Biology and You

You and the “other” Animals

Can horses really do math?

Mr. Ed was “the talking horse” and a star of a television show in the 1960s. When he appeared to talk, the horse was actually responding to cues from his trainer. Movement of a small rope running from his halter through his mouth and held by the trainer off camera would cause Ed to move his lips as if he were speaking. In the real world, so far birds (like with most animal training, teaching a parrot or cockatoo to talk involves a combination of repetition and reward), dogs, cats, and even an elephant have been reported to mimic human speech. Not to be outdone, the current trend is, of course, Internet driven: people showing YouTube videos of animals “talking” to their owners—but in reality, it just sounds as if they are saying human words … if you stretch your imagination.

At the end of the nineteenth century, a performing horse in Germany known as Clever (or Kluge) Hans was able to tap out the answers to mathematical problems written on a chalkboard. Hans would use his right forefoot to indicate the single digits (0–9) and his left forefoot for the tens place (10, 20, 30, etc.). His amazing performances continued for a number of years until the German comparative biologist and psychologist Oskar Pfungst (1874–1932) was able to show that Hans was simply counting until his questioner indicated (subconsciously) that Hans had reached the correct sum. Even though the horse was not actually performing calculations, his ability to observe and respond to subtle changes in human behavior is still quite noteworthy.


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