Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Inside an animal's mind

There's a doggy intelligence test that most dogs can't pass -- for an interesting reason.

The test involves placing a treat on the floor, stepping ten feet or so away, and letting the dog into the room.  You point to the treat, and the dog has to use that information to find the treat (i.e., not just sniff around until they blunder on it).

It may seem simple, but success at this requires a remarkable degree of sophistication.  What the dog has to be able to do is to look at you, understand the concept of "pointing," and then think, "If I were where (s)he is, what direction would his/her finger appear to be pointing at?"  In other words, the dog has to realize that another individual is seeing things from a different perspective, and has different information about how the world looks.

Success at this test shows the rudiments of a theory of mind -- an understanding that all sentient individuals see what's around them from their own personal point of view.  Most dogs in this scenario will respond by coming up and sniffing the person's hand, or by becoming confused and simply wandering around because they don't have any idea what the owner is expecting them to do (and usually finding the treat accidentally, so in some sense, they win anyhow).

Only one of the many dogs I've known was able to pass the Theory of Mind Test.  She was a neurotic, hyperactive half border collie, half coonhound named Doolin.  Doolin is far and away the smartest dog I've ever known.  She figured out how to unlatch the slide bolts on our gates with her teeth -- simply from watching us do it.  She not only passed the Theory of Mind Test, she also had no problem with the Mirror Test -- when she saw her reflection, she knew it was her and not another dog.  The first time she saw her reflection in a full-length mirror, she barked -- once.  Then she sort of went, "Oh, ha-ha, that's me, I get it" and never did it again.

Doolin the Canine Genius.  Yes, she did always look this fretful.  I guess being that smart means you've got a lot on your mind.

On the other hand, one of our current dogs, Lena -- who, and I say this with all due affection, has the IQ of a lint ball -- spends hours entertaining herself by standing at the end of our dock and barking at her own reflection in the pond.  ("There's that damn water dog again!  She's a pretty wily one, that water dog, but I'll get her this time!")

Lena, whose perpetually happy expression communicates either "What, me worry?" or else, "Derp."

This comes up because of a cool study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, called, "Great Apes Use Self-Experience to Anticipate an Agent’s Action in a False-Belief Test," by Fumihiro Kano, Satoshi Hirata, and Masaki Tomonaga (of Kyoto University), and Josep Call and Christopher Krupenye (of the University of St. Andrews).  What the researchers did was to show half of their ape test subjects a test box with an opaque barrier and half a box with a transparent barrier, then they were allowed to observe a human interacting with the barrier from a distance where it was impossible to tell whether the barrier was opaque or transparent.  In other words, they had to interpret the behavior of another individual not based on what they themselves were seeing, but what they could infer about what the individual himself saw.

And they did it flawlessly.  When the ape saw that an object had been moved behind an opaque barrier, they guessed that the human trying to look through the barrier wouldn't know it'd been moved -- and the ape's eyes tracked in the direction of where it expected the human to reach (i.e., where the object was before the barrier was lowered).  From these results, it's clear that apes understand that each individual -- ape or human or otherwise -- has his or her own perspective, and they're not all the same.  Like us humans, they recognize that we don't all have access to the same information.

What this immediately brings up for me is our treatment of non-human animals.  My Animal Physiology professor in college -- one of the only college teachers I had who was truly an asshole -- scoffed at the idea that animals had emotions or could experience pain in the same way a human did.  With the perspective of time, I now realize that he hadn't come to this conclusion based on any scientific evidence, but because it made it much easier for him to rationalize hurting animals "in the name of science" without it putting a ding in his conscience.  We now know that many species grieve the death of one of their fellow creatures, bond strongly to their owners, and remember both good and bad treatment (if you don't believe this last one, take a look at this short video of a lion who was reintroduced to the wild, and then a year later remembered the people who'd rescued him -- a video that never fails to bring me to tears).

So we need to throw out this silly dichotomy of "human versus animal."  First, humans are animals.  Second, all the things we think of as being quintessentially human -- emotions, bonding, logic/problem solving, and ability to take another's perspective -- are not either/or, "we've got 'em and you don't" characteristics.  They exist on a spectrum, and our determination to see ourselves as qualitatively different from the rest of the animal kingdom should be jettisoned as the wrong-headed nonsense it is.  Any difference between us and our non-human cousins is purely quantitative -- and the quantities involved are appearing to be, on the whole, exceedingly small.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is by the team of Mark Carwardine and the brilliant author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the late Douglas Adams.  Called Last Chance to See, it's about a round-the-world trip the two took to see the last populations of some of the world's most severely endangered animals, including the Rodrigues Fruit Bat, the Mountain Gorilla, the Aye-Aye, and the Komodo Dragon.  It's fascinating, entertaining, and sad, as Adams and Carwardine take an unflinching look at the devastation being wrought on the world's ecosystems by humans.

But it should be required reading for anyone interested in ecology, the environment, and the animal kingdom. Lucid, often funny, always eye-opening, Last Chance to See will give you a lens into the plight of some of the world's rarest species -- before they're gone forever.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to the day when we can have the same discussion about robots specifically programmed to have emotional responses, track human behavior, and maybe even experience pain.