Imitation is the Mother of Intelligence June 8, 2007Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
According to a Washington Post article, “What Were They Thinking? More Than We Knew”, dogs have been shown to be able to imitate atypical actions of other dogs. I am not completely surprised at the findings, only at the courage to publish (we all know about the Clever Hans curse). I had the privilege of watching our beloved wonder dog over 12 years expanding her comprehension-vocabulary and “tricks” with things we never taught her, but which she observed, remembered, and imitated. An alien intelligence, right there by the fireplace! Why is it so important to have established that dogs can imitate each other? Because it is one of the true tests of intelligence: having a Theory of Mind, an understanding of “Other Minds:” Brian Hare of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology says, “This suggests they can actually think about your intention — they can look for explanations of your behavior and make inferences about what you are thinking.”
As a philosophy student a couple of centuries ago I was told that (1) only humans can think, (2) only humans can feel, and (3) only humans have morals. Over the years I started doubting first one, then the other, and lastly the third one; and animal behaviorists and neurologists are now showing us what anecdotal evidence has hinted at all along (which was enough for Darwin), that many animals have rudimentary logical thinking, complex emotional reactions, and even some form of community awareness (if we want to call that “moral” is another question). Apes have been shown to have self-awareness through the mirror self-recognition test, and dolphins and elephants have been added to that list. And now…could dogs be joining the club? The question is, can you imitate what someone else is doing, deliberately, without knowing that you are doing it? In other words, does it imply self-awareness? Skeptics say no, we’re falling for the old anthropomorphizing trick again, dogs are automata working on pure instinct, and if we call dogs self-aware, then we’ve watered down the concept of self-awareness. But as David Hume said in the 18th century, if it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, guess what? Well, not in those exact words, but he did say that if animals display the same kind of behavior that humans do under certain circumstances, and we call the human behavior intelligent, there is no reason why we shouldn’t use the same terms when describing animal behavior. Although it’s a little too soon to declare that dogs ought to have the right to vote and to receive a basic education …This story takes us in two directions: one toward epistemology, and the other toward ethics.