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The Great Divide

Marc Bekoff

Do Animals Think? Clive D. L. Wynne. viii + 268 pp. Princeton University Press, 2004. $26.95.

Do animals think? Well, surely some do, you may think. And an increasing number of researchers across disciplines would agree with you: They are trying to determine how—not whether—animals consciously process information about their social and nonsocial environments.

What is going on in the minds of animals? Do they have desires and beliefs? Zealots abound at both ends of a spectrum that ranges from those who believe that animals are merely thoughtless robotic automatons to those who argue that all are thinking creatures with rich cognitive lives. I imagine that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: A number of animals have the capacity for thinking about certain situations and showing flexible, adaptable behavior, whereas others may behave reflexively, with little or no thought at all.

Psychologist Clive D. L. Wynne takes a firm behaviorist stance on the issue in his new book, Do Animals Think? He argues that animals, even those commonly believed to have active minds and a good deal of conscious thought—companion animals, dolphins and great apes—really don't think much about anything. Here, and also in a brief communication and an essay published in the March 11 and April 8 issues of Nature, Wynne says that we should be very cautious about ascribing consciousness to animals and that anthropomorphic explanations have no place in the study of animal behavior.

Nim ChimpskyClick to Enlarge Image

I should confess right away that I'm a member of the opposing camp—a rich cognitivist. Thus I was skeptical of Wynne's position from the outset. But I was also open to his arguments. And I did find some of the information he presents about bees, bats and other animals to be both fascinating and thought–provoking.

Unfortunately, Wynne's adversarial tone and narrow choice of data made this book a difficult read for me. Throughout he takes potshots at well–known scientists, philosophers and advocates of animal protection: Roger Fouts especially, and also the late Donald Griffin, Sue Savage–Rumbaugh, Frans de Waal, Jane Goodall, Peter Singer, Steven Wise and even Linda McCartney. Wynne criticizes them for using questionable information about animal sentience to support the view that we should be deeply concerned with animal well–being. The book opens with an account of violence against humans by a member of the Animal Liberation Front, and it ends on a similar note, with Wynne criticizing animal protectionists for flawed thinking. He claims that he longs for the certainty of those who attribute consciousness and the ability to experience pain to many animals. But in fact, he advocates the opposite point of view with that same level of certainty.

Although Wynne admits that we do not know very much about animal thinking, this does not stop him from arguing that his reductionist views are correct. He believes that the differences between animals and humans are greater, and more significant, than the similarities. But are they? Does Wynne include all animals or only some species in his arguments for mental dissimilarity? He claims that

The psychological abilities that make human culture possible—enthusiasm to imitate others, language, and the ability to place oneself imaginatively into another's perspective on events—are almost entirely lacking in any other species.

What does "almost" mean? Nobody claims that other animals are identical to us, but arguments invoking evolutionary continuity leave room for the conclusion that the differences are, in fact, small—differences in degree rather than differences in kind. Many observations show that members of some species imitate other animals, empathize with them, are able to take another's perspective in certain situations (there is neurobiological evidence to support the conclusion that some animals have a theory of mind), and have culture and rather sophisticated patterns of communication.

The behaviorist view is little concerned with evolution. It also fails to recognize that the behavior of many animals is far too flexible and situation–specific to be explained in terms of simplified stimulus–response contingencies. Marked within–species variability is quite common, and this adaptive variability often (although not always) lends itself readily to "cognitive" explanations invoking consciousness, intentions and beliefs.

It remains to be shown how large the differences are between humans and other animals. Although Wynne claims to recognize that not enough data are available to make definitive statements, he offers them nonetheless, arriving at some sweeping generalizations. He argues for the objective study of behavior, but—ironically—much of his book serves to illustrate that science isn't value–free and that every scientist has an agenda.

Scientists who are skeptical about research on animal thinking typically criticize it for being anecdotal and anthropomorphic. They claim that anecdotes don't provide sufficient data (a view with which I and other rich cognitivists generally agree) and that anthropomorphic explanations are extremely imprecise. Wynne favors reductionistic stimulus–response explanations over ones that appeal to such notions as consciousness, intentions and beliefs. However, he doesn't offer any scientific support for his position. And in fact there is no empirical evidence that the explanations he favors are better for understanding and predicting behavior than those he eschews.

Many who, like Wynne, favor mechanistic explanations have not spent much time watching free–ranging animals. Were they to do so, the complexity and flexibility of animal behavior would force them to realize that no simple explanatory scheme will be correct all of the time. What is more, they would appreciate better how much more there still is to learn about animal behavior.

Almost daily, surprising new findings crop up: New Caledonian crows are better at making and using tools than many primates; fish show culture and likely feel pain; a dog named Rico knows about 200 words and can figure out, through exclusion learning, that an unfamiliar sound refers to an unfamiliar toy. So it's best to keep an open mind. The fact that an animal doesn't do something in one context doesn't necessarily mean that it won't be able to do it in another.

Returning at the end of the book to the theme of his opening pages, Wynne expresses heavy skepticism about whether animals feel pain and whether that should influence how we treat them. On the one hand, he praises philosopher Jeremy Bentham's claim that the key question for determining the moral and legal standing of animals is "Can they suffer?"—not "Can they reason?" or "Can they talk?" But on the other hand, Wynne notes that even if we could measure pain in animals, "it is still not clear that this would tell us what to do and to whom." Feeling pain is not, in his view, the only criterion for deciding whether animals are worthy of our concern. He says, revealingly, that animals "are valuable to us because of who we are, not what they are."

Unfortunately, a great divide remains between opposing camps. The polemical tone and lack of balance in the book make it difficult for me to recommend it as a text for a course unless it's read alongside a book that presents a variety of views on animal thinking. And inconsistencies in the argumentation make it hard for me to recommend it for a general audience. I do think that the book will serve to stimulate discussion of such issues as what it means to "know" something, how much information must be available before we can draw reliable, sweeping conclusions, and how we determine how certain we can be that those conclusions are correct. Studies of animal thinking lend themselves nicely to that philosophical exercise.—Marc Bekoff, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder

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