Beastly Thinking - the Animal Mind by James L. Gould and Car

Natural History, August 1994 | Go to article overview

Beastly Thinking - the Animal Mind by James L. Gould and Car


We are currently seeing a spate of books on animal minds. Even to utter the words "animal mind" used to be considered a near-mortal sin for anyone in the behavioral sciences. Nowadays, however, people even title books with the words. What has been happening?

Twenty years ago, scientists could be neatly divided into two types by their response to the question, "What do you imagine happens inside the minds of animals?" Comparative psychologists, behaviorists, and (to a large extent) ethologists would enthusiastically describe rigid, inflexible, mechanistic goings-on--like the machines that controlled those early sci-fi automatons of 1950s movies. Other scientists--and really everybody else, scientist or not--would reply: "Simple thoughts, I suppose, but I don't see how we'll ever know."

How were the professionals who worked on animal behavior so sure of their answers? They weren't, of course, but they were carefully following the rule that science is supposed to abide by: accepting the simplest hypothesis until there is strong evidence of something more complex. Since evidence was minimal, the automaton theory won out. The various professionals agreed on this but differed about what to do with human minds. Behaviorists denied we had them, or if we did, denied that they had any consequences ("epiphenomenon" is a useful word for something that exists but might as well not, for all the effect it has). Other psychologists generally believed that language had somehow given us minds, on top of animallike reflexes. Ethologists don't study humans, do they? So they kept quiet.

Only cognitive psychologists (a new breed in those days) took the maverick line that minds must be a product of brain processes that are mechanistic and yet not in any way simple, thus managing to offend everybody. (Readers who seek to know a reviewer's bias should know that I was a cognitive psychologist in those days.) Cognitive psychology originally grew from the realization by some people of the implications of computers and artificial intelligence for psychology (a late 1950s conference on "the mechanization of thought processes" had a big impact).

Cognitive psychologists gaily assumed that all human intellect was reducible to machine states and set out to describe complex behavior as the results of software and hardware--the brain. They did not, however, think 1950s sci-fi efforts or the behaviorists' theories had much to recommend them. In hindsight, the cognitive approach could have made a bridge between psychologists, impressed with human minds, and evolutionists, who expected continuity between humans and animals. Unfortunately, cognitive psychologists ignored animals.

Donald Griffin set the ball rolling, leading to today's interest in animal minds. Griffin was in an unusual position. He had already made a major scientific discovery, bat echolocation, which somewhat "fireproofed" him from ridicule. Also, he remembered being taught as a student that bats couldn't get around well in darkness. He was not about to accept anyone again telling him that animals couldn't do things.

In 1976 he wrote a book cataloging animal behaviors that are not rigid and inflexible, actions that look suspiciously like our own. He also pointed out that an evolving mind in animals would pay reproductive dividends, challenging readers to consider the possibility that not all animal behavior is mindless. In this and in subsequent, similar volumes, he inspired a whole generation of researchers, James and Carol Gould among them, to look again at what too many had considered well-worked ground.

The Animal Mind is an attractive volume, taking us on a tour of some of the discoveries these researchers have made. The Goulds' choices hint at some of the attributes that they assume we all agree are "mindlike"--flexible not fixed actions, learned not innate behavior, conscious decisions not unconscious impulses. But do we all agree? Few doubt flexible animal learning, so I was left wondering if they really meant "consciousness" to define mind but hesitated to say so.

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