You're probably familiar with Koko, the famous gorilla who knows sign language.
Whether it's her recent comments about climate change or the various times she's adopted kittens to raise as her own, Koko is one impressive ape — and a humbling example of just how humanlike the animal kingdom can be.
Does Koko understand the detailed and complex scientific concepts behind climate change? Probably not. Was her response in a recent video on the topic encouraged, edited, and maybe even scripted? Sure.
But who cares? Koko knows more than 1,000 words in American Sign Language! She has pets that she cares for! And, oh yeah, she's completely changed the way we think about what's possible in terms of animal intelligence.
And Koko isn't the only animal to show signs of self-awareness.
Obviously we can't look into a living brain to decide if it has a higher consciousness. But we can observe from the outside whether an organism can roughly acknowledge, "Oh, maybe that other gorilla wanted that banana 'cause he was hungry, and now he's sad, and I kind of understand what that would be like."
This is generally referred to as "Theory of Mind" — the ability to recognize the self and empathize with others. When we recognize this trait in animals like Koko, it means we have some kind of demonstrative evidence these animals see themselves in others' shoes — that they can project and understand the beliefs and desires of others.
Again, just because an animal possesses Theory of Mind doesn't mean their thought processes are as highfalutin as us self-important human-types. But that's OK; there's still a lot that they can teach us — about ourselves and our brains and the world around us.
Here are five more species that act surprisingly human.
Apes in general are closely related to humans on the evolutionary ladder, but gorillas like Koko aren't the only intelligent ones. Chimpanzees tend to be the go-to subjects for studying primate consciousness and with some pretty remarkable results.
One chimp, Washoe, learned more than 350 words of American Sign Language and even taught some to her son — without any human intervention.
There was also Lucy, who was raised from birth by a human family and became well-known for her proclivity toward gin and tonics and her clever use of household appliances to aid in her — ahem — extracurricular enjoyment of Playgirl magazine. (Which sounds kind of funny until you realize what it says about psychological abuse and captivity.)
Also known plurally as "octopode" and "octopii," octopuses haven't technically been observed to demonstrate "consciousness" or self-awareness in the ways that we lowly humans usually define them. (This normally involves plopping an animal in front of a mirror to see if it recognizes its own reflection, but that's kinda hard to do with an underwater creature that doesn't see the same way we do.)
But octopuses have been known to learn through observation and use their suckers to unscrew jar lids from the inside and can solve a Rubik's Cube faster than you, so we probably just don't have the tools to comprehend their vastly superior intelligence, and we should really just bow down to our tentacled overlords and pray that they have mercy when they finally rise from the depths to destroy us.
Also they're adorable (scientifically speaking).
Although they have yet to master the art of ear-powered flight (Disney lied to us!), elephants do have the biggest brains on the planet, which is part of why they have such remarkable memories and even have the ability to distinguish between human genders and ethnicities.
On top of that, elephants have also shown a surprising knack for artistic prowess by painting with their trunks — and brushes aren't the only tools they can use, either. Granted, there has been some moral debate about the treatment of these elephant painters in captivity. But if it makes you feel any better, they've also been known to intentionally screw with humans who are trying to test their intelligence, and I always appreciate an animal that can stick it to the man.
4. Bottlenose dolphins
Fun fact: Dolphins actually have more complex brains than humans.
Perhaps this higher cognitive ability is why so many humans seek their help in dolphin-assisted therapy as well as dolphin-assisted childbirth. Sure, there's no real proof for the effectiveness of either practice — but hey, if that's your thing, go for it.
Like humans, dolphins are one of the only animal species that's known to have sex for pleasure. Well, probably; there's some question about what "sex for pleasure" entails exactly, and I already made the mistake of googling "dolphin sex" once today.
(They also have a legal right to privacy in the state of New Jersey, though I'm not sure if that says more about dolphins or New Jersey.)
Don't be fooled by their diminutive size: The brains of crows (and other birds in the corvid family) are proportional in size to those of primates. This means they're capable of complex reasoning — to the point that some researchers believe them to be as clever as the average 7-year-old human.
This could explain why crows tend to make friends with children in exchange for gifts. Unfortunately, there is no kindergarten system for corvids (that we know of), and thus, no one to teach the clever birds that stealing from other birds and hiding your own stashes of food so that others won't find it (suggesting that they understand the desires of others) is not the best moral practice.
Then again, a plurality of crows is called a "murder," which is insidious enough without them pulling the elaborate cons of human children. Did I mention they know how to create and use their own tools?
Take my advice: Don't mess with a murder.
All of these animals are capable of higher consciousness, just like us.
It's easy to project human feelings onto our pets. After all, most animals do experience basic evolutionary emotions like hunger, fear, and pain, so it's not that big of a step to imagine them understanding individual desires and complex issues.
But the animals above go much, much farther than that. And while it might seem cute and cuddly to think of other critters acting like we do, we can also learn a lot about ourselves by studying the animals who are close to catching up.
Except for octopuses, I mean. When it comes to them, all that we can really do is wait until they conquer Earth and hope we live to tell the tale. ¯\\_(ツ)_/¯