Consciousness-Raising III -- Animal Minds by Donald R. Griff

Natural History, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Consciousness-Raising III -- Animal Minds by Donald R. Griff


by Donald R. Griffin. University of Chicago Press, $24.95; 320 pp.

In Animal Minds Donald Griffin continues his crusade for the recognition of animals' mental abilities, which he began in 1976 with the publication of The Question of Animal Awareness. The central theme of his third book on the subject is that an unwise taboo on thinking about conscious awareness in nonhuman animals has blocked investigation into something that could and should be studied scientifically with great profit.

There is little doubt that most scientists have avoided the question of whether the "lower" animals have any of the attributes that humans commonly label "consciousness" or "thinking." As Griffin points out, part of the reluctance stems from the influence of the behaviorist school of psychology, which specifically rules out any attempt to examine mental processes, even in human beings. But many nonbehaviorists also question the productive investigation of nonhuman consciousness, primarily because of the practical difficulties inherent in trying to figure out what other individuals are thinking, especially when these individuals are members of another species.

Griffin acknowledges that no one has even begun to test the proposition that nonhuman animals think in a manner similar to that of human beings. That there is no real evidence either way is the basis for his arguing that it is just as plausible to advocate that animals "think" as to deny that they do. To persuade us that many animals are far more than "sleepwalkers" or robots, Griffin surveys at length three lines of evidence that to him are suggestive of consciousness: (1) the ability of some animals to change their behavior adaptively under different and sometimes novel circumstances, (2) certain similarities in brain neural function between lower animals and humans, and (3) the complex communicative abilities of many species.

Griffin presented most of this evidence in his second book, Animal Thinking. Although he discusses some new material in Animal Minds, the latest treatise really constitutes a revised edition of his earlier work, with a very similar organization and central theme. However, those who are interested in the versatility and complexity of animal behavior will find many intriguing examples neatly summarized and discussed in a readable fashion in Animal Minds. The ability of certain small birds to open milk bottles, the capacity of a Clark's nutcracker to remember where it has hidden on the order of a thousand small caches of seeds, the playful behavior of foxes with small prey, the cooperative hunting of lions, flexible communication in weaver ants, the skill pigeons exhibit in categorizing visual stimuli, the famous dances of honey bees, the honey guide's ability to lead humans and other animals to distant bee colonies, the "linguistic" feats of chimpanzees and gray parrots, the complex deceptive signaling of fire flies and mantis shrimps, all this and much more is grist for Griffin's mill.

The various stories are entertaining in their own right, but each and every one is offered up to hammer home the idea that animals other than ourselves exhibit the kind of behavioral sophistication that is compatible with conscious thought. The underlying logic of the argument goes as follows: Conscious awareness influences at least some of the behavioral decisions that human beings make; our consciously driven behavior is complex and versatile; because other species also possess complex and versatile behavioral attributes, they too might well possess something like the consciousness that characterizes human psychology. The rationale underlying this position requires that caddis flies and honey bees, weaver ants and bower-birds, any species that exhibits behavioral complexity or versatility (and almost every species does) be a candidate for consciousness of the sort humans exhibit. Griffin repeatedly concludes, after an examination of one or another example, that the complex or versatile behavior of species X suggests or is indicative of or could be interpreted as evidence that the animal was thinking about the consequences or goals of its actions. …

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