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Scientists: Humans and Non-Humans—We Are All Conscious August 26, 2012

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.

A watershed of an event happend recently–if you’re in any way interested in the nature of consciousness. My students from Phil 107 and 108, and readers of my book, The Human Condition, know how vital I consider this topic, both in its ontological and  ethical aspects. I hope to expand this post later. For now, let me just share the URLs and a few quotes:


An international group of prominent scientists has signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they are proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are — a list of animals that includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus. But will this make us stop treating these animals in totally inhumane ways?

 While it might not sound like much for scientists to declare that many nonhuman animals possess conscious states, it’s the open acknowledgement that’s the big news here. The body of scientific evidence is increasingly showing that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are, and it’s no longer something we can ignore.


The two principal features that distinguish people from other animals is our hypertrophied ability to reflect upon ourselves (self-consciousness) and language. Yet there is little reason to deny consciousness to animals simply because they are mute or, for that matter, to premature infants because their brains are not fully developed. There is even less reason to deny it to people with severe aphasia who, upon recovery, can clearly describe their experiences while they were incapable of speaking. The perennial habit of introspection has led many intellectuals to devalue the unreflective, nonverbal character of much of life. The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioral continuity between animals and people.

And here is the declaration in its entirety:


Culture–It’s Not Just for Humans Anymore October 24, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

What a difference a couple of decades make. Back in the Twentieth Century they used to tell us that humans were the only beings who had culture, and whatever traditions nonhuman animals displayed in their groups could be explained as instinct. That concept began to erode already with Jane Goodall’s research, although we still encounter holdout animal behaviorists who maintain that whatever it is that chimpanzees do when they share and transmit inventions and traditions, it isn’t culture (which brings to mind long-range visionary David Hume who not only thought that emotions have primacy over rationality, but also that if nonhuman animals display emotional and intellectual behavior similar to humans, it should be given similar labels). So what would an example of a  chimp culture be like? From a Scientific American blog, “Cultural Transmission in Chimpanzees”:

While nonhuman primates don’t have obvious cultural traditions the same way humans do, such as variation in their clothing or adding extra spice to their food, primatologists have nonetheless identified behavioral practices that vary between communities and which are transmitted through social learning. For a behavior to be considered a cultural practice in nonhuman primates it must meet certain conditions: the behavior must be practiced by multiple members of the community, it must vary between societies, and the potential for that same behavior must exist in other societies.

A good example of such a cultural trait was just discovered last year and published in the journal Current Biology (review here). Kibale Forest chimpanzees were found to use sticks to get at the honey in a fallen log, whereas Budongo Forest chimpanzees used chewed leaves as sponges to collect the same thing. Both societies had the same tools at their disposal, but they each chose a different approach. A single individual first used one of these techniques and other members of the group adopted it through imitation and social learning. This is merely the latest example of cultural traditions in different chimpanzee societies.

So let’s assume that we are convinced that chimps invent and transmit culture; the question now becomes how? In a Swedish study  quoted by the Scientific American blog a new idea has been proposed: that culture is being transmitted by female chimps. Chimp societies are patrilocal (the males stay put, the females move between groups), so whatever traditions the females have learned from growing up within a group they will bring with them to their new home, and teach them to their kids:

Because females express and transmit more culture than males, and because females transfer between communities bringing with them their cultural knowledge, the number of cultural traits present in any given chimpanzee community should depend on the number of females in that community. Thus, we hypothesize that the number of cultural traits in chimpanzee communities should correlate with the average number of females in chimpanzee communities, but not with the average number of males.

This implies that females are critical in chimpanzees for transmitting cultural traits and maintaining cultural diversity. The reported pattern may be explained by the fact that females transfer between communities, bringing with them novel cultural traits and consequently increasing the cultural diversity of the community as a whole.

And that’s not all: from a  group of Swiss anthropologists  we now hear that orangutans also have culture–particularly interesting, because orangutans aren’t perceived (by most of us laypeople) as being as social as chimps:

Researchers from the University of Zurich have now studied whether the geographic variation of behavioral patterns in nine orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo can be explained by cultural transmission. They have concluded that it can.

The team analyzed more than 100,000 hours of behavioral data and created genetic profiles of more than 150 wild orangutans. They measured the ecological differences between the habitats of the different populations using satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques.

Co-author of the study, published in Current Biology, Carel van Schaik said: “The novelty of our study is that, thanks to the unprecedented size of our dataset, we were the first to gauge the influence genetics and environmental factors have on the different behavioral patterns among the orangutan populations.”

It seems that the days when researchers would claim that only humans have culture will be over fairly soon. No word on whether orangutan females play the same role as chimp females.




The Evolution of “Irrationality” October 22, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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Research in behavioral economics, especially by Kahneman and Tversky, shows that people prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains and that our sense  of gains and losses depend on how they are framed rather than their objective outcomes.

Classical economics treat these cognitive biases as irrational but they nevertheless seem deeply embedded in human psychology.

Now some clever researchers, in a paper entitled  “How Basic Are Behavioral Biases?: Evidence from Capuchin Monkey Trading Behavior” show that the same biases exist in monkey behavior.

Thus, these behavioral biases are apparently very deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. Apparently, from an evolutionary point of view, these behaviors are not so irrational.

Friday Music Blogging September 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Art and Music, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Science.
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I have always wondered why my son’s dog doesn’t care about music.

Beethoven, Coltrane, Radiohead—it doesn’t matter, he is indifferent.

Here is a study of monkeys that explains why:

Monkeys don’t care much for human music, but apparently they will groove to their own beat.

Previous experiments have shown that tamarin monkeys prefer silence to Mozart, and they don’t respond emotionally to human music the way people do. But when a psychologist and a musician collaborated to compose music based on the pitch, tone and tempo of tamarin calls, they discovered that the species-specific music significantly affected monkey behavior and emotional response.

“Different species may have different things that they react to and enjoy differently in music,” said psychologist Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who published the paper Tuesday in Biology Letters with composer David Teie of the University of Maryland. “If we play human music, we shouldn’t expect the monkeys to enjoy that, just like when we play the music that David composed, we don’t enjoy it too much.”

Indeed, the monkey music sounds shrill and unpleasant to human ears. Each of the 30-second pieces below were produced with a cello and Teie’s voice, based on specific features from recordings of tamarin monkey calls. The first “song” is based on fear calls from an upset monkey, while the second one contains soothing sounds based on the vocalizations of a relaxed animal.

If you are curious check out the “monkey music” at the linked site.

No Grand Bargain Between Evolution and Theism August 23, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, religion, Science.
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Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal, has a useful article in the New York Times that does a good job of summarizing the contemporary debate between thoughtful theists and atheists regarding evolution.

Wright is an agnostic who thinks both sides in this debate are a bit stubborn.

Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic. If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

I have read countless unsuccessful attempts to reconcile theism and atheism. So I read the rest of his article anticipating some new insight.

But I think he is spinning his wheels.

Wright points out that even religious believers who accept some version of evolutionary theory nevertheless think that evolution cannot explain our capacity for morality. But Wright correctly points out that there is considerable evidence, which he summarizes in The Moral Animal, that  fundamental aspects of human morality are a product of evolution.

So, for example, feelings of guilt over betraying a friend are with us because during evolution sustaining friendships brought benefits through the non-zero-sum logic of one hand washing the other (“reciprocal altruism”). Friendless people tend not to thrive.

Indeed, this dynamic of reciprocal altruism, as mediated by natural selection, seems to have inclined us toward belief in some fairly abstract principles, notably the idea that good deeds should be rewarded and bad deeds should be punished.

But that ought not be an obstacle to accepting some notion of divine purpose, according to Wright.

Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).

Given the evidence of moral behavior in a variety of animals, Wright argues that it is plausible to think that the logic of moral reasoning was written into the evolutionary process long before humans existed. This suggests that our moral  intuitions are picking out features of the world that were true even before we came along to express them.

If we accept the evolutionary account, however, we must admit that there are purposes, including moral purposes, within nature.

SO in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

So far so good. Nature is full of purpose as any Introductory Biology class makes clear. And evidence is mounting that morality is not something we just dreamed up but is part of the natural world.

But then he goes off the rails.

…it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

Well no. First of all, it doesn’t follow that because organisms in nature have purposes that nature as a whole too has a purpose. A whole needn’t have all the properties of its parts. Furthermore, scientifically-minded theologians, are not “free to do so”, i.e. posit a purpose for all of nature, without evidence. If they are accepting such hypotheses without evidence they are not scientifically minded. Wright continues:

William James said that religious belief is “the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” Science has its own version of the unseen order, the laws of nature. In principle, the two kinds of order can themselves be put into harmony — and in that adjustment, too, may lie a supreme good.

But the “harmony” is strained and dissonant. There is big difference between laws of nature that have been verified through experiment and speculation about divinely-inspired order.

Wright is correct that religion and evolution are logically compatible. It is logically possible that God created the evolutionary process. But we already knew that. That has been part of some versions of Christian theology for years.  In the end, Wright doesn’t move us much beyond the views of William James, the early 20th century pragmatist.

James argued we should hold religious beliefs because they are uniquely good for us—they provide hope for immortality. Wright has something similar in mind.

Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.

Wright imagines a new religion based on a divinely inspired natural moral order that could help alleviate conflict. Apparently, we should hold religious beliefs because they encourage hope for human flourishing.

This, it seems to me, is the issue. Does religious belief encourage human flourishing or not? As we look at global conflict today it isn’t obvious that it does.

At any rate, confusing ordinary functional purposes with divinely-inspired Purpose and passing off metaphysical speculation as science doesn’t help.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

So Magpies are Self-Aware—So What? August 13, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

There is something fundamentally ironic in the fact that we are now beginning to understand ourselves as homo sentiens (the feeling human being) rather than homo sapiens ( a paradigm shift which has its own philosophical perils), but at the same time we are expanding our knowledge of the rational capacities of nonhuman animals. Birds and dogs seem to be the favorite research subjects reported on by the media right now, rather than apes—birds, because it is just so weird that birds can think (so it has shock value) and dogs, because we just love them so damn much.  I can find less-than-academic reasons why we are glued to these topics, but that shouldn’t detract from the astonishing fact that the scientific community has experienced a sea change over the last decade: Even in the late 20th century you couldn’t enter into an academic discussion about animal intelligence without risking the loss of your professional reputation; now it seems that we’re all getting into the fray, legitimately.

So let’s talk some more about birds. We’ll save the dogs for some other time. Did you hear about the rook that can figure out how to raise the water level in a tube so it can reach the worm?  Not the Aesop fable, but for real? A thought process that used to be attributed to humans only—chimps can’t do it as fast or as consistently.  Other experiments conducted on crows have shown that crows are able to envision a solution to a problem (using a string to get a piece of meat) without having first tried to solve the problem through trial-and-error. The crow brain is proportionally larger than other bird brains, the body mass taken into account. A bit of online surfing brought me to some research published last year, which I had somehow missed: Magpies are now the first bird to pass the mirror self-recognition test—they will try to remove a visible sticker placed on their feathers, if all they know about it is that they see it in the mirror. So move over,  humans, apes, elephants, and dolphins—magpies also turn out to have a basic sense of self! For those of us who were astounded and delighted in the 1990s when we read about chimps who would clearly recognize themselves in the mirror (red dot placed on their forehead), this is only one more step in the expansion of the personhood concept: If you know that you are, as an entity, language or not, then you exist on a higher level than beings who may be aware of their surroundings, but not that they are aware of them. Sartre’s old pour-soi vs. en-soi is being recast in another context.

So what are the ethical implications of this? Should we then respect crows, elephants, dolphins, apes, and other humans as persons? To some extent, most certainly. If you cause them pain, you are contributing to a suffering of which they are aware as happening to them. It is not trivial. But on another level it doesn’t mean that we are no longer allowed to interfere with their lives. We should just feel obligated to take into consideration that we’re dealing with conscious, self-aware life in some form, but we still retain the negative right to maintain our own life, liberty and property. When the crows are nesting in my big tree, I reserve the right to scare them away, because they ruin my night’s sleep. Do I have a right to kill them? That depends on the level of pain they are causing me. If one repeatedly goes for my eyes, or attacks my baby, or my pet, then yes, I will feel morally entitled to kill it. (Not taking into account local legislation about endangered species, noise levels, discharging of weapons, etc., of course. I’m talking about abstract moral rights, as I see them.) That’s just an extension of Locke’s doctrine of negative rights, anyway. The trouble is of course that crows may have self-awareness, but they don’t have human social awareness. They don’t know they’re trespassing, in human terms. So the taking of a self-aware animal life should be cnsidered a “last resort” approach.

But what lies in the future of animal research? I predict that, before long, we will hear that pigs can recognize themselves in the mirror. Pigs are smart, we know that—it is not too far-fetched to assume that they also have a sense of self, and maybe even a theory of mind (understanding that other members of their species are aware). They are in some ways smarter than ordinary chimps, and chimps have a theory of mind. So is that the end of bacon as we know it? You know what? I would actually say yes. If we can justify killing and eating a self-aware animal, there is no theoretical boundary preventing us from killing and eating humans, other than speciecism. An Asian prince of long, long ago who used to eat slave girls was told that eating humans was wrong. He answered, “But they taste good!” So we can’t use the same argument for eating pork—that it tastes good. So far few people eat crows (except metaphorically), but the day will come when some of our food animals will be proven to be self-aware, at some basic level. And in any event, all of them have a general awareness of pain and pleasure (like Bentham pointed out—“not Can they speak, nor Can they reason, but Can they suffer?). Bentham didn’t have a problem eating meat, because he viewed the pros and the cons of incurring suffering—but can we afford to be as bombastic and calculating?  Some (like PETA people) would say that the difference between self-awareness and general awareness is invented by humans with an agenda toward eating meat, because life is life (a pig is a boy etc.). In my own view, self-awareness does mark a different kind of existence than general awareness. I will eat animals who are aware of their surroundings, but not animals who are aware that they are aware. The day when our meat animals turn out to be self-aware, even in the slightest degree, that’s probably it for my meat-eating days. Unless I am locked in mortal combat with a pig, and manage to kill it with my equivalent of its tusks (my Swiss Army knife). Then I’ll proudly eat it, and wear its skin…

Saintly Elephants June 7, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Animal Intelligence, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Science.
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A new book, Wild Justice, by Professors Bekoff and Pierce, argues that animals have rich moral lives in many respects like that of humans.

Via The Telegraph

… Prof Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at University of Colorado, Boulder, believes that morals are “hard-wired” into the brains of all mammals and provide the “social glue” that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups.

He has compiled evidence from around the world that shows how different species of animals appear to have an innate sense of fairness, display empathy and help other animals that are in distress…

Elephants are intensely sociable and emotional animals. Research by Iain Douglas Hamilton, from the department of zoology at Oxford University, suggests elephants experience compassion and has found evidence of elephants helping injured or ill members of their herd.

In one case, a Matriarch known as Eleanor fell ill and a female in the herd gently tried to help Eleanor back to her feet, staying with her before she died.

In 2003, a herd of 11 elephants rescued antelope who were being held inside an enclosure in KwaZula-Natal, South Africa.

The matriarch unfastened all of the metal latches holding the gates closed and swung the entrance open allowing the antelope to escape.

This is thought to be a rare example of animals showing empathy for members of another species – a trait previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of mankind.

The authors accumulate evidence from coyotes, wolves, dogs, monkeys, chimps, rodents, bats, and whales as well.

There are, of course, many differences between human and animal moral behavior. I doubt that animals are reflectively aware that they are moral beings, for example. But the view that humans are not fundamentally animals is increasingly hard to credit.



 book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com

The Story of the Lateralized Brain May 13, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

Weren’t we taught that (1) you’re either “left-brained” or “right-brained”? And weren’t we taught that (2) only humans have lateralized brains, i.e., brains that are divided into two asymmetrical brain hemispheres? Turned out we were lied to. Or (since I have a problem with accusing people of lying if they were just wrong) our teachers were misinformed. But now we hear (Zimmer, “The Big Similarities”)  that other animals also have lateralized brains—something that those of us with pets have suspected for a long time. And why not? From bees to birds to mammals, our brains are specialized in right- and left brain structures, which may aid the individual in developing fresh survival strategies. And the “right-brained” and “left-brained” story has always been oversimplified; of course we all make use of all our brain, even if we have different talents (and the pop slogan that “We only use 10 percent of our brain” should be taken out and beaten to death). And we have known for a while that, as separate as the brain halves may look, the corpus callosum that unites them (which is thicker in female brains than in the male equivalents—so make of that what you will) is important for creating a unified conscious experience. So, if anyone is still in doubt, yes, we have animal brains. Some little critter a long time ago survived because it had a lateralized brain, and we have inherited it. But of course that doesn’t mean we haven’t improved on the first model, and the next, and the next, and made it into a uniquely human version. Zimmer’s article doesn’t much go into that, but there’s no shortage of research in that area.

What I’m curious about right now is our story-telling capacity. It resides in the left brain hemisphere, with our processing of words, but language is also processed in the right hemisphere, for its emotional content. We don’t tell stories without emotional values—otherwise it would be like reading from the phone book.  So the good storytellers among us have a vivid cooperation between the two hemispheres. But how about non-human brains? Those big mammal brains that recognize faces, produce and understand meaningful sounds, communicate with body language, have strong emotional ties to their group, and remember where they buried last year’s bones? If future researchers  were to find that those same brain areas also light up when scanned, maybe we should start looking for a grammar of nonhuman animal communications…and maybe some day I’ll have to stop saying that the ultimate human characteristic is that we are the ones who tell stories…

Dogs Know Fairness and Envy December 11, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

This is a busy season—I’d like to do a longer piece on this news item, but this is all you get for now: Researchers (such as Frans de Waal) already knew that humans aren’t the only animals with a sense of fair play, apes know when they’re being shortchanged, too. But now we have to add dogs to the group of animals with some kind of rudimentary understanding of peer equality: All depending on which headlines you’ve read the last couple of days, “Dogs Have a Sense of Fairness,” or “Dogs Can Feel Envy.” That idea alone is interesting, because it illustrates that the Cartesian concept that nonhuman animals are automata with no feelings or reason is rapidly receding into the darkness of philosophical errors of the past. In the National Geographic article

Scott Creel, a behavior ecologist at Montana State University, said the research suggests many social species may have mental processes scientists once believed were unique to humans, or at least primates.

 But what is also interesting is the difference between the two reported headlines. “Fairness” obviously evokes a higher understanding of equality, perhaps even of the Golden Rule. “Envy,” now that triggers a less illustrious association to selfishness and self-preservation. Same story, different spin. But either way, it adds to our understanding that social mammals have a much keener sense of group dynamics than philosophers and animal behaviorists used to think. Emotion and intelligence! So it should be clear by now to even the die-hard speciecists that we humans share an emotional-intelligence continuum with our fellow mammalian travelers on this planet.


An afterthought: So when you buy Christmas presents for your dogs, remember that they’ll be watching what the other dog gets…

Update on Matthew Hiasi February 7, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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On Dec,6, 2007 I posted a story from Austria about Matthew Hiasi Pan (“Hearts and Minds of Chimps”) who was about to be sold into an unknown future. Matthew Hiasi is a chimpanzee, and supporters have argued that he should be granted human status, as opposed to being legally classified as a thing. In Austria there are only those two legal options. Some of you may have wondered what happened to him: In mid-January the Austrian Supreme Court decided against Hiasi: He has been found to be a thing, with no rights. His British mentor is taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The trouble with the court ruling seems to be that the court has decided against making a distinction between “humanity” and “personhood.” It goes without saying that Hiasi is not a human being, genetically, but being a “person” requires (among other characteristics) the capacity for meaningful communication, a sense of purpose, and self-awareness, characteristics that apes share with us at least to some extent, as the stories of Washoe, Koko, Kanzi and Panbanisha have shown us. Even Kant finally came to the conclusion that there ought to be an intermediate category between a person and a thing (although he didn’t include animals in that category). Apparently it is too much of a challenge for the Austrian Supreme Court to consider the possibility of partial personhood.