Sunday, September 13, 2009

Book Review: If A Lion Could Talk

Here at "Intelligent Life is All Around Us", I often point out how research scientists must leave logic behind to desperately hang on to the notion that any and every non-human species of animal does not have any consciousness. This erroneous notion from the bad old days of Descartes is religiously clung to, and is still taught in our colleges and universities. Such an ability to deny reality gave the world such things as dissection of live, unanesthetized dogs--after all, those cries they made could not possibly represent pain, since dogs are not conscious and cannot feel pain.

On the other hand, I probably will spend the rest of my life collecting and presenting evidence that animals are capable of thinking, feeling, and loving just as much as you or me.

Stephen Budiansky ostensibly campaigns for a philosophical middle ground, saying that we can't know what goes on in an animal's mind, or if it has one, and that we should not think of an animal in human terms; that if a lion could talk it would no longer be a lion. He fails to manage this balancing act, and ends up falling on the wrong side of the fence. He contends that professional biologists are too sentimental, that any study that shows that any animal can have emotions, intellect, and/or consciousness *must* be flawed and biased.

However, such studies and conclusions are slowly on the increase, and I contend that the scientific world is slowly catching up with reality because of it.

To prove his point about flawed studies, Budiansky must trot out the 100-year-old story of Clever Hans, the horse that was supposed to be able to do arithmetic. It turned out that the horse could not do arithmetic -- and why should a horse spontaneously show arithmetic abilities? This horse was actually intelligent enough to learn and notice body language in his owner that nearly every other human did not see. And so the story of Clever Hans proves... what? That a horse didn't know arithmetic? So the people involved were silly for believing that a horse could spontaneously do sums--big deal. What has that got to do with the bigger questions at hand?

If Budiansky were better able to support his idea that we should not try to see animals as equals, but instead respect them as separate and unequal coinhabitants of Earth, he would have a worthwhile book. After all, thinking of animals solely in terms of human society is not valid either. Human behavior is driven by any number of societally-induced rules and assumptions. One cannot expect a horse or a rabbit to have identical motivations as a human--even I will show you that a rabbit does not think the same things as a human, but that does not mean that a rabbit doesn't think. And even among humans one cannot expect a believer in one religion, for example, to have the same motivations as a different believer. Where Budiansky falls on his face is in denying consciousness to all nonhumans. Language is the reason, he says. But in reality, other species do have language, although maybe not in ways that fit Budiansky's carefully convoluted definition of language.

Budiansky will allow that all nonhuman vertebrates are equally intelligent. What he cannot properly explain is why the word "nonhuman" is necessary in that sentence. He will allow that differences in each species' bodies results in differing perceptions and differing observed reactions to stimuli. But he cannot come up with a convincing argument why humans should not be part of the same continuum, or even why humans should not try to understand other species in terms that humans understand. I will agree that total anthropomorphism is not the answer, but anthropomorphism is a step toward understanding animals by relating our own experiences to theirs.

There is a practical problem with the separate-and-unequal idea as well: it does not take into account human nature. "Separate and unequal" always ends up being transformed into "inferior" and therefore unimportant, and therefore disposable. This leads to the destruction of other species.

The full quote referenced in the title of this book is, "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him." I know that if a Russian or a Greek talked to me (in his native language) I wouldn't understand him, either. That doesn't mean those people don't talk. And I will tell you that lions and other animals do talk, in their native languages, and it takes keen observation to begin to understand them. (I could teach you to say a word in tiger language, a very handy word should you ever find yourself face to face with a tiger...)

Given the proven biological similarities between humans and other animals, is it not a leap of illogic to *presume* that other animals do not have mental lives similar to ours? (It *is* only a presumption; no one has proved that they don't.)

Given the experiences of people who actually spend a great deal of time with animals, how can a thinking person presume that they don't? Recognizing emotions in animals is something that happens whenever anyone who is truly observant spends some actual time with animals. Fortunately for animals and humans alike, we can also vicariously observe the intelligence and emotions of animals--take the worldwide sensation of Christian the Lion for example, which surely will have long-lasting effects on overall perceptions of animals.

Budiansky says, "To understand what we truly can about how animal minds work inescapably means to abandon any real hope of penetrating their thoughts, or of translating their thoughts into human terms." But in what other terms _can_ we understand them? To say that Christian the lion loved John Rendall and Ace Bourke may be anthropomorphizing, but it does convey an accurate understanding of his actions, his body language, and the realities of his life with those two men. You could say that we do not know exactly what was going on inside the lion's mind, but then I seriously doubt that even you and I have exactly the same definition of what love is.

In the end, I think Budiansky's "separate and unequal" approach to animals has good intentions at its roots but is ultimately indefensible. I believe a "different but equal" approach is more realistic and in the long run beneficial to all life.

1 comment:

  1. If you don't understand something, it's easy to dismiss it. For years they believed babies were blind at birth and felt no pain. So when circumcision was done on little baby boys, the cries were supposed to be because the babies were restrained. Even a brand new mom can tell the difference between a pain cry and a frustrated cry.