortunately, they are also clumsy. The mother knows this and will follow the adolescent, whimpering and begging, trying to get her offspring back. The adolescent keeps evading her, however. The mother suppresses an all-out pursuit for fear that the kidnapper will escape into a tree and endanger her precious baby. For the same reason, she cannot simply grab her baby. Imagine two females, each pulling at a limb, stretching a screaming infant between them. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s a most disturbing sight.
So, the mother needs to stay calm and collected. She may even act as if she’s hardly interested, sitting nearby with a casual air, munching on a few leaves, just to show that she poses no threat.
Once the infant is safely back atop her belly, however, everything changes. I have seen such a mother turn on the adolescent, chasing her over long distances with furious barks and screams, releasing all her pent-up fury. The whole sequence gives the impression that the mother held her worry and irritation in check for the sake of a safe outcome. There are lots more examples of selfrestraint. Anyone who has a large and a small dog at home can see it in action when they play together. Animals just can’t afford to blindly run after their impulses. Their emotional reactions go through an appraisal of the situation and the available options. This is why they all have self-control.
Furthermore, in order to avoid conflict and punishment, the members of a group need to adjust their desires, or at least their behaviour, to the will of those around them. Compromise is the name of the game. Given the long history of social life on Earth, these adjustments are deeply ingrained and apply equally to humans and other social animals. So even though, personally, I am not a big believer in free will for our own species, we do need to pay attention to the way cognition overrides inner urges. Humans don’t seem very different from other species in this regard.
My tentative conclusion is that if we humans did evolve free will, it is unlikely that we were the first ones.
In some bird species, males feed their mates while going hungry themselves. Self-control is key.
Do wildebeest consider their actions? Is it all hard-wired instinct or does free will form a part of their behaviour?
Above: chimps, and other primates, often have to show restraint around youngsters, whose boisterous antics may lead to annoyance and frustration in the adults.