luni, 13 februarie 2012

If a Lion Could Talk - How Animals Think

In my pursuit to understand how cognition appears it seems natural that I would be inclined to read about how animals process the information around them. It was indeed necessary to take into consideration the idea that all the research and study into animal intelligence carries a powerful bias, that of anthropocentrism. The fact that we as humans are bound to our own experience of consciousness, of how we perceive the world around us, limits the understanding of other experiences, namely of that which other animals might have. 

Budiansky’s account of cleverly designed experiments is a proof that we need to take into consideration a lot of factors and conditions before we can state something about the way in which a different species reacts based on the stimuli it receives. The very nature of our sensory organs bounds us “to see” only a part of the environment, the one that is the most important to our own survival. Because we are social specie we put emphasis on the accurate perception of those signals that can offer information about other members of our specie (the social position, symbols of power or wealth, relations amongst ourselves) much like other social species: monkeys, chimpanzees, dogs, horses etc. We tend to consider these signs as those of greater intelligence, just because we are used to intelligence being expressed in this manner. 

Every organism learns through associations during its lifetime. Animals do that all the time and it’s a big advantage to their survival to do so. Learning and responding appropriately to the environment guarantees a better chance at transmitting the genes, and continue the legacy of every species. Only those organisms that adapt can maintain a competitive edge against other members of their species. Associations between stimulus and a response from environment (reward: food, water, sex, inclusion in the social environment etc., or punishment: food deprivation, injuries etc) are a powerful tools in learning. Dogs and other social animals exhibit this feat mostly because we know how to perceive it, but other animals do to. Budiansky offers a great amount of evidence to support this.

Some remarks are so true that I feel compelled to mention them. For instance: “Many animal researchers are fairly confident that more-sensitive experiments will show that apes, at least, do possess some ability to attribute mental states. But the entire search has been a vivid reminder of the dangers of anthropocentrism. The things that apes are good at are the things they evolved to do to survive in their particular ecological niche. And the things an animal is good at generally do not require three decades of ambiguous experiments to discover.”(p. 188) This particular point made me think of all the implications in every aspect of scientific research, mainly the idea that when we set ourselves to test a hypothesis we limit the perceived reality to only a narrow bit, the one that fits into our experimental instruments.

The final passage of the book is another idea that made me think, mainly because it manages to sum up different ideas about evolution. “It is always dangerous to draw moral lessons from the blindly amoral process of evolution. But if there is a lesson here, it is that all of the creatures that evolution has fashion are remarkable in their own right. All have hit upon unique ways to make a living against all probability. And that is something to respect, and to treasure.”(p. 194)

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