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Crows better than chimps at making tools?
August 9, 2002 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Crows better than chimps at making tools? British scientists were reportedly "astonished" when a captive crow named Betty "spontaneously bent a straight piece of wire and used it to retrieve a snack." But another scientist says crows have been seen making two kinds of hook tools in the wild, although he's not sure we should say they have "insight." It's clear that there are lots of different kinds of animal intelligences, so why are humans so surprised when dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors, chimps demonstrate culture and lions engage in social problem-solving? What explains the reluctance to admit that animal "consciousness" exists?
posted by mediareport (72 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
We eat them. We develop their habitats and drive them out. We keep them in cages for our children to gawk at. An acceptance of animal "consciousness" in one form or another would have a profound impact on the way we view our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom. Most people have too much invested, both economically and emotionally, in the way things are now, so blind themselves to indications that they may be wrong.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:40 AM on August 9, 2002


Funny how people are perfectly willing to recognize consciousness and "human-like" behaviour in their dogs and cats, but won't see it in species they don't live with.
posted by transient at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2002 [1 favorite]


Do people in general deny animal consciousness? Not in my experience. I have no idea what the two previous posters are going on about. Looks like arm-chair psychology for a problem I'm not even seeing.

From what I can tell it looks like the researchers are just playing it safe and being cautious before making any theories or assumptions. From the article:
"It is tempting to say that the bird used some kind of insight to access and solve the problem of extracting the food, as humans often do in their toolmaking," he told BBC News Online.

"However, we need to carry out more experiments to see if this was the case."
I see no big anti-animal consciousness conspiracy here, just a researcher making sure he isn't dealing purely with instinct.
posted by skallas at 7:56 AM on August 9, 2002


If dolphins are so smart, how come they live in igloos?
posted by adampsyche at 8:01 AM on August 9, 2002


Because if they didn't, they'd freeze to death. It's cold up there.
posted by Fabulon7 at 8:06 AM on August 9, 2002


To monju_bosatsu's excellent analysis I would add that part of the insulative process is that anthropomorphization paradigm which basically states that you are ignorant to believe animals have human-like characteristics.
posted by Mack Twain at 8:14 AM on August 9, 2002


Pigeons have been known to recognise humans and letters of alphabet
Bert would be so proud.
posted by KnitWit at 8:15 AM on August 9, 2002


"Humans rule! Dolphins can suck it. Suck it good, Dolphin!".

where is the UCB when you need them? ; )
posted by stifford at 8:17 AM on August 9, 2002


Alex, the talking parrot mentioned at the end of the article, is a freaking genius. You can read about him here.
posted by Samsonov14 at 8:17 AM on August 9, 2002


Here at Univ. of Wash. in Seattle, where crows abound on campus, a professor of mine claimed he watched a crow in the trees, hopping from branch to branch, waiting for just the perfect moment to drop a twig on an unsuspecting person walking below. And yes, the twig hit its target.
posted by josephtate at 8:22 AM on August 9, 2002


Most people have too much invested, both economically and emotionally, in the way things are now, so blind themselves to indications that they may be wrong.

Nicely put.

And yes, skallas, I think it's fair to ask what accounts for the consistent tone of surprise at news stories like this. It's not conspiracy-mongering to note that there's little justification for scientists to start from the assumption that animal consciousness is beneath ours instead of just different from ours. At this stage of the game, the fact that a zoologist could be "astonished" at a bird fashioning a wire hook is itself pretty astonishing.

I guess that's what's so hilarious to me. We start from the completely unsupported assumption that animals don't have the smarts to use tools, then constantly move the goalpost when shown otherwise. Otters use rocks to smash oysters? Well, they didn't *make* the tools, see. Crows make hooks? Well, we're not sure they're exhibiting *insight,* you see. Blah, blah, blah...

Having built on almost certainly incorrect assumptions about the emptiness inside animal skulls, we're then surprised when confronted over and over with evidence that animals might just be "aware" in ways similar to those we think make us so special. How many more stories like this will we need to put a stake in the heart of our species-ist assumptions about how dumb the rest of the animal kingdom is?
posted by mediareport at 8:23 AM on August 9, 2002


What explains the reluctance to admit that animal "consciousness" exists?

Because it's a kooky assumption by animal-rights activists founded in feel-good rhetoric rather than scientific evaluation. Hey - who knows - maybe research like this will give us new found respect for crows? But until then don't jump the gun and spill your load over some very early research.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not some beef eating, PETA hating goon. I eat as little meat as possible and I love animals. Zoos make me sad - in fact I was relieved when PETA almost single handedly prevented a dolphin tanking exhibit from being built in VA Beach, VA last year.

But I just don't buy into this whole "animals are people too" BS. Animals shouldn't be abused or explioted - but at the end of the day they are still instinct driven extensions of nature and evolution.
posted by wfrgms at 8:26 AM on August 9, 2002


Do people in general deny animal consciousness? Not in my experience.

I think if people recognised animals are capable of feeling distress in similar ways to humans they wouldn't be so willing to buy factory-farmed meat.
posted by Summer at 8:28 AM on August 9, 2002


it's a kooky assumption by animal-rights activists founded in feel-good rhetoric rather than scientific evaluation.

You know, we can have this conversation without deriding each other. FWIW, wfrgms, there are plenty of sharp minds in the philosophy of science who make a compelling case that "kooky assumption founded in feel-good rhetoric rather than scientific evaluation" is a perfect description of the notion of *human* consciousness.

at the end of the day they are still instinct driven extensions of nature and evolution.

And we aren't because...?
posted by mediareport at 8:34 AM on August 9, 2002


I wish I could get my cats to learn the relatively simple behavior of poking at their feeder to dislodge more kitty chow from the hopper.
posted by alumshubby at 8:40 AM on August 9, 2002


media: I think it's fair to ask what accounts for the consistent tone of surprise at news stories like this.

It doesn't come off sounding that surprising. We're not talking Nobel award here. What is surprising is that an non-primate is doing well in the brains department. That is surprising because of the assumption that non-human primates are probably the smartest animals around. If people in general thought of all animals as automatons then there would be no surprise, its the fact that we have an animal intelligence heirarchy that makes this story extraordinary. If birds are found to be sharper than primates so what? Pencil meet eraser.

media: How many more stories like this will we need to put a stake in the heart of our species-ist assumptions about how dumb the rest of the animal kingdom is?

Perhaps the 'we' here is just you and what you're projecting out? Sorry media, but the animal world is dumb. The question which fuels these news reports is who is the least dumb.
posted by skallas at 8:41 AM on August 9, 2002


Sorry media, but the animal world is dumb.

"Dumb" defined how?
posted by mediareport at 8:45 AM on August 9, 2002


Man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much... the wheel, New York, wars, and so on, whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely the dolphins believed themselves to be more intelligent than man for precisely the same reasons.
- Douglas Adams
posted by Locke at 8:45 AM on August 9, 2002


For anyone who is interested, here is the original article the news reports are based on.
posted by TedW at 8:49 AM on August 9, 2002


I blame the christian church. If you allow that animals may share some mental characteristics with people, you do great harm to the notion that people are created directly by god in his image and are therefore not the edge of animal evolution. The church had the world believing that the earth was flat and animals were just ignorant beasts at one point, well, the earth isn't flat so maybe...... And before I get yelled at, this is a theory based on residual effects of a time when the church was more closed minded and more powerful, I'm not suggesting that the Pope is going to make a proclamation against smart crows tomorrow.
posted by Mushkelley at 8:50 AM on August 9, 2002


Scientists have observed Portia spiders displaying unexpected levels of intelligence, like learning how to mimic their prey through trial and error and how to take detours. Not bad for an arachnid with a brain the size of a pinhead.

Anyway, just because an animal doesn't demonstrate intelligent behavior when observed by scientists, doesn't mean that the animal isn't intelligent.
posted by given2fli at 8:51 AM on August 9, 2002


at the end of the day they are still instinct driven extensions of nature and evolution.

And we aren't because...?


We are. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It's not conspiracy-mongering to note that there's little justification for scientists to start from the assumption that animal consciousness is beneath ours instead of just different from ours.

No, it's just mistaken. The simplistic nature of non-human neurology is justification enough for an assumption (barring reason to believe otherwise) that animal consciousness is "lower" than that of humans. That we outperform the abilities in question to such a degree is further justification.

Of course, this all hinges on how you choose to define consciousness, an unfortunately nebulous word without a distinct definition. We would do better to question whether certain animals have certain, specific abilities, rather than focusing on such an overarching term. It isn't that we continue to move the goalposts on the arrival of new data; we don't have goalposts to begin with. None of which is to say that humans don't have powerful desires to keep themselves separate from nature, but the "reluctance to admit that animal 'consciousness' exists" (which you delightfully assume exists) is driven by far more than simple-minded human ignorance.
posted by apostasy at 8:55 AM on August 9, 2002


Based on the fact that a group of crows is a "murder," I think we should be very VERY afraid.
posted by The Michael The at 8:59 AM on August 9, 2002


I wish I could get my cats to learn the relatively simple behavior of poking at their feeder to dislodge more kitty chow from the hopper.

Let me put you in touch with one of my parents' cats, who has learned to do exactly that. He's also extremely good with opening shutters and various kinds of doors, if they need tutoring in such skills as well ;)

More seriously: I think "consciousness" is often considered identical in these discussions to the ability to be self-reflective. But how on earth would you measure that, exactly? (I mean, it's hard enough to tell with humans.) From a long stint of cat-watching, for example, it's possible to draw certain conclusions about a cat's reasoning abilities: a) they can plan ahead; b) they can understand at least basic cause-and-effect relationships; c) they develop individual preferences; etc., etc., etc. But you can't really examine a cat's, er, philosophical thought processes.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:32 AM on August 9, 2002


Maybe the really hard thing to accept is not that animals are just as intelligent or conscious as we are, but that the vast majority of our behavior actually doesn't require any intelligence or consciousness at all.
posted by fuzz at 9:38 AM on August 9, 2002


mediareport - "dumb" defined as no great works of art that those of us with sentience can recognize. No great literature, no culture, no architecture, etc. Also:

"dumb; adj. dumb·er, dumb·est

Lacking the power of speech. Used of animals and inanimate objects. "

And yes - I am a species-ist. I see no reason not to be, and no downfall in it. My species rules this biosphere, for now. We should do the best we can by the other species we share the biosphere with, but we are, in fact, superiour to them.

As much as I like the corvidae family, until one can carry on a functional conversation with me, they're dumb.
posted by Irontom at 9:43 AM on August 9, 2002


Of course, this all hinges on how you choose to define consciousness, an unfortunately nebulous word without a distinct definition.

Yes. And really it hinges on whether or not consciousness, however defined, is even part of the criteria. I' prefer a sentience (sp?) based method of establishing an animal heirarchy. In other words, is [animal] self-aware? capable of empathy? cognizant of its mortality? These qualities may exist in degrees in higher primates and, possibly dolphins, but I have never heard a case for birds or other non-mammals.
posted by plaino at 9:43 AM on August 9, 2002


In the tradition of the rabbit and the emu, I fully expect to see a proliferation of crow posts today. Here, I'll start.
posted by phantroll at 9:51 AM on August 9, 2002


"An acceptance of animal "consciousness" in one form or another would have a profound impact on the way we view our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom."

Speak for yourself.

I very seriously doubt that most people would give it a second thought if they found out that the cows they'd been eating were capable of conscious problem solving. I grew up on a farm. I can assure you that most animals are capable of not only conscious problem solving, but recognizable emotions. I have no trouble eating them.

I also majored in biology for a while in college. The anthropomorphization BS always amused me. Biologists will jump through many hoops to deny what all non-indoctrinated folks know - Animals think and feel. I suspect that everyone knew this before biologists came along to tell us we're all idiots to think that animals have consciousness.

Most people do not care if cows can think. I know I don't, and I've lived very closely with them from wobbly calf to sizzling steak.
posted by y6y6y6 at 9:51 AM on August 9, 2002


that does it. i'm voting for this guy for president.
posted by quonsar at 9:56 AM on August 9, 2002


Monkeys use millipede secretions to fuel ecstasy orgies

"They bite the millipedes, then reach behind their back and rub it on their fur," said Evans, who added that the behavior is natural but rarely seen. "Their eyes glaze over and they're completely focused on what they're doing."

Last week, one monkey shared a millipede with four family members and the entire family turned into a "writhing mass."

"Could it be we have stumbled upon an ancient primate form of hallucinogens?" Hoffman said. "Who knows?"


Animals. They're so fucking dumb.
posted by mediareport at 9:57 AM on August 9, 2002


plaino: Yes, though you can immediately run into the same problem with the term "sentience", which I would usually use in the same way you do, as a measure of self-consciousness, but which this would use to measure what it calls Phenomenal Consciousness (qualia, awareness of sensation, etc). So sentience is better, but perhaps still too ambiguous a term.

In agreement with y6^3, people probably overestimate the consciousness of animals as much as underestimate, and more evidence of it is more of a quirky news story than an earthshattering discovery. It would seem more likely that we would view our relationship w/ animals in a profoundly different way if we acknowledged the existence and the relevance of their suffering, but I suspect I'm wrong on that point.
posted by apostasy at 10:08 AM on August 9, 2002


For a very interesting read, check out this book by this guy. Here's a summation (link has more historical and otherwise info): "Singer argued specifically against factory farming and animal experimentation, and urged that, where there are nutritionally adequate alternatives to eating meat, the pleasures of our palate cannot outweigh the suffering inflicted on animals by the standard procedures of commercial farming; hence vegetarianism is the only ethically acceptable diet. On animal experimentation, Singer urged that, in considering whether a given experiment is justifiable, we ask ourselves whether we would be prepared to perform it on an orphaned human being at a mental level similar to that of the proposed animal subject. Only if the answer was affirmative could we claim that our readiness to use the animal was not based on a speciesist prejudice against giving the interests of non-human animals a similar weight to the interests of members of our own species."

At very least, his ideas are philosophically sound, provided you accept his utilitarian premises, which can be very convincing if you don't dismiss them offhand (see also this excellent book, Living High and Letting Die by Peter Unger). For more Peter Singer fun, read this very very interesting article from Nerve.
posted by The Michael The at 10:22 AM on August 9, 2002


Singer and Unger also address the sentience issues, btw.
posted by The Michael The at 10:23 AM on August 9, 2002


"if we acknowledged the existence and the relevance of their suffering"

I've shot cows I raised in the head. It's very sad. I'm sure there was suffering. But then you cut it up and eat it, and that's a good thing.

I often think that people who have such a problem with the ethics of eating animals are just out of touch with nature. If they'd had to spend more time with animals, if they'd raised their own food, they wouldn't have this hang up about animal suffering. It's all a cycle. We hunt or raise animals (thoughts and all) and then eat them. When I die, critters will eat me.

It disgusts me a bit to drive past feedlots, but I have no doubt that's part of the cycle as well. In 10,000 years humans will have killed themselves off somehow, and then cows can go back to roaming free. In the meantime they'll live in conditions we'd find very vile.

But having spend lots of time with cows, I can assure you they don't care. Whatever consciousness they might have, it doesn't extend to sensibilities about sunny pastures.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:32 AM on August 9, 2002


I wish I could get my cats to learn the relatively simple behavior of poking at their feeder to dislodge more kitty chow from the hopper.

Why bother? By not learning this behavior, your cat has trained you to do it, and that's a better exhibit of animal intelligence than any thus given thus far. *chuckle*
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:37 AM on August 9, 2002


There's a grace-of-God argument to be made against the cow = human vegetable proposition. A good sharp blow to the head, and hello, you're a lab animal. However, while turning people into actual mooing cows by means of blows to the head is something I've been working on for many months now, I've yet to succeed.
posted by furiousthought at 10:40 AM on August 9, 2002


I seem to live out long stretches of my life without much use of my higher mental facilities (this post not withstanding), so I'm not too surprised when animals make use of tools or exhibit a form of intelligence. I suspect that braininess is not that special. In fact, it may be mostly mechanical, as advances in AI seem to suggest.
posted by TskTsk at 10:40 AM on August 9, 2002


y6y6y6: I've shot cows I raised in the head. Hehehe. Toliet humor :)
posted by TskTsk at 10:44 AM on August 9, 2002


I'm not surprised at animal intellect at all. It's just a belief I hold, similar to my belief that our planet isn't the only inhabited one in the universe. I think it would be narrow-minded to think that some species of animals don't have a wide range of emotions and intellectual thought processes.

I love this statement about chimp culture:

In West Africa, a chimp will remove a tick from the fur of a friend, place the bug on its forearm, and crush it with a jab of the forefinger. But at Gombe, Tanzania, the parasite will be placed on a leaf before being squashed.

Now I can truly challenge the next intimidating pedant I meet who claims to be vast in his cultural tastes and know-how. :-P
posted by Modem Ovary at 10:44 AM on August 9, 2002


and to add more fuel to the fire- there's this book which also argues about animal intelligence and suggests a sliding scale of legal actions for animals depending on their intelligence (that's scientifically-observed-under-laboratory-conditions intelligence as opposed to the smarts they exhibit in the wild).
posted by rodz at 10:53 AM on August 9, 2002


[long reply]

skallas: the fact that we have an animal intelligence heirarchy

Sorry, skallas. The very *notion* of an "animal intelligence heirarchy" runs counter to what we know about how natural selection works. Here's Stephen Jay Gould's take on evolutionary heirarchies that put humans at the top:

The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush - a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again.

The point applicable here is that multiple kinds of intelligence and awareness arise in different situations and *cannot be judged* against one another in a simple vertical heirarchy that puts the oh-so-complex folds of the human cortex at the top (this is Gould's famous "bushes v. ladders" argument).

apostasy: The simplistic nature of non-human neurology is justification enough for an assumption (barring reason to believe otherwise) that animal consciousness is "lower" than that of humans.

That's simply not the case, which is why you need those scare quotes in there. Given what we now know about defining "higher" and "lower" in evolution, as well as our modern understanding of ecological interconnectedness and the variety of emergent properties in the natural world, the burden has now clearly shifted to those who insist on the assumption that human consciousness is somehow of a "higher" order. Also, the common assumption that there's a clear line separating human consciousness from animal consciousness is not the one that best fits the available evidence. Where else do we see that kind of clear line in nature? Certainly not between animals and plants. Or even between life and non-life.

It makes much more sense to start with the assumption that there's a continuum of many different animal consciousnesses built on widely varying sense organs and nervous systems, whose "success" can only be measured according to the relation between the animal and its environment. The idea that we can somehow rank these in a heirarchy is, from a scientific standpoint, the idea with by far the least supporting evidence in this discussion.

That we outperform the abilities in question to such a degree is further justification.

What does bat consciousness feel like, apostasy? Do we outperform them in echolocation? Wouldn't that ability in question lead to a very different kind of awareness that's impossible to rank as "higher" or "lower" than our own?
posted by mediareport at 10:54 AM on August 9, 2002


y6y6y6: Quite. And I didn't mean for my statement to imply that humans should acknowledge the existence...etc., only that that would be more likely to change our interactions, and even then probably not a lot.

I often think that people who have such a problem with the ethics of eating animals are just out of touch with nature.

There's the rub. In many ways, one's stance on animal suffering, whether it is patently immoral or acceptable or various points in between, depends on how much weight they give to the natural cycles of nature and such. If I accept it, then those behaviors that fit themselves neatly into nature are morally acceptable, even if unpleasant. Much of nature is, itself, unpleasant. As such, it does seem, at the least, odd that we would call natural behavior wrong. Certainly a wolf consuming a rabbit isn't immoral.

But since the question is a moral one, I'm not sure the naturalistic defense is enough. The mere fact that we are concerned with questions of morality sets us apart from nature, and in many ways morality is an attempt to constrain those parts of nature that don't stand up to moral scrutiny. And if we can make an argument that a certain act is immoral, is it's position in the "natural order of things" even relevant? Natural behavior is normally consider amoral because it isn't engaged in by moral agents, but humans get stuck with reason and the rules of the game change. Perhaps.

I'm generally with Singer, that, at least in theory, unnecessarily causing suffering is an immoral act, but the question is by no means settled.
posted by apostasy at 10:56 AM on August 9, 2002


As much as I like the corvidae family, until one can carry on a functional conversation with me, they're dumb.

To follow the logic of previous posts, how do you know dolphins don't have their own mode of communication? Are humans "dumb" because we don't understand dolphins?

It is presumptious to assume an understanding of an animal's mind. I once had a dog who could sense when I was hurt. If I came home from work with bruises under my shirt, she would immediately lick them -- even though she couldn't see them. Do animals have senses humans lack? We don't know, plain and simple.
posted by argybarple at 11:08 AM on August 9, 2002


Of course animals can think and feel and communicate.
What non-human animals cannot do, but we can, is talk: use language. Language is radically different from other communication systems, in that it allows for a far greater degree of abstraction, symbolization, and self-reflexivity.
There's a good discussion in Stephen Budiansky's If A Lion Could Talk.
posted by Rebis at 11:09 AM on August 9, 2002


The mere fact that we are concerned with questions of morality sets us apart from nature

Evidence that animals aren't concerned with morality, please?

Re legal rights: I'm guessing robots will push the legal issue before ape rights get much traction. But once the robots announce they have the same legal rights that we do (they'll have read enough Malcolm X to know you don't ask, you take), rights for some animals will probably follow.

[This prediction brought to you by the Grain O' Salt Predicting Company.]
posted by mediareport at 11:10 AM on August 9, 2002


That's simply not the case, which is why you need those scare quotes in there.

I needed the scare quotes because "lower" is a nearly meaningless term that was nonetheless useful for brevity.

And you're mistaking two separate intents of the higher/lower distinctions. Your assertion that humans are in no way "more impressive" or "better evolved" or just plain "the best", evolutionarily speaking, is correct. But this doesn't stop us from arguing that a human brain is a more complex instrument than a crow brain, with the corresponding assumption that our experiences are richer than the crows. No value judgement necessary. Questions of whether the emergent properties of an ant colony are "higher' or "lower" than a human are a separate (and fascinating) issue.

Also, the common assumption that there's a clear line separating human consciousness from animal consciousness is not the one that best fits the available evidence.

All the more reason not to use the term "consciousness" and to stick with mental phenomena that we have an outside chance of actually defining.

Not ranking consciousness' on some sort of hierarchy is a fine idea, in that it's a purely theoretical exercise until you define what exactly you're ranking. I have no problem with the assertion that the dolphin's consciousness is just as good as mine, since both of our's were evolved for their own purposes. If you then argue that millipede suffering is equivalent to human, I'd take issue with it.

What does bat consciousness feel like, apostasy?

You'd have to ask Nagel.
posted by apostasy at 11:12 AM on August 9, 2002


Evidence that animals aren't concerned with morality, please?

Blatant assumption. Which, given the dearth of evidence on this point, is the best we can do.
posted by apostasy at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2002


"And if we can make an argument that a certain act is immoral, is it's position in the "natural order of things" even relevant?"

An interesting assertion. Excellent.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:16 AM on August 9, 2002


Evidence that animals aren't concerned with morality, please?


Evidence that they are, please?
posted by Irontom at 11:21 AM on August 9, 2002


argybarple - please note that my criteria was functional conversation with me, not amongst themselves.
posted by Irontom at 11:23 AM on August 9, 2002


Blatant assumption. Which, given the dearth of evidence on this point, is the best we can do.

That's not very scientific. The real "best we can do" is not make completely unnecessary assumptions. At least the assumption that the speed of light was a constant got us somewhere, if only for a while. Where exactly does your assumption that animals have none of this undefined thing you called "morality" get us? What useful theories does it produce? It's not needed. It's unsupported. It's ridiculously vague. Get rid of it.

But this doesn't stop us from arguing that a human brain is a more complex instrument than a crow brain, with the corresponding assumption that our experiences are richer than the crows. No value judgement necessary.

"Richer" isn't a value judgement? Be sure to answer *after* you get back from using your wings to surf a few invisible wind currents. Re-read Gould's piece; he specifically singles out "complexification" as one of the things to be careful of valorizing.

p.s. Thanks to Summer for including the original crow link in a now-deleted thread (and would someone please post that monkey-millipede-ecstasy link from yesterday's Miami Herald to the front page? Do it for those who can't).
posted by mediareport at 11:34 AM on August 9, 2002


argybarple - please note that my criteria was functional conversation with me, not amongst themselves.

Maybe Chinese people are dumb as well then.
posted by Summer at 11:40 AM on August 9, 2002


Evidence that animals aren't concerned with morality, please?

Evidence that they are, please?


I never said they are, Irontom. I'm just wondering how apostasy can be so certain they're not.
posted by mediareport at 11:48 AM on August 9, 2002


Rebis: What non-human animals cannot do, but we can, is talk: use language.

The last link in the original post deals with the language issue in-depth. One place to start is with the discussion of Descartes' take on parrots:

[M]any would argue that Pepperberg's study of the African Grey parrot...should lay the Cartesian prejudice to rest. This study...would seem to undermine Descartes' assertions about lack of conversational language use and general reasoning abilities in animals. Cartesians respond by pointing out the limitations shown by animals in such studies (they can't play a good game of chess, after all), and they join linguists in protesting that the subjects of animal-language studies have not fully mastered the recursive syntax of natural human languages. But this kind of post hoc raising of the bar suggests to many scientists that the Cartesian position is not being held as a scientific hypothesis, but as a dogma to be defended by any means.

They go after the pro-consciousness side with equal vigor. It's a really good introduction.
posted by mediareport at 12:10 PM on August 9, 2002


That's not very scientific.

That's not very nice.

Where exactly does your assumption that animals have none of this undefined thing you called "morality" get us?

My assumption should be reworded a bit. Non-humans are, to the best of our knowledge, not moral agents, do not reason in accordance with ethical principles, and do not take part in the human endeavor known as morality. It's certainly possible that some of the Great Apes, perhaps dolphins, take part in some crude ethical reasoning, but I've seen precious little to support this. So, if you like, I assume animals aren't concerned with morality because I've no reason to believe they are.

What good is this assumption? I'm not sure this assumption even needs a utility, it's a conclusive assumption from what is known, and it's an admittedly speculative one that should be updated at every turn. That said, my response to y6y6y6 would've been considerably more difficult if I didn't assume nature in general is amoral. In judging the relevance of natural acts to moral reasoning, it's useful to make my best guess on the question of whether non-human animals reason ethically or not. But, if you like, feel free to remain agnostic on the issue.

"Richer" isn't a value judgement?

Nope. Simplistic assumption that a more complex nervous system will create a more complex mental experience. Again, poor word choice, but, again, brevity (which I have a hard enough time with as it is). Depending on the questions asked, this can mean quite a lot, or nothing at all. And I do, as before, agree with Gould.

I'm just wondering how apostasy can be so certain they're not.

Certainty? Surely you jest. This is ALL conjecture. Questions of other minds are inherently speculation, and no one should proclaim certainty, only best guesses.
posted by apostasy at 12:28 PM on August 9, 2002


I've always assumed, just by observation, that animals have intelligence, conciousness and a sense of identity. From there, it was a very short leap to become a vegetarian. I've been a vegetarian for 10 years now, and I can honestly say I don't miss eating meat one bit.

On the other hand, the mice that are infesting my house are another matter altogether. The "humane" traps didn't work, so I'm slightly ashamed to admit that not only did I have to resort to the traditional "neck-snapper" trap, I rejoiced when I bagged my first one! Does that make me a hypocrite?
posted by salmacis at 12:42 PM on August 9, 2002


Well that does it. Crow is officially off the menu...ain't eating anymore crow...lol.
posted by BruceLee_Archdiocese at 12:51 PM on August 9, 2002


argybarple, I have no doubt your dog could smell your bruises as these days dogs are being trained to sniff-out cancers.

Now, if only I could get my own dog to stop sniffing-out the food inside tin cans.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:14 PM on August 9, 2002


Gravy: I have no doubt your dog could smell your bruises as these days dogs are being trained to sniff-out cancers.

I am perhaps interpreting her behavior one way, while you interpret it another. In the end, a person's interpretation of animal behavior and the animal mind (dare I say the word "soul"?) says nothing scientifically concrete about that animal. Rather, it provides more clues to the nature of the person, or to the nature of Humanity itself.
posted by argybarple at 1:33 PM on August 9, 2002


"I rejoiced when I bagged my first one! Does that make me a hypocrite?"

Absolutely not! Excellent hunting. I suggest braising them in a hot oven using rich stock. Sauteing or grilling only makes them tougher. And be sure to skin and clean them as soon as they stop twitching. Aging the meat is good, but aging the innards is very bad.
posted by y6y6y6 at 1:51 PM on August 9, 2002


The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny...

Gould, i think, is trying to counter the general opinion that humans are the top of evolution, and that evolution is some linear path that would have created life [intelligent in the way humans are] given any starting condition. i don't think he is talking about intelligence so much.

I think what Gould means is that to think humans are the end, or the pinnacle of evolution is to completely misunderstand evolution. the "goal" of evolution is not to achieve intelligence, or awareness, but reproductive success. intelligence is one of those variables that evolution may alter in order to achieve more reproductive success, along with metabolic type, height, suitable-environment etc. Humans may have the best problem-solving capabilities, but what is important, and what i think Gould is saying, is that it's important not to think problem-solving abilities are what matter. If we think that's the "goal" then we end up with a skewed view of life, with ourselves on top. Some bacteria may think they are the pinnacle of evolution because they are the best as metabolizing methane.
posted by rhyax at 2:12 PM on August 9, 2002


That's not very nice.

Well, as debate jabs go, it's no sharper than the first one you threw my way. But ok, you pulled Thomas Nagel out of your ass when I mentioned bat consciousness, so I admit I should've been sweeter. Bravo. ;) For those who don't know, Nagel wrote one of the seminal papers in the field back in 1974. It's about 5 pages long and pretty readable.

All the more reason not to use the term "consciousness"

You've mentioned this a couple of times, apostasy, going so far as to call it a "nebulous word without a distinct definition." I assume, then, there's something you don't like about Nagel's formulation:

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon...But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience *at all* means, basically, that there is something it is like to *be* that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism -- something it is like *for* the organism [emphasis added].

That fits as well as any.

Simplistic assumption that a more complex nervous system will create a more complex mental experience.

This simplistic assumption, of course, is exactly what I'm calling into question. Who has a "richer" mental experience -- a bat, a dolphin, an eagle or an ape like us? No one here can even begin to answer that. To me, the properly cautious (read: scientific) assumption is that the nervous systems are often so stunningly different that it's fruitless to try to draw conclusions about the relative richness of two different animals' "mental experiences" until we have much better tools for measuring that sort of thing. And good luck creating some.
posted by mediareport at 3:51 PM on August 9, 2002


i don't think [Gould] is talking about intelligence so much.

Thanks for clarifying that, rhyax. I did try to note that I was extrapolating a bit, using the bushes/ladders analogy to go after the unsupported claims of a heirarchy of animal intelligence. I think it's a fair point.
posted by mediareport at 3:57 PM on August 9, 2002


yea, i guess i was a little vague too, i think he is talking about intelligence in as much as he's saying that's not what people should be looking at when making their fake hierarchies. which is kinda what you've said already.
posted by rhyax at 5:37 PM on August 9, 2002


Oh yeah? Well, if crows are so smart, how come they taste so good??
posted by hama7 at 6:58 PM on August 9, 2002


I think you're upset because no one's ever told you that you taste good.
posted by emyd at 9:20 PM on August 9, 2002


Much good has gone before. My only contribution to this thread: Philip K. Dick's first published short story, the sly Beyond Lies the Wub. (Love that title.) A captain finds piglike animals after landing his rocketship, and though the crew find them affectionate, decides to use them as food. Surprise: the wubs are intelligent and telepathic. The one brought aboard, coolly apprising the intent, attempts a cajoling discussion with the captain about questions of consciousness and free will. The captain quickly grows annoyed, and orders the wub grilled up. The plates come out, and having experienced the wub as an intelligent being, the crew are aghast and cannot eat. The captain scoffs, and finishes his plate. Setting down his utensils, he engages the crew's attention: Now, as I was saying ....

I meant to post this in the cannibalism thread, but I couldn't recall the title.
posted by dhartung at 1:01 AM on August 10, 2002


Well, actually i have been told that.

Hachachachacha... got a million of 'em
posted by hama7 at 5:40 AM on August 10, 2002


My desperately belated (Vegas induced) response:

I assume, then, there's something you don't like about Nagel's formulation:

Nagel's formulation is fine for it's purposes, and I think it frames the question well, but for my purposes it suffers from two problems. The first is that it doesn't lend itself well to investigation. Many mental phenomena can be investigated to greater or lesser degrees, and I think it would be a more fruitful search to break down the concept into smaller elements such as self-awareness and qualia (and further, if and when possible) rather than deal with consciousness in it's entirety. Nagel's definition is fine when one is trying to find a description of what consciousness actually is, but doesn't extend well to questions such as ours where judgements are being made on various consciousness'. Of course, many would say that this is inherent in the nature of consciousness, that it by it's very nature resists this kind of categorization and analysis, but I fall more into the reductionist camp (not surprising, given the faculty includes these two) and am more optimistic on science's chances of unraveling it.

The second problem is simpler, and more important, and that is the fact that consciousness, as it is used in conversation, is the nebulous term I described, and that unless we're at a philosophy dinner party, we probably shouldn't assume we're all using Nagel's def.

Now, to the meat (or, as it were, fungus-based meat substitute) of the issue. I'd given some thought, as various blackjacks spoiled and made my day, as to why I agree with nearly everything you say and still find myself disagreeing with your conclusions. It seems that much of the problem here is that most of my thinking on this issue has to do with the morality of the treatment of animals, and the bearing our understanding of their consciousness has on our moral reasoning. In this context, assumptions on the nature of animal consciousness (or lack thereof), in situations where our understanding is limited (and might never be sufficient), are quite often necessary. While in a purely scientific situation, I would accept that your position is the prudent one to take, that we should refrain from making assumptions without sufficient evidence and necessity, the situation with animal rights/morality is one in which we don't have the necessity of waiting; a decision on the issue is necessary before we act. So, in a situation where, say, we're trying to judge the morality of animal testing in medical situations, not only the existence but the nature of animal suffering can be vital information. If my view on the issue is in some way utilitarian, the testing may very well be moral, but only insofar as the suffering of the animals is less (both quantitatively and qualitatively) than the suffering that is avoided by the tests. None of which is to imply any particular answer to the moral quandary of animal testing (or any other quandary), but only to point out that making assumptions on the quality of animal experience when making moral judgements is sometimes a necessity.

So, in light of our discussion, the very basic assumption that a more complex nervous system will create a more complex conscious experience is, I think, a justifiable one (but one that can be easily abused depending on how this assumption is applied). Your argument that this assumption is scientifically unnecessary and that we should refrain from judgement is also a sound one, and an important bulwark against unnecessarily extending my simple assumption. However, once the question ceases to be a purely scientific one and becomes one of application (to morality, for example) it often becomes necessary to make assumptions of this nature that otherwise we would be better off not making. Science has the luxury of remaining agnostic on matters until a decision is merited, but in morality, quite often agnosticism is not an option, and a decision must be made now, regardless of the quality of the information at hand. We make the best decision we can with the best information at hand, understanding that it's a bad decision, but accepting that we have no choice.

I hope this clears up some of the debate, which I felt had been as much of us arguing past each other as with (which I think is more my doing than yours). Cheers for a lively discussion.

(I'd apologize for the enormity of this post, if I thought anyone would end up reading it };>)
posted by apostasy at 1:54 PM on August 12, 2002


i realize that this is an essentially dead link, but my girlfriend freaked out when she saw this article; she's hoping now maybe people would take notice of the hypocrisies and atrocities surrounding the american crow, begging me to post some information on them. There is a small, yet determined movement advocating that people stop hunting crows. (Most of the sites information is "Down" now, hopefully it will be back soon) (crow advocacy mailing list) Many people fail to see the unpleasant irony of hunting one of, if not the smartest native american birds.

Not only can you hunt them, but most states have no bag limit per license. They have been supposedly protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act since the 1970's, yet the number of crows shot is not monitored. Additionally, people can obtain "nuisance" licenses to hunt them outside of their 124 day hunting period, and farmers can hunt them without a license if the crows commit, or "are about to" commit depredation on crops (okay, how do you determine what a crow, or any animal, for that matter, is about to do? Never mind that "raiding" crows are often times not raiding a crop, but looking for insects that may be feeding on the crops.)

Its been argued that they have their own language and at the very least, they have a large vocabulary. My girlfriend noticed when she was visiting Washington State the crows there had a different sounding call than in the midwest - In the west they seamed to CAH where here they CAW. The sited article, while exciting is not too surprising. There have been other studies showing these birds exceed the intelligence most people would attribute to animals other than apes and dolphins.

Some of these people are also advocating keeping native corvids as pets. Crows and Ravens are often sited as being as or more intelligent that parrots. However, the common man can not obtain a permit to keep a crow as a pet or otherwise. As far as i can find, this is the only family of birds protected by the MBTA that can be hunted but can not be kept in captivity. (in most other cases, if you can hunt it, you can get a game bird license.)

Sorry about the length of the post, i just felt that this thread diserved a bit more crow-centric information.
posted by quin at 1:23 PM on August 13, 2002 [2 favorites]


Apostasy: "The mere fact that we are concerned with questions of morality sets us apart from nature"

Mediareport: "Evidence that animals aren't concerned with morality, please?

I'm still working on how a concern with morality sets us apart from nature.

The claim that it does almost seems to assume a divine origin for morality. But is morality not an evolutionary characteristic of human animals?

Even assuming morality is a uniquely human feature, how does it set us apart from "nature" any more than other uniquely human features do?
posted by jcrohn at 8:16 PM on August 14, 2002


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