To the Editors:

In "A new mentality to end animal testing at Bowdoin" (October 29), Anthony Colabella suggested that Bowdoin end harmful animal research unless it "expresses a willingness to perform these same experiments on humans whose mental capacities roughly compare to those of the animals tested." My intent in writing this letter is not to refute Colabella's argument, but to highlight a popular misconception about human cognition versus "lower-order" animal cognition.

Colabella's argument is strongest in the case of primates, since it is somewhat reasonable to suppose that mentally handicapped people may have similar "mental capacities" to a monkey, due to our close evolutionary relationship. However, in the case of rats, lobsters, fruit flies and C. elegans (animals that Bowdoin's science programs actually study), this claim is tenuous at best.

From the perspective of modern neuroscience, it is highly inaccurate to suppose, as Colabella does, that intelligence is a single-dimensional phenomenon that can be scored and ranked within and between species. Rat cognition is not just a scaled down version of human cognition, since rat brains are designed to solve different kinds of problems than human brains. In cognitive tasks that involve complex olfactory cues, a stupid rat would likely outperform the most adept human.

It is clear that "rat intelligence" is qualitatively (and not just quantitatively) different from "human intelligence," and so severe mental retardation would not cause a human to have the same mental faculties as a rat.


Alex Williams '12