Friday, February 22


The venerable photo-heavy magazine has a nice feature this month, "Inside Animal Minds," that pulls together a few relatively recent experiments (relatively, I said - Betty the Crow's wire-bending was six years ago, and Alex the Parrot, who started making headlines in the late '90s, has since died) that collectively show humans' notion of inherent mental superiority over animals has no apparent basis other than wishful thinking. Every intellectual process we come up with as the definitive exemplar of "this is what separates us from the animals" is eventually toppled when an appropriate experiment is devised that can truly test it scientifically.

Here's a passage that deftly illustrates many people's chauvinistic attachment to the Humans-Uber-Alles fantasy: Research by Clayton and Emery at Cambridge University

    demonstrates that some birds possess what is often considered another uniquely human skill: the ability to recall a specific past event. Scrub jays, for example, seem to know how long ago they cached a particular kind of food, and they manage to retrieve it before it spoils.

    Human cognitive psychologists call this kind of memory "episodic memory" and argue that it can exist only in a species that can mentally travel back in time. Despite Clayton's studies, some refuse to concede this ability to the jays. "Animals are stuck in time," explained Sara Shettleworth, a comparative psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, meaning that they don't distinguish among past, present, and future the way humans do. Since animals lack language, she said, they probably also lack "the extra layer of imagination and explanation" that provides the running mental narrative accompanying our actions.
We'll ignore the fact that animals' episodic memory has been proven by other experiments with other types of animals. Let's just look at Shettleworth's so-called logic: Since animals lack language, they must lack a mental narrative and therefore an ability to think back through time. The fallacies in this are profoundly risible: First, the premise, that animals lack language, is trotted out as a given, with no proof whatsoever. Yet many experiments have found animals communicating among themselves in ways that suggest languages we may not yet have decoded, and different kinds of animals have managed to bridge that gap that we've been incapable of - i.e. learning to communicate in some rudimentary form of human language. So, baldly stating that animals lack language is highly questionable at best.

After this unsound premise, the next step is an implicit assertion that since humans' mental narratives are associated with language, language must be the cause, the progenitor, of those narratives. Again, completely unproven, and on its face a classic converse error of the "Socrates is a cat" type. But still, let's go ahead, just for fun, and grant a) that animals lack language, and b) that human mental narratives are based on language.

This still in no way tells us that non-human animals' mental narratives must be based on language. In fact, if animals do indeed lack language, yet are able to show intellectual processing in all these experiments, that makes it even more likely that they would have some non-linguistic way of organizing their thoughts, and therefore their memories. Yet Shettleworth's statement of utter illogic is supposed to stand on a he-said-she-said par with actual scientific experiments proving this capability in animals. (As Clayton points out, every time a criterion for mental capability in animals is met by a scientific proof, the skeptics "move the goalposts".) There are few more poignant examples of how humans' mental superiority over animals must be true simply because we so fervently wish it to be true.

And why do we wish it to be true? Well, here National Geographic, unsurprisingly, drops the ball, staying far away from this issue, but clearly, if the supposed border between humans and animals is breached, it means we can't automatically exclude the latter from our community of beings who deserve moral consideration. And that would imply considering not just parrots and scrub jays and dolphins, but the pigs, cows and chickens we needlessly slaughter for our entertainment. This was a point made in an article of which I'm very fond from a couple years back (PDF). It lacks the beautiful pictures, yes, but in my totally unbiased opinion, gets directly to the very heart of this issue.

UPDATE 3/4: I noticed the photo of the groundhog was no longer loading and clicked through to find that National Geographic has pulled the entire story from their site, less than a week into the month for which the issue is dated. What, is the concept of animal intelligence that threatening? What gives?

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