Saturday, March 07, 2009

Of Course: Watch What You're Assuming

In his afterword to the book The Cognitive Animal, Donald R. Griffin spends several paragraphs trying to sound all scientific and neutral as he discusses the difficulties in fully understanding the consciousness of animals--The difficulty of knowing what they think, what they are aware of, and so on. He even allows that consciousness varies widely even among humans.

Then he says that animal consciousness "of course does not include the more complex levels of human thought". Of course? How can there be an "of course" kind of statement when you just explained so many reasons you can't make any conclusions?

"Of course [animal consciousness] does not include the more complex levels of human thought" merely says that even as this person is trying to be scientific, his mind is already made up. That statement is just a fractional level removed from "of course animals don't think", "of course animals aren't aware", or "of course animals don't feel pain".

While researching for today's post, I ran into a lot of people who cling desperately to the notion that only humans have language. Fortunately, we have real scientists reporting on prairie dog language, gray parrots and their use of spoken language, and the more famous Koko and Washoe and others. Now we need some open minds to go with the facts. These are real examples of real language usage, with complex thoughts behind them.

Griffin goes on to mention that human communication involves not only spoken language but body language as well. This is another barrier toward understanding animals, since their bodies are different from ours (as well as their societal influences being different). I was lucky (?) to notice that a lion was indicating, with body language, that humans standing up made him nervous. How many other people had seen that same body language and not recognized it? How many body language cues are being given to what animals think that no human ever notices?

Griffin concludes by saying "cautious scientists have a strong tendency to avoid this question [of animal consciousness], and some insist that such questions are inappropriate for scientific inquiry... But the tentative assumption that some animals experience simple levels of subjective awareness often enables us to make sense of their behavior."

My question is, Is it necessary to include the word "simple" in that last statement?

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