Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Animal Wise: A Book Report

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell.

I'd say it's pretty obvious that animals are conscious, possessed of emotional and cognitive abilities, wouldn't you say?

I mean, the etymology of animal is the Latin animale "living being, being which breathes," neuter of animalis "animate, living; of the air," from anima "breath, soul; a current of air", so clearly even the ancients recognized this fact. It was only from about the beginnings of the 20th century, with the rise of the behaviorists, and the stricture to avoid any anthropomorphism in ethology (the study of animal behaviors) that we treated animals as machines. That has resulted in some pretty gruesome experiments.

Virginia Morell's book is more than just anecdotes about animal behaviors. More and more evidence, in the form both observation and statistics, tell us that not only are most animals conscious, but, in their own way, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of suffering.

(Is that going to stop me from eating things that have a face? Unlikely. I have a very well developed cognitive dissonance built up in that department. And besides, the things that don't have a face are - with exception of shellfish - not particularly palatable. I myself have killed and eaten chickens, and the only traumatic part that I could see was the distress they suffered in me trying to catch them. So, I'm gonna eat animals, but I do think our food animals should be treated and killed in as painless and humane a manner as is humanly possible).

In any case, Morell walks us through the animal kingdom, and the people who study them in a very engaging and easily read book. She's starts with ants and ends with apes. Along the way, we hear about  fish, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, dogs, and chimps. I've no need to write about the latter three. I think everyone agrees that those animals have got it going on brain-wise.

So, the chapters on the "higher"(forgive me for employing the outdated notion of the ladder of superiority) mammals and birds I sort of skimmed. I was much more interested in finding out how the "lower" orders fare.

Ants, for example, are fascinating. At least, when we were kids, my younger brother thought so. We'd find him out in the yard, sitting still, and watching ants. He'd pick a rock or a brick and expose the egg chamber. We'd ask him what he was doing, and he would say "Watching the young leebles". It turned out the "young leebles" were the pupae, which the ants, in what seemed a panic, actually very purposefully rescued from exposure and secured down further within the nest.  Those ants weren't panicking, they were efficient, fast, businesslike, admirably competent in their tasks. Would that some individuals I know possessed the intelligence of those hives, those nests, life would be a lot simpler.

Are ants conscious? Your average ant possesses about a hundred thousand neurons in its brain, which is tiny. We humans, with our hundred billion neurons and ten times as many astrocytes and glial cells sneer at such a number. But that's not the way to look at them.

The brain of an ant is a gem, a real jewel of a brain.

 It ants were made of semi-precious stones, perhaps we'd appreciate their behavior better. But the one thing we notice about an ant is how smart they really are. I mean, as multicellular creatures go, I'm starting to think that the term instinct is useless. There is some seriously complex computations going, all the way down to the molecular level. And we find out that not only can ants modify their behaviors beyond the limits of so-called "instinct", it turns out they can learn, they can imitate, they can teach. About this, researcher Nigel Franks muses:
"I would never say that these ants are thinking, but that's what intrigues me - because in many ways, they behave as if they were thinking. They've taught me that very sophisticated behaviors don't necessarily involve thought or language or theory of mind".
That's the really fascinating part about this book. When it comes to artificial intelligence, we humans really have a long way to go to even approximate something as "simple" as a fish or an ant colony.

Speaking of fish, that was one of the disturbing chapters. A study was done in Great Britain and the questions was asked, "Are fish conscious?" but really the question was "Do fish suffer?".

And the answer, according to Victoria Braithwaite, a fish biologist at Pennsylvania State University, was "Yes". Not only do they feel pain, they are cognizant of it, and the upsetting thing is a neuronal map of pain receptors has a large concentration around the lips. I say "upsetting" because I like to fish. I'm not fanatic about it, haven't fished in years as a matter of fact, but when I do fish again, I'll be using barbless hooks.

So, I guess the next question is, what about insects? Can insects suffer? Am I gonna end up a Buddhist? Not bloody likely.

To summarize my reading experience, light summer reading with occasional delightful anecdotes and insights.


  1. I'd say it's pretty obvious that animals are conscious, possessed of emotional and cognitive abilities, wouldn't you say?

    lol, I'd say it's pretty tempting to anthropomorphize.., but here's the thing. Animals are profoundly intelligent, all living things are profoundly intelligent, else they wouldn't be living.

    But consciousness = subjectivity
    subjectivity = self reference
    self reference = language

    An individual ant is quite intelligent and runs shockingly rational and intuitive decision routines. The question begged is whether or not there's a subjective "decider" in there either narratizing or pulling the trigger on these decision routines.

    The obvious answer is NO.

    There are amazingly intricate extended phenotypical decision processes encoded in the haplo-diploidy genome of the ant. There is no subjective self-reference encoded in the genome of the ant.

    Same also for all species, including of course face-having species up through some of the apes, elephants, and most undoubtedly the cetaceans which like you humans are language-having and language-using muhphukkas - who've been at their oral aodoi traditions for vastly longer than we've walked upright.

    Too bad we're too primitive to make first contact with the other highly intelligent and conscious species on this planet because their language is too complex and too alien for us to parse.

    Too bad they're too specialized to bridge the gap on their own and acquire facility with our comparatively primitive language, much as the so-called aboriginals did when they observed the first rounds of exhiled criminals and societal discards at Botany Bay.

    1. Now who is anthropomorphizing?

      self-reference AS IF = language.

    2. My bad,

      Language and its mechanical operations can exist without subjective self reference, i.e., in the absence of consciousness.

      Subjective self-reference is a specific linguistic operation involving the metaphor I/Me

      Self Reference = The specific language token "I"/"me"

      Do tell? How else might it work?

    3. I dunno. But I suspect relying upon language as indicative output behavior for consciousness is rather like the drunk looking for his car keys under the street lamp, instead of in the dark where he lost them.

  2. every living thing is self conscious and conscious of other living things. every living thing communicates with other members of it's species. every living thing has memory and makes decisions. if it were otherwise, how could anything survive? why humans think we have cornered the market on consciousness, memory, and cognitive skills is beyond me. they say fish only have a memory of about 10 minutes and then the world is new again. if that's true why do the fish in the turtle pond swarm towards me every time I pause at the edge? because they remember that I feed them. even if I've been gone for a week.

    1. Every living thing exhibits awareness, memory, and intelligence to varying degrees. What is in question is the extent of non-human species subjective self-awareness. My contention is that subjective self-awareness is a very specific manifestation which depends on a very high degree of underlying awareness, memory, and intelligence, and the cognitive tool or technology of abstract symbolic representation or language.

      Further, it is possible for a species to possess some or other abstract intraspecific communications capability (bee dance/ant pheromones/primate hoot-thump) which does not rise to the level of language, which, however, enables individual members of that species to communicate behaviorally meaningful information to one another.

      I'm going to have to write up an essay on the my story of the limes. It's related to what John was writing about here recently with his kidney and what I interpreted as his body's profoundly intelligent and arduous struggle to communicate its concerns to John about the condition of that kidney. Lacking language, it did what it could to communicate, it is intensely aware of its own condition(s) at all levels and all times, but its capacity to effectively convey that information to the consciousness called John is profoundly impaired.

      It lacks the tool or access to the tool in which subjective self-awareness is instantiated, and so, conveys information through a gestalt, in this case the kidney shaped mold and some of the sculptures John was moved to create which clearly depict a kidney in distress.

    2. I am certainly willing to entertain the notion that my kidney has some form of consciousness/cognition/what have you, and found a way to communicate its distress to me (it would also explain some dreams I had). It certainly is as complicated as, say, Ediacaran fauna of more than half a billion years ago, so why not? The mere fact that it is dependent upon is rather irrelevant. The term that's lighting up my neurons is gestalt, and has for some time. And not just life, but everything. It may be that existence is "aggregates all the way down". Aggregations of living things, and the composite behavior (I hesitate to use the term "emergent" as accreted too much baggage) exhibited by the sum of their transactions makes me think that we need to pay a lot more attention to the whole of the sum of the parts. It could be, distracted by such terms as individuality or "self" we ignore the obvious that there ain't no worthwhile individuals that are not composed of, and part of, constortia, aggregates, scoieties, call them what you wish.

  3. There really wasn't any doubt about the cetaceans having everything that we have except opposable thumbs....,

    1. ...and dogs imitate us and wolves identity themselves through their howls. I once shut up a wolf pack in Northern Idaho by howling at them. I'll bet you my name was "creepy ass cracker".