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What Can We Hope to Learn About Animal Minds?

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Editor's note: Evolution News is pleased to inaugurate a new series, "Animal Minds," by Denyse O'Leary. You will find this and future installments conveniently gathered here.

Human consciousness is difficult to define and "arguably the central issue in current theorizing about the mind," even though we experience it all our waking hours. If we can't even define our own consciousness, can we say whether a different type of life form has consciousness or a mind?

Some current philosophers have reasoned away the problem by positing that rocks have minds too. Their approach is summarized by New York Times writer Jim Holt as follows:

We are biological beings. We exist because of self-replicating chemicals. We detect and act on information from our environment so that the self-replication will continue. As a byproduct, we have developed brains that, we fondly believe, are the most intricate things in the universe. We look down our noses at brute matter.

Rocks, we are told, are full of chemical information, and in philosopher David Chalmers's slogan, "Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside."

Animal Minds.jpegOn that view, it is simply impossible to demarcate anything between rocks and humans as a threshold of consciousness. That approach, if it lacks other merit, reveals the difficulty that consciousness creates for naturalism, the idea that nature is all that exists.

Consciousness (a mind) perceives and acts on information. But there are at least two -- more basic and probably unconscious qualities -- that distinguish life from non-life, and seem to act by processing information: self-preservation and adaptability.

Life forms constantly try to preserve themselves in a living state -- that is, they try to survive. They adapt their methods as needed, whenever possible. A rock falls from a high cliff and breaks; a cat has somehow learned to relax, turn in mid-air, and land on his feet. Or consider Slijper's goat and Faith the dog, both of whom, born without forelegs, adapted to a lifestyle that is quite unnatural for their species.

But why do life forms struggle so hard to remain alive when the option of simply dying -- ceasing to be a life form at all, and rejoining the chemical seas -- is readily available, and eventually inevitable?

Naturalist explanations don't turn out to be much help with any of this. Polymath Christoph Adami, interviewed in Quanta Magazine, sees life itself as "self-perpetuating information strings," and defines information as "the ability to make predictions with a likelihood better than chance."

As it happens, he also thinks that "the first piece of information has to have arisen by chance":

On the one hand, the problem is easy; on the other, it's difficult. We don't know what that symbolic language was at the origins of life. It could have been RNA or any other set of molecules. But it has to have been an alphabet. The easy part is asking simply what the likelihood of life is, given absolutely no knowledge of the distribution of the letters of the alphabet. In other words, each letter of the alphabet is at your disposal with equal frequency.

So an alphabet arose by chance? Adami places some confidence in the idea that upheavals around volcanic vents began that alphabet. One can't help but wonder why volcanoes work so differently now.

Taking a slightly different tack, theoretical biologist Kalevi Kull, author of Towards a Semiotic Biology: Life Is the Action of Signs, asks whether life is a form of signaling. Perhaps so, but signaling places us in the world of purpose, not random events.

Communication begins far below the level of the whole life form. One can hardly talk about the genome now, it seems, without an understanding of its complex grammar, "more complex than that of even the most intricately constructed spoken languages in the world" according to Karolinska researchers:

Their analysis reveals that the grammar of the genetic code is much more complex than that of even the most complex human languages. Instead of simply joining two words together by deleting a space, the individual words that are joined together in compound DNA words are altered, leading to a large number of completely new words.

On Adami's view, all this purpose, adaptation, information, signaling, and language originates in the random creation of an alphabet in the ferment around a volcano. Such a position is forced by the claims of naturalism, but is in no way compelled by evidence.

And it all happens whether there is consciousness or not. We experience consciousness, so we assume that other humans do. When we say, informally, that an animal is conscious, we mean that its behavior suggests that it is aware of its own needs, sensations, and environment, of self vs. not-self, of relationships with "not-selves," and such.

So can we determine accurately whether life forms are conscious? Brainless jellyfish, for example, are now thought to act with purpose when fishing.

Are the jellyfish conscious of that purpose? That would amount to having a mind without a brain. But the actual relationship between mind and brain is not -- as we shall see -- as straightforward as was once supposed. For one thing, there does not seem to be a "tree of intelligence," in the sense of a completely consistent correlation between size/type of brain and observed intelligence. We might be best to stick with observation for now, and defer classification till later.

Life forms communicate with each other to a degree that often surprises researchers. Prey animals, for example, warn predators of the danger of eating them or advise other prey that a hiding place is taken. But evidence suggests that plants can communicate too. The Scientist tells us:

Researchers are unearthing evidence that, far from being unresponsive and uncommunicative organisms, plants engage in regular conversation. In addition to warning neighbors of herbivore attacks, they alert each other to threatening pathogens and impending droughts, and even recognize kin, continually adapting to the information they receive from plants growing around them. Moreover, plants can "talk" in several different ways: via airborne chemicals, soluble compounds exchanged by roots and networks of threadlike fungi, and perhaps even ultrasonic sounds. Plants, it seems, have a social life that scientists are just beginning to understand.

So while communication, like purpose, is everywhere, the degree to which a life form is conscious of itself in communication with another life form is still elusive.

Naturalists who do not define the problem out of existence by insisting that even rocks have minds have generally adopted another approach. They try to find animal behaviors that are such close equivalents to human behavior that all such behaviors can be lumped together as, in Francis Crick's phrase, "nothing but a pack of neurons." Nothing remains but to provide a naturalist account, like Adami's, as to how they originally came to be a pack.

What the naturalists are doing is called anthropomorphism -- ascribing human qualities to life forms that may experience life very differently. It was once the province of folk tales. Not today. This year, we were told in the science press that bacteria have morals:

Far from being selfish organisms whose sole purpose is to maximize their own reproduction, bacteria in large communities work for the greater good by resolving a social conflict among individuals to enhance the survival of their entire community.

This finding supports group selection rather than the selfish gene. But it raises questions: Do bacteria have a mind in the absence of a brain? Or is group selection a purposeful force that can operate (as if by magic), in the absence of a mind or brain? Or is the concept of "morals" in fact specific to the human mind, in which case bacteria are not best described as acting that way even by analogy, lest the description become misleading?

In a similar vein, philosopher Stephen Cave argues that animals have free will, proposing to measure it by an FQ, a freedom quotient analogous to IQ:

Experimenters measure this ability by testing how long an animal can resist a small treat in return for a larger reward after a delay. Chickens, for example, can do this for six seconds. They can choose whether to wait for the juicier titbit or not -- but only if that titbit comes very soon. A chimpanzee, on the other hand, can wait for a cool two minutes -- or even up to eight minutes in some experiments. I am guessing that you could manage a lot longer.

Without knowing who the "you" is, I'm not betting anything. Not so sure I'd bet on an unknown chimp either, given the spread cited above.

The research sounds fascinating, but Cave then tells us that

... all around us, every day, we see a very natural kind of freedom -- one that is completely compatible with determinism. It is the kind that living things need to pursue their goals in a world that continually presents them with multiple possibilities.

Obviously, if "free will" is completely compatible with determinism (and Darwinism, he tells us, accounts for that) then free will as we traditionally understand it doesn't exist and can't be measured in any life form. So why claim it does, and can?

Cave's thesis about free will differs significantly from the observation above that jellyfish pursue fish with intent: The intentional behavior of jellyfish is observed; we simply don't know if they know their own intentions. Cave, by contrast, wants to account for human as well as animal intentions as entirely determined while appearing free -- in order to support a fully naturalist perspective.

These two approaches to gathering information are likely to come into increasing conflict. Is the purpose of gathering the information to find out what is going on or to provide support for naturalism? A naturalist will probably answer "Both!" A materialist assumes that any finding can be interpreted from his perspective, however bad the fit, and will keep tinkering until he find a somewhat better fit. The rest of us are prepared to look around and see there may be a better explanation.

Similarly, consider the recent research on why hive workers sometimes kill their queens:

"Workers are assessing the situation in their colony and deciding to revolt against the queen only when the genetic makeup of the colony makes it favorable to do so," Loope said. "The main advantage is to allow your sister workers to lay male eggs, rather than the queen, who typically stops worker reproduction by egg eating, attacking reproducing workers, and by laying many of her own eggs. By eliminating the queen, a matricidal worker allows other workers and herself to lay male eggs."

...

"Hence the matricide," Loope said. "Workers are not mindless automatons working for the queen no matter what. They only altruistically give up reproduction when the context is right, but revolt when it benefits them to do so."

These short quotations from a longer account convey only in part the detailed reasoning hypothesized for the insects. That raises an obvious question: Who or what exactly is doing the reasoning? Some would say natural selection. But natural selection -- the fact that some life forms survive and pass on their traits, while others don't -- must be one of two things. Either it is a mind suited to detailed calculations of self-interest. Or it has somehow produced in the insects' minds capable of such a feat without, so far as we can see, having the brains to match.

Darwin believed that natural selection was the acting agent:

... natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, wherever and whenever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life.

But Darwin wrote in an age when the behavior of life forms was not known to be this complex. He most likely had much simpler scenarios in view, squabbles over a kill perhaps.

Fortunately, we may not need to make sense of the current state of naturalism to gain at least some insights into animal mind. We humans have a sense of "self" that goes well beyond a drive to continue to exist. But to what extent do other life forms have this sense? Recent decades of research on apes and monkeys can give us some sense of the territory we are entering.

Next time, we'll discuss some of the hope, hype, and hard data about ape and monkey minds.

Image: � Alaskajade / Dollar Photo Club.