Consider the pigeon. Among birds, they are distinguished by their abilities to drink water through their nostrils and to raise their babies on a diet of human trash. It might surprise you, then, to learn that a number of scientific studies have focused on pigeons’ taste in art.
This abstract work, in feces and found lamppost, really captures the satisfaction of finding a good place to perch.
To be fair, these studies aren’t aimed at divining pigeons’ preferences so that museums can better appeal to the aesthetics of critical tastemaker pigeons; the goal is to understand how animals perceive images. Pigeons are easily raised and trained, so they are a good model to look at visual processing in birds. And why use art? “Discrimination of visual arts is an extreme example of higher visual cognition” (Watanabe 2011). So there is logic to this. But it still produces papers with titles like “Van Gogh, Chagall and pigeons.”
Every day, I feed my cat small, round, hard pellets that look about as appetizing as old gravel, and she gets so excited about them. I tasted one (for you, dear readers!) and I would describe the taste as falling somewhere between the meh of cardboard and the bleh of rancid fish. Not recommended. For her part, the cat flinches if I consume an orange anywhere near her; you can tell she thinks I am disgusting for eating them. It seems pretty clear that she and I have different tastes in food. Are such differences simply matters of individual preference, or is there a biological basis for them?
As in all things, I am right and you are wrong about this.
It’s hard to know what something tastes like to someone else. My personal experience of peanut butter (disgusting) is likely to differ from yours (mmm, yum), despite our belonging to the same species. However, we can say with some certainty that both of us can taste peanut butter, and that it will not taste like lemons to either of us. Humans have five major types of taste receptors: sweet, umami, bitter, sour, and salty. Sugar is sweet, hamburgers and mushrooms are umami, coffee and India pale ales are bitter, lemons are sour, and salt is salty.
And mice are micey.
I once saw a talk by a scientist who works on jumping spiders—those colorful, fuzzy, big-eyed teddy bears of the spider world—in which the speaker paused, after discussing the spiders’ excellent vision (courtesy of their many eyes, which are of several different types and see in various ways) and their sensitivity to vibrations (which they perceive through their legs and through the many fine hairs covering their body), to wonder, “What does the world feel like to these animals? What is it like to be a jumping spider?”
What is it like to be something other than human? There is so much research touching on this question, studies asking everything from “How does a bee navigate?” to “Are rats kind?” It’s a fascinating question, and it’s incredibly difficult.
What is it like to be an octopus?