Animal minds

As G.K. Chesterton said, man is the only wild animal

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Common sense comes in for a bit of support in “Still Red in Tooth and Claw” (The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2011), on animal morality:

Though stories of seemingly altruistic animals tug at the heartstrings, humans are nature’s sole moralists.Nothing tugs at the anthropomorphic heartstrings, though, more strongly than accounts of compassion or altruism in the animal world. A spate of books by authors such as Steven M. Wise, Jeffrey Masson, Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff and Frans de Waal accordingly offer up examples of animals acting not just intelligently but virtuously. Dolphins lovingly tend sick comrades, elephants grieve over the death of relatives, and apes stage daring rescues of people, injured birds or other beings in distress. In the last category, virtually certain to make an appearance is Binti, a gorilla at a zoo outside of Chicago who became a “bona fide hero” (according to newspaper accounts) by saving a 3-year-old boy who had fallen into the gorilla

Fine, but it turns out that not only are we the only moralists, we are also the only fabulists:

In Binti’s case, the gorilla did not (as her keepers have repeatedly pointed out, in vain) “rescue” the boy at all: He was in no immediate danger, and the other gorillas were quickly shooed out of the pen by zookeepers wielding high-pressure fire hoses. Moreover, it turns out that, prior to this incident, Binti had been systematically trained to carry a doll and bring it to her keepers. This was done because many zoo-reared gorillas fail to develop normal maternal instincts; the zookeepers wanted to be sure that her impending newborn would receive immediate care. Binti’s feat was the equivalent of a dog playing fetch, and she might well have reacted very differently, even aggressively, had the boy not been knocked senseless by his fall.

The general problem, it seems to me, is that for anything like morality, one needs first theories of mind and reality, to identify situations where an exercise in morality may be called for (“That dog looks as though he is neglected,”) and second, principles of judgment, (“I should really speak to someone about it”). It is usually accompanied by a struggle (free will), as in “But I could be seen as a busybody, so …” That is, it must be possible not to do what one perceives to be moral. However simple it appears, morality requires some pretty complex mental abilities.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

One Reply to “As G.K. Chesterton said, man is the only wild animal

  1. 1
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Denyse,

    Thank you for drawing readers’ attention to the excellent article in The Wall Street Journal by Stephen Budiansky. Readers may view it here: http://online.wsj.com/article/.....01578.html . I have the highest regard for Budiansky, and I learned a lot from his books about animal minds while doing my research for my Ph.D.

    Here’s another good quote from Budiansky’s article, re human exceptionalism:

    And Mr. Peterson simply ignores several decades worth of recent studies in cognitive science by researchers such as David Povinelli, Bruce Hood, Michael Tomasello and Elisabetta Visalberghi, which have elucidated very real differences between human and nonhuman minds in the realm of conceptual reasoning, particularly with respect to what has been termed “theory of mind.” This is the uniquely human ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to perceive that other minds exist and that they can hold ideas and beliefs different from one’s own. While human and animal minds share a broadly similar ability to learn from experience, formulate intentions and store memories, careful experiments have repeatedly come up empty when attempting to establish the existence of a theory of mind in nonhumans.

    In fact, even highly intelligent species such as chimpanzees make jaw-dropping mistakes in this department. Chimpanzees in research colonies, for example, readily learn to beg for food from people by stretching out their hands or pointing to a box containing food. Yet they will make exactly the same gestures to a person whose eyes are covered with their hands or a blindfold – or even a person who has a bucket over his head.

    The difference between humans and other animals is not just one of degree. It’s about time that John and Jane Doe learned the truth.

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