The Great Divide
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.
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
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