Minding the Animals
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Dr. Steven Best
August 2008

The basic facts have come home at last. We are not the only conscious creatures on earth. Bernard Baars, cognitive psychologist

Koko the gorilla has a sign vocabulary of 500 words and does internet chats. Alex the parrot knows the names of over 100 different objects, 7 colors, and 5 shapes; he can count objects up to 6 and speaks in meaningful sentences. Michael the gorilla loved Pavarotti and refused to go outside when he was on TV. Hoku the dolphin grieved when his companion, Kiko, died. Flint the chimp died of a broken heart after the death of his mother, Flo.

While this account of the emotional and intellectual richness of animals may touch the layperson, it offends the hard-nose scientist. From the scientific perspective, it is nonsense to speak of animal emotions and minds, since they can't be observed or measured. It is anthropomorphic to ascribe human-like characteristics to animals. It is unscientific to name them as if they were people. And such stories at best are merely anecdotal.

Beginning in the seventeenth century, modern science constructed a mechanistic paradigm which views animals as automata or machines. From Descartes to sociobiology and behaviorism in the present, the modern tradition cast animals in the role of brutes or machines who can neither feel nor think. Students trained in this paradigm quickly learn to avoid reference to the subjective life of animals unless they desire ridicule. Under the spell of behaviorism, scientists redescribe the love a chimpanzee might experience as "attachment formation," the anger of an elephant as "aggression exhibition," and the aptitude of a bird as a "conditioned reflex." Journals typically refuse to publish papers that allude to animal thoughts or emotions. Jane Goodall reports how extreme the mechanistic outlook can be: "The first paper I wrote for `Nature,' the scientific periodical, they actually crossed out where I put `he and she and who,' and put `it.'"

Today, this situation is changing decisively as science undertakes an exciting paradigm shift that embraces the study of animal emotions and minds. Until the last few decades, human beings have languished in the Paleolithic Era of their knowledge about animals. As evident in a spate of recent books and the new discipline of "cognitive ethology" that studies animal intelligence, science finally is beginning to fathom the depth of animal complexity. Only in the 1960, for instance, when Jane Goodall went to Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Africa, did human beings learn that chimpanzees make and use tools. Not until 1983 did researchers discover that elephants communicate with ultrasound. New studies suggest that rats dream when they sleep and that the great apes have "self-awareness neurons" responsible for self-consciousness.

Having misled us for so long about animals, science is initiating a revolution in our understanding. Through evolutionary theory, genetics, neurophysiology, and experimental procedures, many scientists are providing strong evidence that animals feel and think in ways akin to us. The changes began with Charles Darwin. His theory of natural selection informed us that human beings are in fact animals and, as such, they evolve according to the same evolutionary dynamics as nonhuman animals. Darwin argued that the difference between nonhuman and human animals was one of degree, not form. Although evolution became the dominant paradigm in biology, scientists failed to appreciate the implications of his argument for evolutionary continuity. While Darwin sketched our similarities with animals in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, scientists found his argument repugnant. In a profession that knows no limits to the cruelty it inflicts on animals, mechanism has proved to be a most convenient worldview, allowing animal experimenters to sleep at night.

TToday we know that human DNA is over 98% identical to chimpanzees and that they are closer to us genetically than to orangutans. Mammals possess a limbic system and neocortex, the same functions that enable human beings to experience emotions and have abstract thoughts. The brain structures of humans and chimps are almost identical. All mammals possess oxytocin, a hormone involved in the experience of pleasure during sex and that plays a key role in mother-infant bonding. If the emotions and thoughts of human beings have a chemical and physiological basis, and animals have a similar make-up, it is likely they too feel complex emotions like love and can think in creative ways.

In Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Franz de Waal argues that "the great apes" (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas) laid the foundation for many human behavioral and familial dynamics. Both he and Jane Goodall conclude that chimpanzee societies demand complex social skills far beyond that allowed by behaviorism. Their world is governed not only by instincts and chemicals, but also through rules and norms. Like us, they live in a culture of shared communication and learning that is passed down from generation to generation.

Donald Griffin's work in Animal Thinking (1984) and Animal Minds (1992) dealt powerful blows to the behaviorist tradition of John Watson and B.F. Skinner. Considered to be the father of cognitive ethology, and famous for discovering bats use echolocation to map their terrain, Griffin took seriously the notion that animals can think and made compelling arguments to that effect. Since Griffin's work, a rich scientific literature has been assembled proving the sophistication and flexibility of animal minds. Through countless instances of observation and experimentation, a solid case for animal intelligence has been established that is changing not only our view of animals, but ourselves.

Given the tools of American Sign Language and lexigram symbols, great apes are communicating to human beings and one another their needs, desires, and thoughts. Dolphins understand and follow simple commands like "Put the ball in the hoop." In a famous experiment, birds who also are tool makers and users have solved the problem of how to eat food dangling from a line by looping the string and holding it with their feet. Beavers exhibit great flexibility in building their dams and solve problems posed to them on a case-by-case basis. Various tests with mirrors and hidden objects suggest that chimpanzees and bonobos might have self-consciousness and awareness of other minds. Thousands of experiments in the field and laboratory have demonstrated that animals such as prairie dogs, squirrels, and even chickens convey not only emotion but also information in their complexly differentiated alarm cries for the presence of predators. Recent studies suggest birds, primates, and whales may use a grammar-like structure in their communication.

GGeorge Page's book Inside the Animal Mind cites experiments where adult chimps use analogical reasoning better than children and some adults. One researcher found cases where pigeons performed better on categorization tests than his own undergraduates. In his book Wild Minds, Marc Hauser adopts the stance of a "healthy skeptic" toward many claims about animal emotions and intelligence. From an evolutionary perspective, he argues that all animal brains have to cope with similar problems, and therefore each species has its own special "mental toolkits" for processing information about objects, number, and space. Variations lead to differences among species, with homo sapiens evolving toward an unprecedented complexity. Still, he concludes, "We share the planet with thinking animals ... Although the human mind leaves a characteristically different imprint on the planet, we are certainly not alone in this process."

In a review of Griffin's Animal Thinking, E. A. Wasserman concluded, "No statement concerning consciousness in animals is open to verification and experimentation." This is simply false, for the ethological literature abounds with examples of ingenious experiments which have been designed to test the emotional sensitivities and intelligence of animals. Hauser's book in particular discusses experimental designs where hypotheses about animal emotions and minds are confirmed, refuted, or left uncertain.

Clearly, results can be interpreted in different ways, and staunch defenders of behaviorism remain unconvinced. In 1984, C. Lloyd Morgan formulated the "law of parsimony," a variation on Ockham's razor, which states that one should not appeal to a "higher" function intelligence) of organisms when a "lower" function (instinct) will adequately explain a behavior. Behaviorists used his principle in an aggressively reductionistic manner, subsuming all behaviors to crude instincts and learning mechanisms. But Morgan himself admitted animal intelligence exists and his principle establishes just the opposite. When confronted by the overwhelming evidence of animal intelligence, the lower functions do not explain the behaviors; rather, they make sense only through reference to higher level principles. In other words, the simplest explanation, the one not saddled with ad hoc qualifications, is an appeal to the flexible and thinking qualities of animal minds.

BBelieving animals to be devoid of feeling and thought is an interesting case of projection, for all along it has been scientists who lack these characteristics, burdened by irrational prejudices and ill-equipped to understand human similarities and differences with animals. In Rattling the Cage, Wise shows that animal intelligence varies according to the degree researchers nurture it with proper social environments. It should be no surprise that Professor Herbert Terrace, who concluded chimpanzees only mimic their trainers and don't sign creatively on their own, confined them in a stultifying laboratory setting.

Acknowledging only one model of intelligence and communication that of homo sapiens scientists have argued since animals don't speak or reason like we do, they don't have minds at all. In expecting animals to satisfy human criteria of language and intelligence, scientists have, after all, succumbed to the dreaded sin of anthropomorphism. But anthropomorphism need not be a scientific sin. Clearly we don't want to project onto animals characteristics they don't have. But if there are core commonalities between nonhuman and human animals, what Griffin calls "critical anthropomorphism" is our best access to understanding animals, and "objective detachment" will block insight every time.

The argument of cognitive ethology is not that animal emotions and consciousness are as complex as ours, but that they exist in remarkably rich forms. Human beings are unique in the degree to which they possess intelligence; no other species, to my knowledge, has written sonnets or sonatas, solved algebraic equations, or meditated on the structure of the universe. But humans are not unique in their possession of a neocortex; of complex emotions like love, loneliness, empathy, and shame; of sophisticated languages, behaviors, and communities; and perhaps even of aesthetic and moral sensibilities.

The paradigm shift from seeing animals as objects of a scientific gaze instead of subjects of their own lives has important implications. The genetic, behavioral, and emotional continuities between humans and great apes, for example, is the philosophical basis of "The Great Ape" project co-founded by Peter Singer, which aims to establish our kinship with, and secure basic rights for, our biological relatives. Similarly, scientific findings about animal intelligence are crucial to the legal rights for animals movement as described by Harvard law professor Steven Wise in Rattling the Cage.

Feeling the winds of change from science, philosophy, and law, it seems that American culture itself is in the midst of a paradigm shift. As we learn to appreciate the complexity of animals and the deep continuities between their world and ours, we begin to respect them more and accord them the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" they so richly deserve. Every oppressed group has fought for its liberation; now it's the animals' turn. Since they can't speak for themselves, their liberation demands our own liberation from the long-standing tradition of human biases toward other species. As we grant animals minds, we begin to free our own.

Steven Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Texas, El Paso. For more articles, visit his website http://www.drsetevebest.org

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