Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I

I've been working my way through this book slowly, because I haven't found it all that illuminating, though it does clear up some questions for me. Frans de Waal is a leading ethologist – a student of animal behavior – who specializes in primates. The book provides an up-to-date picture of research in animal cognition. He seems much like an old-school naturalist who prefers hands-on experience to grand theories and models, which makes him temperamentally akin to Charles Darwin, whose strength was also in close, unbiased observation. The problem I have with de Waal is that his writing style is almost chatty at times, and he inundates the reader with study after study, inserting personal anecdotes while remaining a little sketchy on the concepts. I don't know whether this is how he actually thinks or whether he has deliberately adopted the prevailing model of science journalism, which, like most current journalism, tends to turn every subject into a human interest story: the interactions with the animals, the personalities of the researchers, etc., seem to take precedence. As I've said, I would prefer a straightforward summary of the latest thinking among scientists and a concise statement of their research findings. A lot of nonfiction these days reminds me of television news coverage, in which the journalist walks toward the camera making irrelevant gestures while recounting how someone struggled against all odds and prevailed, leaving the impression that what counts is determination and the ability to overcome adversity, rather than the actual content of their ideas. Or on radio broadcasts the narration is commonly accompanied by background sounds which seem to serve no purpose other than to hold the listener's attention. Like ordinary journalists, authors of popular scientific books often seem to go out of their way to engage the reader by any means available.

Most of the points made by de Waal are so obvious to me that I don't find them particularly interesting. However, having a similar perspective myself, I find his critical references to ideology-driven science of the past instructive. For example, he says:

B.F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior. Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered. His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century. Releasing its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

De Waal also has serious disagreements with some philosophical theories, past and present. He mentions Norman Malcolm, who, interestingly, was part of the Philosophy Department at Cornell disparaged by Richard Feynman, regarding a speech titled "Thoughtless Brutes," in which Malcolm said that "the relationship between thought and language must be so close that it is really senseless to conjecture that people may not have thoughts, and also senseless to conjecture that animals may have thoughts." This concept has since been disproven by research on children which clearly shows that they are able to think before they are able to speak and by research on animals which shows their ability to evaluate situations and solve problems in an analytical manner without language. Similarly, de Waal is unimpressed by contemporary discussion of theory of mind and is skeptical about some aspects of cognitive science, which he thinks present faulty views of how thinking actually occurs in nature. Not many academics have the nerve to speak out against past academics who led their departments in the wrong direction for decades, setting back intellectual progress and, I might add, trampling the careers of those who might have done a better job.

Where de Waal shines is in his debunking of anthropocentrism and the idea that mankind is distinctly elevated above all other species in every important respect. Much of the first half of the book is devoted to explaining how other animals display reasoning not entirely unlike our own. One of his major points is that the ability to reason has evolved separately in species that aren't closely related. Not only are apes able to reason, but so are crows and other species that have learned how to use tools. This leads him to a rather important proposition: Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought. While de Waal's exposition is a little sloppy for my taste, his ideas very much support many of the positions I've taken on this blog that take us down several notches from the level of importance that we've assigned ourselves.

The one skill where de Waal thinks we differ from other animals lies in our use of language. He has not found anything comparable in other species, which instead may communicate with body language and signals. The use of advanced symbolism seems to be exclusively human, but, as he explains, other species are able to engage in rational decision-making without it. De Waal shares my distaste for the idea of human uniqueness that descends, ultimately, from religious beliefs and remains unchallenged in contemporary humanities departments everywhere. Regarding language, he cites recent research indicating that the FoxP2 gene, common to both humans and songbirds, "affects both human articulated speech and the fine motor control of birdsong." "Science increasingly views human speech and birdsong as products of convergent evolution, given that songbirds and humans share at least fifty genes specifically related to vocal learning."

De Waal cites Ayumu the chimpanzee as an example of how research showing that an animal can have human competencies arouses outrage and criticism:

Ayumu is a young male who, in 2007, put human memory to shame. Trained on a touchscreen, he can recall a series of numbers from 1 through 9 and tap them in the right order, even though the numbers appear randomly on the screen and are replaced by white squares as soon as he starts tapping. Having memorized the numbers, Ayumu touches the squares in the correct order. Reducing the amount of time the numbers flash on the screen doesn't seem to matter to Ayumu, even though humans become less accurate the shorter the time interval.... One follow-up study managed to train humans up to Ayumu's level with five numbers, but the ape remembers up to nine with 80 percent accuracy, something no human has managed so far. Taking on a British memory champion known for his ability to memorize an entire stack of cards, Ayumu emerged the "chimpion."

The distress Ayumu's photographic memory caused in the scientific community was of the same order as when, half a century ago, DNA studies revealed that humans barely differ enough from bonobos and chimpanzees to deserve their own genus. It is only for historical reasons that taxonomists have let us keep the Homo genus all to ourselves.

Sifting through the book, I'm finding a few interesting ideas and examples such as these, which I think corroborate some of my views. I'm a little more than halfway through and will make a second post when I've finished.

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