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Unexpressed Thoughts

Clive Wynne

Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think. Marc Hauser. Henry Holt and Co., 2000. $25.

Anyone writing about animal psychology for a general audience is confronted at the outset by an obstacle: the popular view of animal minds. "Nature red in tooth and claw" is not that view. In the public mind, animals are like people—but better: kinder, gentler, furrier and more cuddly, even wiser. Is any other branch of science stuck with this problem? Although non-physicists and non-chemists have intuitions about physics and chemistry, anybody interested enough to pick up a book on either of these sciences is surely willing to suspend disbelief and at least listen to a new argument. In the realm of animal cognition, it isn't as clear that there is an audience for anything that goes against the flow.

Stephen Budiansky, in his 1998 If a Lion Could Talk, raged against the popular over-interpretation of animal accomplishments. He opened his book with a cute anecdote of animal ingenuity and empathetic behavior. A boy falls into the gorilla pen at a Chicago zoo. The boy is knocked unconscious by his fall, but a female gorilla, Binty, picks him up, protects him from the other gorillas and carries him to safety. The point of this story, for Budiansky, lies solely in its demolition. The boy was in no danger from the other gorillas, keepers held them back with fire-hoses, and, in any case, they were little interested. Binty, far from expressing a spontaneous desire to care for the helpless boy, was doing what keepers had been training her to do in the hope of improving her mothering skills. Not content to rest with the gullibility of journalists, Budiansky goes on to harangue those scientists who he sees as complicit in the over-interpretation of their results. With Budiansky, you know where you stand.

With Marc Hauser and Wild Minds we are in less blunt company. Hauser, professor of animal psychology at Harvard, is certainly not an uncritical consumer of animal anecdotes; his own research is among the most critical and carefully designed in primate cognition. But he is far less willing than Budiansky to alienate the reader who comes to his book with a popular conception of smiling furry beasts. Budiansky's opening example crops up in the final chapter of Hauser's book, but the treatment this time is quite different. Hauser is seemingly unaware of the circumstances surrounding the event—for him there is only the problem of how to interpret this apparently altruistic act:

Although there is no ambiguity about what Binty did, there are many possible interpretations of her thoughts and emotions. Did Binty realize that the boy was unconscious? Would she have acted in the same way to other novel objects, a conscious boy, a cat, a teddy bear, or a bag of potato chips? ... The most intriguing aspect of Binty’s behavior, of course, is the possibility that she acted altruistically.... Did Binty act out of the goodness of her heart, showing kindness to another creature, investing herself in its well-being and ultimate happiness?

Wild Minds's midsection, "Nature's Psychologists," is the most satisfying. Here Hauser discusses recognition of others, self-recognition (which he is careful to distinguish from self-awareness), social learning, imitation and education, communication and deceit. He is a good guide through this material, largely but not exclusively from primate research.

"Universal Knowledge," the book's first major section, divides the understanding that all animals share into three parts: the material world, number and spatial dimension. This is a rather odd choice of "universal" forms of knowledge, as little comparative research exists on the number sense. Spatial and material knowledge have been studied somewhat, although whether it has been enough to qualify as "universal" is an open question. Those old favorites for universal learning mechanisms, classical and instrumental conditioning of the Pavlovian and Skinnerian schools, are not mentioned. In discussing number, Hauser ignores the now substantial work done on number sense in rats and pigeons. He seems to think that laboratory training can expose abilities that have no meaning in the world outside the lab. Left unspecified is why animals should demonstrate abilities in the lab that they would not use in the real world.

The final section, "Minds in Society," explores two qualities more human than animal: language and the moral sense. Hauser, for my taste, is too easily impressed by the communicative abilities of nonhuman primates. For example, vervet monkeys are more likely to give alarm calls when they are with their juvenile daughters than with unrelated juvenile females. Does it therefore follow that they have "voluntary control" over their alarm calls? I am less than convinced.

My real beef with Hauser comes in his conclusion on language. He compares most animals to Gregor Samsa, the character in the Franz Kafka story "The Metamorphosis" who wakes up one morning as a giant insect: "They are Kafka-creatures, organisms with rich thoughts and emotions, but no system for translating what they think into something that they can express to others." This claim is bizarre. Even allowing for a caveat that follows ("I do not mean that animals, lacking a human language, have the kinds of thoughts that Samsa-as-beetle has"), it is still unimaginable (not to mention beyond experiment) that animals could evolve thoughts that they could not express. Hauser believes that "the earliest humans were endowed with a formidable mental life, but had to wait patiently for the arrival of a new tool, the gift of language." Language, in turn, "emancipated a mind that was humming along with its own private thoughts." Why or how a mind could "hum along" with inexpressible thoughts I cannot conceive.

Perhaps it all depends on what you mean by "thought." Here, despite the book's subtitle, Hauser is surprisingly silent. In his prologue, he tells us that he considers the question of whether animals think to be "unhelpful," although he does comment that "scientists who think that animals are mindless and irrational ? incorrectly conclude that there can be no thought without language." Where does this leave scientists who think that animals are mindful and rational and nonetheless conclude there can be no thought without language? Other than denying that language is required for thought (a position he feels no need to defend), Hauser has nothing more to say on the topic.

Hauser's book will entertain and educate many people. Witty illustrations add to an enjoyable and stimulating package. That some (like myself) may often disagree with him is not to say that his companionship through the upper reaches of nonhuman cognition is not agreeable and profitable.—Clive D. L. Wynne, Psychology, University of Western Australia

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