Clever Hans – do the math*

Posted June 28 2019

In 1891 Clever Hans, a magnificent black Orlov Trotter stallion went on tour throughout Germany and Europe.  Accompanied by his human “owner”, William von Osten, Hans wowed the crowds with his prowess. A prowess that saw many believing Hans could correctly stomp out the answers to verbal and written questions, many he had never encountered before, although mathematics was his speciality.  Hans’s smarts even had the stamp of approval of the German Board of Education, who in 1904 undertook an extensive investigation spaning more than a year to ensure Hans was indeed a clever horse and not a crude hoax. It was not until the sceptical Professor Oskar Pfungst, a physiologist and biologist, arrived on the scene in 1907, that the ways in which Hans was clever were truly revealed.  It transpired, and much to the surprise of Hans’s human, that Hans took his cues to deliver his perfect answers not from the task set before him, but rather his perfect perception of the subtle involuntary prompts given off by Osten. You see when Osten was not in view or did not know the correct answer, neither did Hans. Osten was often given to wearing a hat, the ever so faint hints of delight Osten gave reflected in his stance, all this was not lost on the oh so clever Hans.

Despite Hans proving Osten’s original goal of showing that animals indeed have cognitive abilities humans had not been aware of, such was Osten’s outrage at Hans’s alleged deceit, he accused the hapless animal of treachery, sending the loyal beast off to war.  A war that was to claim his life in 1916.

From a horse who originally appeared good at maths, Hans proved to be an animal who, like all animals who share similar brain structures to ours, was one very good at reading cues. All this begs the question of why so many of our species are so reluctant to accept that we are not the only ones capable to intelligence, emotions and even consciousness.

For too long humans have long been guilty of reducing animals and their behaviours to involuntary mechanics, denying them the rich emotional worlds they possess along with their ability to reason and make individual choices. 

And those, like Hans who do show keen abilities are seen as freaks not the norm.  All of this has given our kind the comfort to use animals at our will – regardless of theirs.  With an unfair advantage over animals we exploit them daily at their peril. Considering ourselves the “smartest” of animals has no basis in the face of the mass devastation, destruction, mass extinction and wanton cruelty our kind has inflicted. Things no animal species has ever come close to causing.

However, this is not a story without hope. A growing field of science is now at work, highlighting the cognitive abilities of animals.  From recognising the similar neural brain structures we share to the strong bonds animals form with their kind, we are uncovering more and more about the secret lives of beings we once thought of as so different from ourselves. And so, perhaps now the time has come to take our cue from animals and recognise they do count in ways many have not even considered – you do the math.

*recently coined slang phrase suggesting to figure something out for yourself, the answer of which is plainly simple.