Thursday, September 26, 2019

Animal Minds

I recently read two books by ethologist Frans de Waal, ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE? and MAMA'S LAST HUG, respectively about animal cognition and emotion. ("Ethology" means the study of animal behavior.) They're very lively as well as informative, drawing upon a lot of the author's personal experiences. De Waal makes a sharp distinction between emotions and feelings. He defines feelings as internal mental phenomena we can’t know unless the individual describes them to us. Emotions, on the other hand, are observable in the form of biological changes that can be described and measured. Through unbiased observation of nonhuman animals, he maintains, we can't avoid noticing that they have emotions similar to ours. Therefore, it's not a stretch to believe they have inner lives and consciousness analogous to ours. If we assume certain reactions by our human peers mean those people are experiencing the same internal states we experience when we react that way, it's at least a reasonable provisional hypothesis that the same assumption can be applied to other creatures. We're often reluctant to make that assumption because it challenges the idea of human uniqueness.

Part of ARE WE SMART ENOUGH TO KNOW HOW SMART ANIMALS ARE? surveys the history of the study of animal intelligence. During the reign of behaviorism, the majority of scientists took it for granted that learning occurred the same way in all organisms, so nothing was lost by restricting most experimentation to easy-to-handle subjects, e.g. rats and pigeons. Why bother with difficult animals such as primates if there was no essential difference in the workings of their brains? Ethologists nowadays recognize that animal learning and cognition is inextricably linked to the particular species' methods of perceiving the world and interacting with other animals. There is also an increased willingness to accept that animals have desires, intentions, and goals, that they remember past events (not just in a rote learning, stimulus-response way), modify their behavior on the basis of those memories, and plan for the future. Parrots don't "parrot," for example; they use the words they know in appropriate contexts. Some of them demonstrate counting ability and recognition of numbers. Visually oriented species, including some birds, recognize faces as readily as we do.

De Waal objects to the preoccupation with comparing animal cognition to human capacities, as if nature conformed to the old model of a "Great Chain of Being," a linear ladder of species with us at the top. He considers it more realistic and productive to study each species as important and interesting in its own right, with its own techniques for dealing with its environment and other creatures. Why try to measure another species' intelligence by investigating how closely it corresponds to ours, when that other species experiences the world through biology and social structures different from ours? As he puts it, he emphasizes "evolutionary continuity" rather than the "traditional dualisms." The useful comparison isn't between human and animal intelligence, but "between one animal species—ours—and a vast array of others." Most scientists in the past thought only a few nonhuman animals had self-consciousness, on the basis of the "mirror test" (whether they show evidence of recognizing their own reflections as themselves). Quite a few other species have been admitted to the club now that researchers have realized it doesn't make sense to test such diverse creatures as elephants, dogs, birds, and dolphins in the same way as primates. "Theory of mind"—the awareness of what others know or don't know (useful in trying to hide food from others who might want to take it, for instance)—has been demonstrated in a wide variety of animals, some of which catch on quicker than human toddlers. Ethologists have also discovered that many behaviors previously attributed solely to "instinct" depend on experience, learning, and planning.

In MAMA'S LAST HUG, De Waal explores animal (especially primate) politics and society, whether any emotions are unique to Homo sapiens, empathy and sympathy, animals' sense of fairness, and the questions of free will and the meaning of "sentience."

It's fascinating to read about the many different creatures whose intelligence, emotional life, and social skills far exceed what previous generations of scientists believed possible. The octopus, for example, probably the most intelligent vertebrate, has "brains" in each of its tentacles, so that a severed arm can continue to move on its own for a while and even seek food. Contemplating the "vast array" of creatures on Earth is a great resource for inventing extraterrestrial beings who are more than humanoids in special-effects makeup. If we met aliens on an extra-solar planet, how would we judge whether they were intelligent in the same sense we are? If aliens landed here, would they realize we're intelligent, or would they view our cities the way we regard termite mounds and beehives?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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