Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

In the past 40 years a wide range of work both in the field and the lab has pushed the consensus away from strict behaviourism and towards that Darwin-friendly view. Progress has not been easy or quick; as the behaviourists warned, both sorts of evidence can be misleading. Laboratory tests can be rigorous, but are inevitably based on animals which may not behave as they do in the wild. Field observations can be dismissed as anecdotal. Running them for years or decades and on a large scale goes some way to guarding against that problem, but such studies are rare.

Nevertheless, most scientists now feel they can say with confidence that some animals process information and express emotions in ways that are accompanied by conscious mental experience. They agree that animals, from rats and mice to parrots and humpback whales, have complex mental capacities; that a few species have attributes once thought to be unique to people, such as the ability to give objects names and use tools; and that a handful of animals — primates, corvids (the crow family) and cetaceans (whales and dolphins) — have something close to what in humans is seen as culture, in that they develop distinctive ways of doing things which are passed down by imitation and example. No animals have all the attributes of human minds; but almost all the attributes of human minds are found in some animal or other.


Next, animals’ abilities are patchy compared with those of humans. Dogs can learn words but do not recognise their reflections. Clark’s nutcracker, a member of the crow family, buries up to 100,000 seeds in a season and remembers where it put them months later — but does not make tools, as other corvids do. These specific, focused abilities fit with some modern thinking about human minds, which sees them less as engines of pure reason that can be applied in much the same way to all aspects of life as bundles of subroutines for specific tasks. On this analysis a human mind might be a Swiss army knife, an animal mind a corkscrew or pair of tweezers.

This suggests a corollary — that there will be some dimensions in which animal minds exceed humans. Take the example of Ayumu, a young chimpanzee who lives at the Primate Research Institute of the University of Kyoto. Researchers have been teaching Ayumu a memory task in which a random pattern of numbers appears fleetingly on a touchscreen before being covered by electronic squares. Ayumu has to touch the on-screen squares in the same order as the numbers hidden beneath them. Humans get this test right most of the time if there are five numbers and 500 milliseconds or so in which to study them. With nine numbers, or less time, the human success rate declines sharply. Show Ayumu nine numbers flashed up for just 60 milliseconds and he will nonchalantly tap out the numbers in the right order with his knuckles.

There are humans with so called eidetic, or flash, memories who can do something similar — for chimps, though, this seems to be the norm. Is it an attribute that chimps have evolved since their last common ancestor with humans for some reason — or one that humans have lost over the same period of time? More deeply, how might it change what it is for a chimp to have a mind? How different is having minds in a society where everyone remembers such things? Animals might well think in ways that humans cannot yet decipher because they are too different from the ways humans think — adapted to sensory and mental realms utterly unlike that of the human, perhaps realms that have not spurred a need for language. There is, for example, no doubt that octopuses are intelligent; they are ferociously good problem solvers. But can scientists begin to imagine how an octopus might think and feel?

The inner lives of other species may be a lot richer than science once thought

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