Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Human beings and other animals - the re-enchantment of nature

How do you think about people in relation to other animals? When the naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell published his famous book My Family and Other Animals in 1956 the title was a bit startling - science was at that time busy distinguishing humans from other animals and we didn't really think of ourselves, then, as one among the animals.

By contrast, a saying attributed to Chief Seattle tells us:
What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
In many traditional societies, and in Europe prior to the seventeenth century, most of the ordinary people saw Nature as full of Spirit, as something quasi-personified, something to be in relationship with. The rise of science and Enlightenment philosophy produced a progressive 'disenchantment of nature', whereby the natural world came to be seen as a machine - impersonal, mechanistic, soul-less. And animals came to be regarded as mere automata, without feeings or the capacity to experience pain, leading to terrible vivisection experiments and thence - by the nineteenth century - to campaigns to ban the practice.

As teacher and author David Kinsley puts it in a groundbreaking book in the field of spiritual ecology:
The disenchantment of nature, viewing nature as primarily matter in motion, as mechanical, as soulless, led to the disengagement of human beings from nature. Nature has been objectified. Lacking subjecthood, the various nonhuman species are reduced to objects to be studied, manipulated, modified, and exploited for various purposes
(from Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Prentice Hall, 1995, p. 130).

One of the strands of the modern environmental movement has been for the 're-enchantment of nature': can we, as a whole culture, as the whole human species, return to regarding nature as full of Spirit, nature as soul-stuff like us, and ourselves as part of nature . . . so that we cease despoiling it?

For many decades, the thrust of research on animal cognition was towards what animals couldn't do, compared with us - to examine what the characteristics were that distinguished humans, that made us unique. One by one these have fallen. 'Man the tool-user'? Many animals use tools. 'Toolmaker'? Some aninals make tools, and show creativity and innovation in doing so. Language? It's clear that animals have sophisticated communication among themselves, and between species, and that they can learn to communicate very effectively with us, using language. Some animals have a sense of self (they recognise themselves in a mirror), they have theory of mind (they know that what they know can be different from what another animal knows) - and this means they can lie and deceive (so, just like us!). Animals can co-operate on complex mechanical tasks to gain a desired reward. They teach their offspring complex information, vital for survival. And they can be creative and original.

Of course, some individual animals are superstars - just as among humans, there is a range of intelligence; and some animals trainers are also superstars, spending years working with an animal to enable good communication, and thus revealing what these animals can do.

Two patterns emerge: that social animals have the biggest brains and the broadest abilities, required (as with humans) to live in a complex social world; and hard lives drive bigger brains - a simple evolutionary imperative. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, long-lived animals show greatest intelligence.

The BBC has recently screened a two-part series showcasing some of these developments. Called Super Smart Animals, it gave a populist but accurate introduction to this whole field.

We saw a chimpanzee with prodigious visual perception and spatial memory.

We saw one particular pod of humpbacked whales that have invented the co-operative 'bubble-net' method of fishing, enabling them all to catch more fish than they ever could by hunting alone. Their method clearly shows communication, role distribution among the group, planning and careful shared timing of movements.

We saw Tilman, the skateboarding bulldog who had taught himself to skateboard - he's not been trained or rewarded to do this. He's seen many humans skateboarding, and just decided to try it - he appears to be doing it, just as humans do, for the sheer joy of it.

Corvids - birds of the crow family - are very clever; some call them 'the chimps of the bird world'. Carrion crows have worked out to drop hard-shelled nuts at traffic lights - the cars drive over them and crush the hard shells, and when the lights turn red, the birds swoop down and retrieve the nuts. Caledonian crows invent new and unique tools to crack problems they've never seen before. Scrub jays hide their food in caches; but if (and only if) they realise they've been observed by another bird, they will return later and move the food, unobserved, so the watching thief can't find it. And the twist in this tale - it's only the birds who themselves thieve that do this. Non-thieving birds don't consider that others might steal their food!

Magpies recognise themselves in the mirror. And corvids recognise faces - they will recall human faces they dislike (because of something that human has done) for up to five years.

In the BBC programmes we saw captive dolphins, trained to respond to gestures that correspond with movements . . . but the real surprise of this was that they'd been taught a sign that meant: 'be creative, invent something new', and each time they were given this gesture they'd display some new, never seen before, move. Amazingly, there was a pair of dolphins who did this together - told to 'be creative', they swam away, somehow decided between them what to do (something new each time), came back and performed it in perfect synchronisation. Can we possible maintain that these creatures don't have language?

And the programme gave us a brief glimpse of Alex, the African grey parrot, and of his trainer/companion Irene Pepperberg. Parrot intelligence can be studied in a unique way, because the birds can be taught to speak. And what has become clear is that this isn't just copying sounds ('parrotting'), but understanding nouns as labels, adjectives as descriptive properties of an object, and sentences implying structure and movement.

Alex - now sadly deceased - could identify and correctly name particulr objects, colours, shape, and the material that an object was made of. He could count. And he could obey simple instructions. So, for instance, given a key and asked what it was, he would say 'key'; then asked 'what matter?', he would reply 'metal'. Given a plastic shape he could answer correctly whether it was a square, circle or triangle, and tell you its colour. Given a selection of pastic shapes and told to find, for example, the 'blue square', he would correctly pick it out. He could correctly recognise children's plastic letter and number shapes, and had a vocabulary of well over a hundred words. He had the concepts of 'bigger' and 'smaller'. He could correctly respond to the instruction: 'put the red circle in the blue square box'.This is conceptualisation that would challenge some human toddlers.

Since Alex's death, Irene Pepperberg continues her work with two other African greys called Griffin and Arthur.

The list of animals and their abilities goes on and on, and not only with the familiar charismatic large animals. Meerkats show complex phased teaching of their cubs in how to catch, handle and eat dangerous scorpions. Laboratory rats will refrain from gaining their favourite food to protect another rat from pain. Squid have enormous brains distributed through their whole body, into their tentacles, and show impressive spatial intelligence. Crabs, small finches, sea otters, pigeons, dogs, monkeys, prairie dogs, horses . . . all reveal extensve mental abilities, once we humans start looking for it, instead of looking only for what they can't do.

A recent publication about work with dolphins shows the possibilities. Diana Reiss has been working with dolphins for many years and her book The Dolphin in the Mirror presents her work to the general reader. The author describes her work, her conclusions, and the stories that aren't yet ready to make it into the scientific papers. It's clear that dolphins display mirror recognition and theory of mind.

One of the difficulties with dolphin research has always been that - unlike apes, say - the have no hands with which to manipulate the world. Reiss invented a big keyboard that hung in the water, that the dolphins could operate by tapping with their beak. The keys had non-representational symbols on them. Working with this device clearly demonstrated that they could conceptualise, they could relate symols to objects, they could carry out instructions to do particular actions with particular objects, they could initiate communication as well as respond to it . . . and Reiss also describes how these highly social creatures show as much lively curiosity about her as she has about them.

It's a deeply engaging book that enlarges our appreciation of our place among - not separate from - other animals.

Other reading
Irene Pepperberg, Alex and Me
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and and Roger Lewin, Kanzi: Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind
- The Hidden Life of Dogs
- The Tribe of Tiger
- The Old Way

1 comment:

  1. Do many people know about the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare?
    "Science in the Service of Animal Welfare".
    This is what it does:
    •Promotes and supports developments in the science and technology that underpin advances in animal welfare.
    •Promotes education in animal care and welfare.
    •Provides information, organises symposia, conferences and meetings, publishes books, videos, technical reports and the international quarterly scientific journal Animal Welfare.
    •Provides expert advice to governments and other organisations and helps to draft and amend laws and guidelines.
    •Enlists the energies of animal keepers, scientists, veterinarians, lawyers and others who care about animals.