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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Animal Intelligence

As I mentioned in my last post, things haven't gone particularly well for me recently. As part of an attempt to ease myself back into the hustle and bustle of not feeling shut down, I picked up one of the popular science books on my shelf that I have been meaning to read for over a year now: Synaptic Self by Joseph LeDoux. It didn't hold my attention for long for a variety of reasons (some of them not entirely its fault), but one thing that quite bothered me about LeDoux's style was his habitual grouping of human beings in one set and all other animals in another. Such a species-centric view is quite widespread within general discourse, but it is also unfortunately rife within the field of neuroscience where there really is no excuse. As far as I can tell, it is a carry-over from the western theistic philosophers (Descartes and his ilk) that continues to pervade our thinking for no good reason. In the same way that angry evolution-deniers splutter indignantly that their ancestors "weren't no ape", there seems to be a general antipathy toward the suggestion that human beings share their realm of cognitive functions with other animal species.

The reason such an attitude bothers me more when it comes from a neuroscientist than a layman (though it still irks me coming from those without a neuroscience background) is because your average neuroscientist really ought to know better. The vast majority of our knowledge of neurophysiology comes from non-human species which we then extrapolate to ourselves. For example, we know more about the visual cortex of the macaque monkey than we do about the human visual cortex. For such an extrapolation to work, however, we must necessarily share the same domain as those species from which we take our starting data. Of course there are cognitive differences between species, but I think the quintessential human ingredient, the nature of humanity if you will, that people have been searching for in literature and the sciences for centuries only exists if one is willing to attach reams and reams of caveats, addendums, and qualifications. Claiming sole ownership of an ethereal conscious soul that imparts a whole new level of cognitive function for the human race is quite simply unsupported specieistic bullshit.

I could go on at length about this topic, and I am actually fairly surprised I have not mentioned it before since it is something that has been on my mind since the very beginning of this blog (my selected internet pseudonym, after all, is intended as a somewhat sarcastic allusion (hidden within the Russian language) to the apparent love affair a predominant number of neuroscientists seem to have with the human brain). Despite the temptation to ramble on, however, I really should be studying tonight, so I am going to end my rant here. I will most likely pick it up again in the future, particularly if readers take exception to any of the unqualified vitriol I have haphazardly spewed here (for example, I know a lot of people seem to hold Descartes in quite high esteem). In the nature of full disclosure, I did make up the word specieistic, and I apologize for my unimaginative cussing. It may still be a while before I am back to my usual self, so my writing for the next little while might be a little cumbersome.

Note: This discussion was subsequently expanded upon here.

4 comments:

Robert said...

I fully agree with your post. When it comes to neuroscience, I am about as layman as you can get, yet I never understood the knee-jerk reaction people have to assuming that humans are somehow special or cognitively better than other beings. Rather, I understand it for theists, cause it is in most of their holy books, but I do not understand it for those of us that take a natural worldview. It would seem obvious to me that if we are in fact a result of the same evolutionary processes that produced other primates, the default assumption or hypothesis would be that other animals have similar abilities to humans.

Noam Chomsky, who I love, claims that humans are the only species that have the ability for language. This is despite the fact that we have taught chimps and gorillas some many hundreds...or thousands (?) of words. Of course, this is not proof positive that they actually are doing what we do, that is forming new ideas and thoughts with the words. They could just be responding to stimuli like a well trained dog. But my question is why would you assume that is the what is going on? We know it is possible that species can create new abstract ideas from using words, because we do it, and we know that these species are insanely close to us evolutionary, so why do we just assume that they cannot if we do not have the proof positive that they do?

I should say that in humans are smarter than chimps. But that does not necessarily mean that we possess anything unique, just that what we do possess comes in a greater degree. And once we start valuing the degrees to which we possess something over the fact that we have it, I think we get in the potentially dangerous realm of valuing certain human life more than others. And there are some cases in which I think it is necessary to value animal life over some human life, because frankly, for some when compared to a few people in the world, chimps and gorillas got more going on upstairs. Once you realize that, I think you either choose then to value some animal life more than human life, or you admit to being a specieist. If you are a specieist, I think that it a major flaw in your character.

Anyway, my uninformed 2 cents.

jbrydle said...

Are our brains not at all fundamentally different from other primates, or other mammals? I mean, not all brains are equal - a mammal brain has layers and structures that a fish simply doesn't. Is there no feature of the human brain that is unique, and not found in other animals? Is it really just a matter of size? Would a chimp with a chimp's brain, but larger, be able to do what we do?

I have no problem with this if it's the case. I honestly don't know.

Mozglubov said...

I just wanted to let you both know that I started writing a response to your comments. It got so long, however, that I decided to make it into a proper post rather than leave it here. Since I am still not done exams nor completely done dealing with personal stuff, I don't quite know when it will be finished... however, just so you know, I am not willfully ignoring your input.

Regan said...

I think as far as thinking an animal is operating at some lower level of intelligence is concerned, propulgators of this idea have never had a dog.

A living breathing little friend that despite not being human can learn an absurd amount of context sensitive commands. My dog for example knows the command "stop". He can tell by the tone of my voice and also the general posture of my body(!!!) approximately how fast I want him to halt. If the command is issued curtly and calmly with my shoulders squared and my head high (something he can tell even though he's not explicitly looking at me), he'll stop (from a full sprint)in less that two body lengths.

Further research into any animal reveals a deep language that the members of the species use to interact. Be it the croaks of a frog, a cat rubbing it's scent on everything in it's home, a dog peeing on a signpost, or the songs of a whale. Sorry Chomsky, but I think you're out of your expertise.