Thursday, January 25, 2018

Animal Minds

TIME magazine recently put out a special 95-page publication called THE ANIMAL MIND, which (according to the cover) is supposed to be available on newsstands until the middle of February. Pick up a copy if you can. It includes lavish photo illustrations and eight thought-provoking articles on topics that include animal communication, whether animals grieve, whether they're capable of friendship, why people like creatures such as dogs and detest creatures such as rats, animal rights, etc. The first article is titled, "Animals Have Brains, But Do They Have Minds?" As you probably know, seventeenth-century philosopher Rene Descartes dismissed animals, even the "higher" ones, as automata without consciousness. Nowadays, few scientists would deny that many nonhuman creatures have emotions and feelings of pain and pleasure. Some animals pass the "mirror test" for self-awareness (they recognize their mirror images as themselves, not mistaking them for other animals inside or behind the glass). Some species have been shown to understand cause-and-effect and abstractions such as "same" and "different." Among birds, parrots and corvids (e.g., crows and jays) display surprising intelligence. Some animals have "culture" in the sense of passing on learned behaviors to future generations. A "theory of mind" shows up in a few animals, which display awareness that other creatures don't necessarily know the same things they know. The boundary between human and animal minds becomes more and more blurry, as abilities once believed to be unique to humanity, such as tool use, have been discovered in other species. One driver for the development of high intelligence seems to be living in social groups. It takes more cleverness to learn to cooperate with members of one's group than to lead a solitary existence. Great apes, cetaceans (whales and dolphins), and elephants stand out for their superior intellect.

The October 2017 issue of PMLA contains an article by Bryan Alkemeyer on "Remembering the Elephant: Animal Reason Before the Eighteenth Century." In classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period, the creatures assumed to be most human-like weren't usually the apes, as we take for granted now. That honor often went to elephants. Elephants were thought to have remarkable memories, mourn their dead, altruistically share food with their companions, and perform quasi-religious rituals. With elephants as an example, Michel de Montaigne, in 1580, suggested that "there is a greater difference between one man and another than between some men and some beasts." As Alkemeyer puts it, these "largely forgotten perspectives on elephants challenge the concept of the human by suggesting that the category 'rational animal' includes beings with emphatically nonhuman shapes." Contemplating the possibility of human-like reasoning in the mind of a creature with a nonhuman shape would be good practice for first contact with extraterrestrial aliens.

One feature I especially like about Diane Duane's outstanding "Young Wizards" series is the way she populates the novels with many ET characters who are definitely "people" without being at all humanoid, including a species resembling giant centipedes and an ambulatory, sapient tree—as well as nonhuman "people" right here on Earth, such as cat wizards, whale wizards, and the sapient dinosaurs (discovered in THE BOOK OF NIGHT WITH MOON) in the alternate-dimension Old Downside.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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