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Animal Minds: In Search of the Minimal Self


Editor’s note: Find the full “Animal Minds” series to date here.

Animal Minds 1221.jpegNew Scientist suggested, as one of its big ideas for 2015, that the ability of humans to talk to animals would transform what it means to be human. Actually, it wouldn’t. But the ability of animals to understand what humans are saying would transform what it means to be an animal.

In a 2009 issue of Nature, Johan J. Bolhuis and Clive D. L. Wynne asked a key question: Can evolution explain how minds work? They identified serious flaws in the studies of animal minds. One of them is interpreting animal behavior as if it were human behavior (anthropomorphism):

For instance, capuchin monkeys were thought to have a sense of fairness because they reject a slice of cucumber if they see another monkey in an adjacent cage, performing the same task, rewarded with a more-sought-after grape. Researchers interpreted a monkey’s refusal to eat the cucumber as evidence of “inequity aversion” prompted by seeing another monkey being more generously rewarded. Yet, closer analysis has revealed that a monkey will still refuse cucumber when a grape is placed in a nearby empty cage. This suggests that the monkeys simply reject lesser rewards when better ones are available. Such findings have cast doubt on the straightforward application of Darwinism to cognition. Some have even called Darwin’s idea of continuity of mind a mistake.

It is a mistake. Continuities can be merely apparent, not actual.

Consider, for example, the laptop computer vs. the typewriter. Both feature the QWERTYUIOP keyboard. That might suggest a physical continuity between the two machines. The story would run thus: Computer developers added more and more parts to the typewriter, and subtracted some, until they had transformed the typewrter into a laptop.

But of course, they didn’t. They adapted a widely recognized keyboard layout to an entirely new type of machine. Continuities are created by history, not laws. If we don’t know the history, we don’t know whether a similarity reflects continuity or not.

Bolhuis and Wynne continue, “In other words, evolutionary convergence may be more important than common descent in accounting for similar cognitive outcomes in different animal groups.”

Indeed. There is no specific type of brain uniquely associated with intelligent behavior in animals (other than humans). There is, however, convergence in intelligent behavior among vertebrates (crows) and invertebrates (octopuses).

Yet most invertebrate species do not stand out in intelligence. That fact should receive more attention than it does. The nature and origin of intelligence may be quite different from what researchers have supposed.

We have tentatively identified some patterns. Metabolism and anatomy may play a larger role than earlier suspected. For example, reptiles can show intelligent behavior when their metabolism permits, as can invertebrates with sophisticated appendages, such as octopuses and squid.

It is even worth asking whether individual animals demonstrate more intelligence if they live with humans. For one thing, they may live much longer and in more complex environments.

Some might protest that when humans eliminate the lethal razor of natural selection, “daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest,” we cause animals to become less intelligent.

But is intelligence highly selected in nature? As engineers know all too well, new solutions to any problem are accompanied by numerous failures. The “smart crow” and “smart primate” tests, for example, are devised by humans who systematically reward the animals for carefully designed feats of intelligence, but do not destroy them for failure. Blind nature rewards and penalizes more haphazardly than that.

Then there is the fact that intelligent animals often do not learn from each other. In some intelligent bird species, one bird can solve a problem but others do not learn the solution by copying that bird, even if it is obviously in their evolutionary interests to do so. Thus the species does not develop a body of knowledge. As each clever bird dies, all gains are wiped out. There is no vast history of solved problems, as there is in human civilization, for even the cleverest bird to build on.

Bolthuis and Wynne offer a sober prediction:

As long as researchers focus on identifying human-like behaviour in other animals, the job of classifying the cognition of different species will be forever tied up in thickets of arbitrary nomenclature that will not advance our understanding of the mechanisms of cognition. For comparative psychology to progress, we must study animal and human minds empirically, without na�ve evolutionary presuppositions.

They’re right, and here is a useful illustration of the problem: A recent article on the role of epigenetics in the mating chances of male fish refers to their social status. I questioned the use of the term “social status” in relation to the behavior of fish, and was promptly informed by a knowledgeable fish hobbyist that “All biologists understand what is meant by this.”

If so, that’s a problem. “Social status” is a term developed by human beings to describe a conscious experience among humans. But animals may not experience their “social status” in the same way we do. A bee may be fed “royal jelly,” and become a queen — but is she conscious of her status? Are the bees that tend her conscious of it? The insect mind may not even work in a way that enables such an understanding.

So where in this spectrum, ranging from merciful oblivion through acutely painful knowledge, do male fish fighting over mates fit? Do they experience the conflict as “selves”? We simply don’t know, and that fact should inspire caution in our choice of terminology. Careless words can subvert careful questions.

Philosopher Vincent Torley, who wrote his thesis on animal mind, agrees respecting the bees, noting, “A neural representation of each individual’s ranking within a group does not require its possessor to have the highly abstract notion of ‘social status.’ Indeed, a representation of a ranking would not require consciousness at all.”

And to think that among human beings, a sense of social status is so finely honed that it can depend on concepts as abstract and immaterial as the numbers in a “Hollywood” or “power” zip code…

So What Sorts of Consciousness Might Animals Have?

Philosopher Thomas Nagel is famous for asking the question, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974). He meant that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism.” If so, the bat experiences events, as opposed to merely being one of them.

Is the bat a “self”? A “self” is more than the mere drive to continue existing that distinguishes all life from non-life. Self must also be more than sentience (an earthworm’s reaction to light, for example, need not be conscious). It implies the existence of not-self in a complex environment. It does not, however, imply immortality or a capacity for abstract thought.

Perhaps the simplest way of putting it would be that a dog not only wants something, but he knows what he wants and whether he has gotten it — and may learn various skills along the way for getting it again, and intentionally remember them. We could call this intentionality.

Vincent Torley’s thesis is titled, “The Anatomy of a Minimal Mind.” I prefer to use the term “minimal self” for individual animal intelligence. As a layperson, I find it easier to understand; it does not raise so many complex questions as “mind.”

For example, Middle Dog resents his position in a household because he wants to be Top Dog. I find his canine mind generally opaque. However, I can see that he consciously experiences his resentment, even if it might lack reason, moral sentiment, or empathy. And Middle Dog will know if he succeeds in his quest or not. (So, probably, will everyone else.)

Some, like philosopher Edward Feser, argue that animal minds cannot form concepts, whereas others claim that chimpanzees are entering the Stone Age.

Torley takes a middle view: Animals can, it appears, form concepts, in the sense of “same vs. different” or “more vs. less.” But in the absence of language, they typically cannot process abstractions. Nor do intelligent animals create symbols, understand abstract rules, or probe beneath mere perceptions, all of which are everyday matters for humans.

They do not, for example, survey their own mental states (“Why do I think I should bark at the moon?”). Yet humans of average intelligence may often ask themselves, “Why am I doing this anyway?”

As Torley says, “A defender of animal rationality could still argue that non-human animals might still possess a very simple, primitive concept of ‘self,’ which is ‘built into’ their psyches”:

I have argued that the key reason why we can reasonably impute mental states to these creatures, and describe them as having minimal minds, is that both their internal representations of the outside world (minimal maps) and their patterns of bodily movement robustly instantiate a key feature that was formerly thought to be the hallmark of mental states: intrinsic intentionality.

No “Tree of Intelligence” Pattern

Naturalism, as a philosophical commitment, requires us to start with the assumption that the human mind is merely the outcome of a long, slow, random process, winding through various forms of animal mind. This suggests we can learn a great deal about the human mind by studying animal minds.

The empirical evidence does not really support that view. Not only is the human mind more powerful by orders of magnitude, but animal minds show no consistent tree of intelligence pattern in their development that would clearly support the naturalist interpretation.

We do not yet have a theory that sheds light on why some animal species appear much more intelligent than others, leaping past conventional taxonomic classifications. But seeing past Darwin to the question of how information really originates may help us acquire one.

Image: White-fronted capuchin monkey, by Whaldener Endo (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.



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