The Meaning of Animals, Or, Two Chickens Breaking Up a Rabbit Fight

There is a sense in which when we cease to anthropomorphize, we cease to be men, for when we cease to have human contact with animals, and deny them all relation to ourselves, we tend in the end to cease to anthropomorphize ourselves — to deny our own humanity.
Loren Eiseley

Last post, I was so bold as to state that animals are capable of tool-making, of language, of abstract thought, of empathy, and even the transmission of culture.

Am I so sure of those?  Can I make such unsubstantiated claims and get away with it?  Apparently so… except I’m not letting myself get off quite so lightly.  (Take that and that, you… you… blogger! [The sound of slapping rings out…])

Those notions are ones I’ve absorbed in my reading over the years, not in any great depth, but in passing, taking in articles or essays on what animals are, and what we are as animals.

Some of these ideas vary in their acceptance and general awareness among the humans.  Most, for instance, would not find it controversial that an animal could exhibit empathy — except amongst the most die-hard of behaviorists, who might equally deny such emotional states to humans because mind is not a useful concept, only behavior.  But if you’ve had dogs, for instance, and if empathy never enters into the relationship… well, that would be pretty sad, even for a behaviorist.

mice For quite an interesting read on this idea of empathy in animals, there’s the fascinating article “Evolutionary Aspects of Love and Empathy” in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, Volume 15 Number 4 353-370.  The author says for instance that human love evolved on the basis of the mother/infant relation, dependent on empathy as a mode of perception of the infant’s state and needs.  And he asserts widespread empathy among animals, similarly.  But he doesn’t provide any specific examples.

I wanted to find more detail.  In 1959, it turns out, a researcher trained rats to get food by pressing a lever.  Remarkably, if they observed another rat getting electrically shocked at the same time, the observing rat would flinch and stop pressing the lever.  This is open to interpretation as to the rat’s precise motivation, but still this is intriguing.

Since then other clever studies have shown evidence of empathy in mice, elephants and chimps, among others.

Can and do animals use tools?  Again this has become almost a commonplace observation.  Hungry Egyptian vultures use rocks to break open ostrich eggs.  The woodpecker finch often carries a cactus spine with it from branch to branch, using the spine to spear out grubs in the trees it frequents.  Green herons occasionally fish by using bait:  they drop a small object into a  stream and choose their dinner from the fish who rise to investigate.

In another example, chimps kept in an enclosure began playing with wooden poles.  Soon, one chimp began using a pole to escape over the walls, and what’s more, the other chimps observed and followed suit!

Most have heard of the language skills developed in work with apes and chimpanzees.   Kanzi, a bonobo ape, accomplished at communicating with humans by way of a symbol language, surprised researchers by starting to invent his own words.

The chimpanzee Washoe was a famous predecessor, who surprised everyone by becoming expert in communicating in American Sign Language.  Some researchers with turf to defend redefined Washoe’s activity to satisfy themselves that no cognitive activity by the animal could possibly be taking place.

Now we start to come to the tougher ones.  Is an animal capable of abstract thought?

300px-Baboons_on_rock Baboons are thoroughly fascinating creatures.  One type of baboon — the hamadryas — was considered sacred as an attendant to one of the Egyptian gods, and they do have a kind of mythical quality.  One interesting fact: although baboons are otherwise covered with hair, they have  prominent, calloused, nerveless, bald pads on their butts which allow them to sit comfortably.  And we think humans are so advanced.

Baboons have figured in the first study of a non-human, non-ape animal that shows that defining characteristic of human kind, abstract thought.

First off, the researchers got the baboons to use the computer, which in itself is an arresting image.  I won’t bore you with details of the studies, other than to say that they meant having the baboons match “sameness” between articles in different grids.

I don’t know if the following qualifies as abstract thought, but in a way it does: it shows a larger awareness of the barnyard situation beyond what you might expect of animals.  This video shows, incredibly, two chickens breaking up a rabbit fight!

The transmission of culture in animals… What would that mean?  It could have something to do with memes, that occasional feature of the blogging life which has been defined in the broader scientific context as a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation.

It has been argued that what makes humans special is our meme ability to imitate what others present to us and carry on with it.  In an interesting counter to that argument, authors Simon Reader and Kevin Laland contend that animals are quite capable of developing their own memes.

There’s no argument that animals can learn from each other:  British birds figured out how to open milk bottles this way, and rhesus monkeys learned a fear of snakes from each other.

But the crucial point to me is if something learned is passed between generations.  Are there examples of that in the animal kingdom?  Reader and Laland give several.

For instance, long term studies of chimpanzees across Africa show that different communities of chimpanzees exhibit quite different behavior and this has been attributed to cultural transmission.  For instance, a new idea about how to forage for ants has been passed down for several generations in certain chimp communities, which becomes an aspect of their unique culture.

In another example, a certain kind of coral reef fish has engaged in a long-lived, arbitrary tradition transmitted across generations: the same mating sites are always used, even though other sites of the same quality are widely available.  Researchers think the females transmit the tradition by following each other.

Cultural transmission has also been observed in bats as they give each other important information about avoiding poisonous toads.

Why does this interest me?  Hans Kummer, a scientist who studied baboons for many years,  says: “It has always been a consolation to the individual human to look beyond his personal end to a future for the larger circle of life with which he identifies himself.”

Although he goes on to note at the end of his book In Quest of the Sacred Baboon: “A biologist may [accept] all life on our planet as his wider home, but then he takes upon himself a new kind of grief. … At the very moment in the earth’s history when humanity is extinguishing the planet’s organisms at an ever greater rate, it lets some of its researchers see what it destroys.”

The uncompromising naturalist John A. Livingston wrote: “Like its close kin which we call freedom, wildness is perceptible only in its absence.”

Unfortunately for us as a species, we may only appreciate the meaning of wildness and what we’re losing just when it is irretrievably gone.  Part of that lack of appreciation is our insistence that we are so different from “the animals.”

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15 Comments on “The Meaning of Animals, Or, Two Chickens Breaking Up a Rabbit Fight”

  1. Jak Says:

    excellent post. very interesting reading. i concur with most of your points. i was listening to NPR the other day with “experts” talking about the most recent study that looked at chimps and human children, comparing their task completion and learning. long story short humans have their match in the animal kingdom in many categories, tool use, brain capacity, love/compassion, etc. Where we have excelled that no other animal can is in our social learning. in the study the human children were able to watch their peer perform a task and repeat that task, learning socially. we are programmed to watch anything different in our social groups, good or bad (hence our obsession with celebrities). We look, notice, watch, and learn very well. This is what has grown our capacity for all of the things you list above. This is the key that has perfected humans from the animal kingdom to the level of society we hold today. To your point though, I do not think most people take the time to look back and notice the complexities in nature, animals and plants. Its good to be reminded to take a closer look.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Jak,

    Thanks for dropping by…

    That’s the best explanation I’ve come across for the whole celebrity thing… an obsessive focus linked to our primate sociology and psychology.

    Regards

  3. Takeshi Says:

    A nice read for me while having a cup of tea this morning! As you say, “…It’s good to be reminded to take a closer look.”

    Will be back to saunter some more. Have added your site to my reader – just wanted you to know.

    Mata ne…

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Takeshi,

    Thanks for dropping by… And adding me to your reader.

    I will come by your site and say hello as well.

    Regards

  5. qazse Says:

    Hey fencer,

    Regarding a non human animal’s ability to abstract – I would argue that the use of a tool implies some degree of abstraction. Initially, some yet to be realized goal was cognitively hastened by an intervening variable which was applied mentally before physically.

    I loved the video.

    Great post and theme.

  6. qazse Says:

    I guess you could call it post and theme construction…

  7. fencer Says:

    Hey qazse,

    I like your point about tool use and abstraction… and “post and theme construction.”
    Good one!

    Regards

  8. qazse Says:

    PS: A behaviorist would likely state that tool use is merely random behavior which becomes reinforced. I reject that in most cases because the behavior is so outside of the set of expected random behaviors. We must remember that randomness can be quantified by the constraints of the particular physical paradigm. Otherwise one could assert that man’s ability to fly was a result of randomness.

  9. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    I think one could say that superstition, for instance, is merely behavior that was randomly reinforced once or so. But purposeful behavior is obviously not random, unless one wants to say a tool is not a tool (which a behaviorist might do!). It’s like all those closed systems of thought where any contradiction is reframed so that the system cannot be disproved. Almost cult like.

    Interesting comment!

    Regards

  10. qazse Says:

    True, I have heard the tool is not a tool argument. I concur that it is irrational in-think. I am hard pressed to use the word “cult” lest I be accused of behaviorist bashing.

    When I was in college I split my training between two programs. One was a hard core experimental/ behavioral psych department and the other was a humanistic counseling department. I was entrenched in many a debate with rat runners and I do recall them being a bit fanatical and often social engineering types.

    best

  11. fencer Says:

    Hey, qazse,

    What do you know… a fellow psychology student! Did you go on in the field?

    I know what you mean by the split emphases. I got tired of the rat learning theory stuff, and I didn’t pursue the psychologist or counseling career side, since finally I didn’t feel fit to be in that position…

    Regards

  12. qazse Says:

    I have worked in the helping professions for 35 years both in the trenches and in clinical and program management. I have worked with almost every diagnostic population in almost every type of treatment setting.

    I am having trouble saying any more than that because there are mountains to say about it. I had many peak moments in those years – I have been blessed. But I come away with a distaste for the way things have gone corporate. Human services should not be run by private investors…I could go on and on but will stop right here.

  13. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Thanks for letting me know… sounds like you had extensive experience in the whole field…

    Regards

  14. Matt Hall Says:

    Really enjoyed the article, i’m an anthropology student and also studying primatology, definatly a follower of the social traditions passed down through certain groups, flamingo hunting baboons and sweet potato washing monkeys of Koshima Island! I really like the picture of the two baboons and would like to use it in my dissatation. where did you get it from, or can i reference you so as not to break copyright?

  15. fencer Says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for dropping by… sounds like you’re involved in interesting study.

    Unfortunately, I have no attribution for the baboon photo… I got it from Google images, and this was before my new resolution to give credit to all photos used that aren’t mine. (I know, I should have done that before.)

    Regards


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