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Imitation is the Mother of Intelligence June 8, 2007

Posted 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.



1. Thea - June 10, 2007

This is a really interesting topic to me. I happen to completely agree with what appears to me to be obvious. But, this is what this topic really gets me thinking about: What is it called when science or theory step outside of the bounds of commmonsense? I should have first said that I sincerely appreciate that commonsense is neither science nor philosophy.

But, where do some of these nutty ideas come from like animals can’t feel? Also, how do scientists and philosophers at times manage to convince people of the absurd? Against human intuition and collective knowledge?

Similar to the idea that animals can’t feel is the belief that human males do not experience pain during circumcision because newborns can’t feel pain. Many people still believe that one, despite the obvious signs of crying, screaming and blood. Theories like that remind me of the time my older brothers persuaded me that the MORE hot salsa that I put on a chip, the LESS it would burn my mouth. (Years of entertainment for my brothers was the reward for their efforts.)

I guess it’s partly a question about human nature. Maybe these things are what we have to tell ourselves to cope with our actions that are incongruous with what we declare to be our ethical code.

2. Dwight Furrow - June 10, 2007


Why should common sense set a standard for science and philosophy? Much of contemporary physics violates our intuitions and is unintelligible from the standpoint of common sense. But that surely doesn’t mean it is false.

I don’t know any scientists who think that babies don’t feel pain. If people believe that, it is likely one of those commonsensical beliefs learned from grandma.

It is very difficult to test hypotheses about what is going on in animal brains since we have no direct access to their experience. I am not one to doubt that some animals have a capacity for thought and they may be capable of complex thought if it is required for survival in their environment.

But I am frankly a bit skeptical of this experiment described in the linked article. The article states that “The third group of 19 dogs watched Guinness repeatedly use a paw on the rod with her mouth free. Most of those dogs — 83 percent — imitated her behavior exactly, using their paws and not their mouth. That suggested they concluded there must be some good reason to act against their instincts and do it like Guinness.”

But why assume that the 83 percent of the dogs were reasoning about the reasons Guinness had for using her paw? Most animals have basic recognition capacities that enable them to focus attention on what is unusual in a situation relative to their past experience. That Guinness was using a paw instead of her snout was unusual, so they imitated that behavior because it stood out in their visual field. By contrast it was not unusual that Guinness was using her paw when she had a ball in her mouth.

This is not to suggest that the dogs were not reasoning–only that this experiment is not conclusive since there is a plausible alternative hypothesis.

3. Thea - June 11, 2007

Dr. Furrow,

I wouldn’t blame Grandma for telling people babies can’t feel pain. That line of quack has Grand-PA written all over it! After all, he’s either the one with the knife in hand and therefore, has the strongest imperative to prove himself an ethical individual. Either that, or, Grandpa was the one who received the knife job and therefore, has an imperative to believe that no one was willing to hurt him. I guess, going down this path, I have to admit that Grandma could have had an imperative to believe that she wouldn’t hurt her baby. It’s a huge conspiracy, now that I think about it.

Anyways, medical doctors are still using the line on mothers who have made the decision to circumcize, but are concerned that they won’t be able to sleep well afterwards. I don’t know if we call medical doctors scientists if they practice and don’t research, but I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch.

After consideration, I think that what my issue is with theory that I think is illogical. When theories don’t hold up to the scrutiny of even my meager skills of logic, that’s pretty bad.

I agree with you that there are problems with the conclusion of the experiment. Hume would have had a field day! On the other hand, the original hypothesis that animals can’t feel pain or use logic is even worse. I don’t even know how it was supported in the first place. Now, everyone is wasting time trying to disprove a hypothesis that was illogical and baseless, but popular as a result of a human imperative to create ethical congruence with behavior falsely believed to be required for survival.

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