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Animal mind research: Replacing dogma that animals are machines with dogma that animals are fuzzy people

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Equally false.

From Rik Smits at the Scientist, commenting on ethologist Frans de Waal’s recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?:

The essential burden of science is to replace dogma, sentiment, and superstition with an as-far-as-we-now-know theory based on verifiable facts, all the while striving for objectivity. Yet, in his work, de Waal replaces one dogma—the Cartesian/behaviorist stance that animals are mere oblivious response machines—with another. Following “Charles Darwin’s well-known observation that the mental difference between humans and other animals is one of degree rather than kind,” de Waal notes that there is no fundamental difference between man and beast—not even mentally. The problem is not the idea, it is that de Waal posits this as a preordained fact to be illustrated rather than a hypothesis to be tested.

And as a preordained fact, it can be used to justify attacks on scientists who honestly recognize the limits of animal cognition:

His downright unfair treatment of researcher Herbert Terrace is a case in point. During the 1970s, Terrace managed a spectacular attempt at Columbia University to train a chimpanzee called Nim to become capable of using a form of human language. And lo and behold, Nim did indeed seem to make some progress. But long after the project ended, Terrace began to have second thoughts about the whole thing. He had the unusual courage to go back to his many piles of case notes and recordings, only to discover that nothing in Nim’s behavior actually pointed to a grasp of anything linguistic beyond recognizing and using isolated words. Reassessing his data and publishing the sobering conclusions constituted a rare case of academic integrity on par with Émile Cartailhac’s 1902 Mea Culpa d’un Sceptique, in which the then-pope of European prehistoric research publicly admitted that he had unjustly branded the discoverer of the Cro-Magnon wall paintings at Altamira a fraud 20 years before. But here is what de Waal writes: “Terrace found Nim a boring conversationalist.”

None of the apes that were trained to become lingual would ever initiate anything like a conversation. Their utterances typically served to secure an immediate reward, usually food or attention—Nim for one, often begged to be tickled. Once a project was over, not one ape continued to use its acquired abilities spontaneously. This raises serious doubts as to whether what we see is actually more than rote learning, tricks we teach the animals to perform by bribing them with food and attention. More.

de Waal refused to comment on the article. In the world of naturalism, where humans are not special, merely stating such a view is all the defense that is needed, whether it makes any sense or not.

See also: Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds


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