The fascination with different intelligent beings is something that grasps the imagination and attention of scientists all over. but who are we to say how intelligent beings must look or behave like?
Marc Hauser's book is an intriguing way of asserting this question. First it surprised me that we have such an anthropomorphic way in which to explain animal behavior. Apart from saying that animals can be jolly or sad I haven't attributed them with many emotions, but apparently other scientist have tried to explain animal behavior using terminology and concepts applicable only to humans. Like the author says, maybe some of the modalities by which we think we test animal intelligence aren't fit for what pressures nature has put on the evolution of those animals. For instance chimpanzees and orangutans seem to recognize themselves in the mirror, but gorillas seem not to care. We tend to take this as an sign of self-awareness, but maybe the animals don't obtain an advantage by recognizing themselves in the mirror, in the arms race of evolution. So then, it seems that our methods are the ones that aren't measuring the right concepts, the ones that would appear in our mind eye as signs of intelligent thought, or processing.
The author provides an array of examples when experimental work has shed light on processing or feelings we tend to see as landmarks of the human race. For example, problem solving and the capacity to inhibit an initial impulse in order to get to the right solution seem to be present in humans, rhesus macaques and in some chimpanzees. It is interesting to see the experimental conditions and the research questions addressed in order to test some hypothesis. It i in a way a limitation of our human way of reasoning, or so it seemed to me. For instance we put the question of altruism to the test, but we must exclude the potentianlity that the anmswer given by the tested animals represented an response to something totally different.
Marc Hauser carefully brings the attention to all of these details and addresses new questions for those which search understanding in the way animals process information or react to the environment and the question natural selection puts on them.
I Enjoyed having a glimpse into the field of comparative psychology, animal ethology and bioethics, the main fields which seem to draw knowledge from experimental work done on animals.
I can't wait to have a pet to try to entail some experiments on it...