I recently had a long-distance exchange with two very interesting thinkers --the eminent primatologist Frans de Waal, and the philosopher Abraham Stone, himself approaching eminence-- concerning the scientific study of animal intelligence; the epistemological problem of the interpretation of data on animal intelligence; the inadequacy of most 'science writers' to the task of communicating what is at stake in the study of animal intelligence; and other no less interesting matters.
The exchange initially began from what I took to be a typically disappointing science writer's article at Discovery, by Jennifer Viegas, concerning some purportedly new signs of elephant intelligence. Have a look at that article before reading on, so that you might better understand how this exchange got rolling.
I took issue with the author's observation that "[o]ther animals clearly engage in teamwork," while by contrast one of the scientists involved in the study, Joshua Plotnik, "thinks they are 'pre-programmed for it', unlike elephants that seem to understand the full process." I wanted to know, in response, what kind of empirical evidence could ever ground such a distinction. Moreover, I wanted to know whether understanding is really incompatible with pre-programming. Those were my deep concerns about animal-intelligence research. I also expressed a concern about Viegas's style of science writing, namely that the condescension and cutesiness of it (using words like 'yummy' and easy alliterations) did not inevitably transform any intelligence animals might display into the same old familiar circus performance, if now in print or on screen, rather than in the three rings of old.
At this point Cameron Brown (who left the exchange early on), set us on the right path philosophically by suggesting that the usual criterion by which scientists attribute understanding of processes is "based on improvisational ability, which must be supposed incompatible with pre-programming." Cameron went on to wonder whether "understanding could be on a gradient rather than binary, similar to how psychologists have sometimes distinguished between goal-directed and rule-based or formal rationality." Another contributor to the discussion also suggested that it is improvisational ability, or the capacity to do something new and unexpected, that signals animal intelligence. He noted that humans quickly and constantly form new meanings through language and custom, whereas ape social behavior, such as hunting, always involves "just a few signals that do not vary or combine."
In response to these two points I took a historical turn, as I often do, and noted that using the apparent absence of spontaneity in animals as an argument for denying them understanding, will, or moral status, is very old. Descartes uses it, for example. But at the same time there is a parallel line of reasoning, that goes back at least to Girolamo Rorario in the 16th century, according to which animals act predictably because they've already figured out exactly what motions of their bodies are most in agreement with nature, whereas we humans are uncertain and floundering. And thus, as Rorario puts it, animalia bruta ratione utantur melius homine [brute animals make better use of reason than men].
Enter, at this point, Abe, with an observation about the proper division of labor between the natural scientists and the philosophers with respect to the question of animal intelligence: "The reasoning and terminology of natural scientists, Abe writes, "typically appear sloppy and insufficiently reflective to philosophers and even to mathematicians. And yet in the end they often discover things that philosophers and mathematicians couldn't. Descartes is a far better philosopher than Newton, but Cartesian physics is crap. So it's not easy to know when we should criticize them. Linguistics and animal intelligence may have been colonized by bad philosophy to some extent, which just makes this more difficult rather than less." At this point I came back with my initial compaint about mediocre science writing, and argued for a role for philosophers in the work of interpreting the data on animal intelligence (and implicitly for a role in disseminating these interpretations to the broader public).
I repeated here my concern that in typical science writing on animal intelligence, such as Viegas's article, anything the animals might accomplish is degraded "in the very framing of the story into the clever trick of a beast already assumed on a priori grounds to be lesser." I also said that philosophers ought to jump into the interpretation of the data on animal intelligence even if the scientists do not want us there; and I said --which I know very much goes against Frans's long-standing practice, as we'll soon see-- that there's something inherently troubling about the use of diminutive names ('circus names', I called them) for animals that are at the same time the subjects of scientific study. It is not necessarily bad, I add here (which I did not say before) that scientists form affective connections to the animals they study, but the problem comes at the stage of dissemination by science writers, when the public is told of all the clever things some Dumbo or Bongo has managed to do.
Abe replied that "[t]here's probably not that much risk of getting in the scientists' way, if only because they'll probably pay no attention to us." He then went on to dismiss my concern about naming practices: "I think we can agree that a lot of science writing is bad. I'm not sure I agree with your criticisms of this particular piece. Should we be worrying about the dignity of elephants in this sense (e.g. their right not to be given diminutive circus names)? It might be kind of like worrying that they aren't decently dressed. Not that I can quite explain what would be wrong about the latter."
I responded with a bold claim, that "[r]eal study of animal intelligence would not have any prior implicit supposition that to be intelligent just is to be like us (that's a strong philosophical claim, I know), and the diminutive circus names are one of the ways in which the animals studied are framed in advance as lesser versions of us (that's a fairly modest sociolinguistic claim, I think, with well-known parallels in the study of class and gender relations)." I add here (again, which I did not say before) that a good example of the study of elephant intelligence is the discovery of the significance to them of the vibrations caused by their stomping. Something we took before to be just brute bodily motion turns out to be an important part of the maintenance of an intricate social network. This sort of discovery is fundamentally different, and I think more important, than the elephants' performance in tests set up by human beings.
At this point Frans joined us with a succinct and optimistic summary of the state of scientific research on animal intelligence: "Joint attention has been found in all sorts of animals, not just apes, it's no cognitive marker anymore. Recently it was reported for wolves (thus negating that dogs have it because of domestication). Theory of mind is hardly a unitary phenomenon, and for all we know some of it can be found in apes, monkeys, dogs, jays. The literature is moving fast." To this, another participant suggested that all of this data gathered on all of these species could simply be the result of scientists 'seeing what they want to see'.
I replied that this latter suggestion in response to Frans's account of the state of the discipline "underlines the difficulty that has plagued the animal-intelligence debate since at least Rorarius: for those who suppose on a priori grounds that any apparent sign of intelligence in animals is only an anthropomorphizing projection, no amount of the sort of evidence that Frans adduces is going to make a difference." I added that "the only reason why we don't have any problem attributing intelligence to other human minds is that we need to suppose their existence on practical grounds, and so when called upon come up with good-enough philosophical arguments to do away with the other-minds problem.
"Frans is optimistic, I went on, "that the empirical evidence is coming in so fast and is so overwhelming that soon everyone will be convinced. I'm more inclined to think that the withholding of intelligence (and other traits associated with human-likeness) has much more to do with the way human societies define the boundaries of community, and if they've already determined that these boundaries don't extend to baboons, then there's no ability a baboon can demonstrate that will change their minds in this matter. So we very much need the sort of empirical data that Frans is spending his life finding, but in order for the prejudice of human uniqueness to be pushed toward decline these data need to be accompanied by arguments, issuing sooner from moral and political philosophy, that are not themselves based on the data."
Here there was a sort of juncture in the conversation, where Frans, it seems to me, laid his cards out (though in a way that is certainly not surprising to anyone who has read his published works): "For any Darwinist the assumption is simple: continuity between closely related species. Even often between distantly related ones. The human brain contains no parts and no transmitters that until now have not also been found in other primates. There are differences, but they have more to do with brain power than with a qualitatively different brain. The reason humans assume they are different are essentially religious, handed down from traditions that arose in the desert where people had never met nh primates. When the first live apes arrived at London Zoo, early 19th century, the queen herself declared them 'disgusting'. And ever since Western intellectuals have been busy trying to determine what sets us apart."
And at this point I could not hold back from the temptation to cite Cicero (himself citing the poet Ennius): Simia quam similis turpissima bestia nobis ['How similar to us that most ugly beast, the simian!'].
I decided to wrap things up at this point. "Exactly," I wrote, "but the problem is that it's people's moral commitments that are going to color the way they receive the scientific data about animal intelligence, to the extent that they suppose rightly or wrongly that the intelligence of a being entails a moral status for it. And so again, the scientific data need to be supplemented by philosophical arguments, rather than simply disseminated through the mediation of generally unthoughtful science writers." I then asked all the participants in the conversation whether they would mind if I were to transfer all this material over to my preferred venue, jehsmith.com. Abe and Frans both gamely agreed.
But they kept going. Here, Frans, responding, I think unwittingly, to my concern about researchers' attachment to their subjects (along with the associated naming practices): "I am not sure that the moral status of an animal should affect our data collection. I am no fan of cockroaches, and don't feel they need protection, yet could still see me do a serious study on them that reveals remarkable capacities. But it is true that most scientists working with non-human primates love and respect them, and I'd say this is a good thing. After all, we compare often with human behavior which is studied with well entrenched assumptions of mental complexity by scientists who belong to the species: talk about a potential for bias!"
To which, in reply, Abe: "You may not be talking about moral status, but it's only for that reason that the philosophical tradition insists that possession of reason or intellect is an either-or matter, not because Aristotle lived in a desert or didn't love gorillas or something. Once again: it's of course obvious, and to be expected, that humans are in many ways similar, and in many other ways different, from other species. The 'endless quest' is not for any random difference, but for one which would be significant, i.e., morally significant."
And Frans: "I am not sure science can decide what is a morally significant trait. It's something human society needs to address, and I bet there will be lots of disagreement. I personally don't know what 'reason' is. If it is a single characteristic that is easily determined, I'd like to hear what its outward signs are so that we can decide if humans have it and other animals don't."
And Abe: "Well, if you'll look back at what I said, you'll see that I suggested the attempt to locate this empirically is hopeless. I want to emphasize [however] that I think we're basically on the same side here. True, I don't think the "religion arose in a desert" thing was a very careful piece of intellectual history (I hope you aren't too attached to that). But I think we agree on the important points: (1) that empirical studies of animal intelligence should be presumed to have their own integrity (so philosophers should be at least very reluctant to criticize on philosophical grounds) and (2) that the empirical quest for something distinctive about human beings has been, and will very likely continue to be, fruitless. I also agree that Darwinism is in your favor, although I don't think the story is quite as simple as you made it out to be."
For all I know they might be at it still. I had to check out of the conversation in order to work on the present post. Perhaps soon I will write up my own conclusions about this exchange, though they will not differ substantially from what I've already contributed (and indeed from what I've often written in this space, e.g., here).
Let me close by thanking Frans and Abe (and also Cameron, without whose early comment the whole conversation might never have taken off). And let me also observe, finally, that this exchange represents a shining example of the potential of social media. For all we continue to scoff at it, and for all the lowly and subliterate uses to which it is put, Facebook really is a powerful medium for serious communication.
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