Animal minds Intelligent Design

Why doesn’t anyone confront researchers about made-up claims about animal cognition?

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From Jeannie Kever at University of Houston:

Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, argues in an article published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research that a wide range of animal species exhibit so-called “executive control” when it comes to making decisions, consciously considering their goals and ways to satisfy those goals before acting.

He acknowledges that language is required for some sophisticated forms of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. But bolstered by a review of previously published research, Buckner concludes that a wide variety of animals – elephants, chimpanzees, ravens and lions, among others – engage in rational decision-making.

“These data suggest that not only do some animals have a subjective take on the suitability of the option they are evaluating for their goal, they possess a subjective, internal signal regarding their confidence in this take that can be deployed to select amongst different options,” he wrote. More.

Pity Jeannie Kever, having to write up this nonsense. If animals thought rationally, they would consciously know the abstractions that always elude them: death, hope, justice…  We’d notice that they did. We wouldn’t be doing casuistical tests or offering casuistical arguments. Or offering anecdotes or moralizing.

Sometimes, when comforting a friend on the death of a beloved pet, one needs to say, “But he didn’t know that he was dying or that death comes to us all. Or anything really, except that he was in pain and he hoped you could help. The mercy is that, by his very nature that is all he can understand.”

The “coffee-table edition” set has its own reasons, one gathers, for wanting to keep all the nonsense around abstract thought in animals going. Sad, because animal cognition is really interesting if we try to understand them on their own terms and don’t need to pretend that we is them and they is us.

People are entitled to believe, if they insist, that humans are not special. But surely it is time to start making clear that most of the resulting claims are  not science and also don’t help animals.

Note: This post is dedicated to Harry (2012-2017), a feline who lived life in overdrive until his life suddenly failed last Wednesday morning. And to the canine companion (2006-2017) of a close friend, “Faithful she began, faithful she remains.”

See also: Claim: Whales and dolphins have rich ‘human-like’ cultures and societies

Intelligence tests are unfair to apes

and

What can we hope to learn about animal minds?

3 Replies to “Why doesn’t anyone confront researchers about made-up claims about animal cognition?

  1. 1
    vmahuna says:

    I think you should watch a week of “Big Cat Diary”, a wildlife show filmed in Africa showing the daily life of lions, leopards, cheetahs, and their prey. It’s quite obvious that sometimes a cat chooses to chase a prey animal and sometimes not. There are also obvious instances where during a chase the cat decides that the odds of catching the prey are too low, and the cat simply stops. The parallels to a human hunter are striking.

    The other striking thing about seeing different kinds of predators and prey in the same grassland environment is that color and patterns obviously have NOTHING to do with camouflage. Lions are desert (or “dry grass”) tan with, for no obvious reason, white bellies. (Some birds and fish have white bellies because, like modern combat aircraft, lighter colors help them blend into the sky when viewed from BELOW. Obviously NOTHING is viewing the underside of a lioness while she crawls to her launch point.) Leopards and cheetahs have different patterns of spots, on yellow, not tan, backgrounds. And of course the prey animals, in exactly the same environment, have markings that seem only to differentiate species. Black and white stripes make zebras stand out, and wildebeest are solid black, which is perhaps the worst possible color to “hide” in endless fields of grass.

  2. 2
    News says:

    vmahuna at 1, big cats’ accomplishments are striking but they are not evidence of abstract thought. Fortunately, few argue that they are. Improbable claims tend to get made about macaques and chimpanzees because the wish is very much father to the finding.

  3. 3
    Bob O'H says:

    If animals thought rationally, they would consciously know the abstractions that always elude them: death, hope, justice… We’d notice that they did.

    I don’t see this – how would we notice?

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