Monday, December 28, 2015

Animals do not know to make babies

Science articles are frequently stressing news that animals have human capabilities, like using tools, and refusing to recognize differences between humans and animals. Here is a paywalled SciAm article to remind us of the huge differences.

What Animals Know about Where Babies Come From
In fact, there is no literature on whether animals understand reproduction. ...

To comprehend unobservable phenomena such as gravity or impregnation, a creature has to be capable of abstract reasoning, the ability to mentally form representations of unseen underlying causes or forces. Humans use abstract reasoning to transfer knowledge from one situation to another, which allows us to solve problems we have never encountered before and to even invent new diversions for ourselves. Although animals such as chimpanzees are far cleverer than scientists have traditionally acknowledged, they do not appear to have this particular cognitive skill. I'm reminded of the time an astute sixth grader answered my question about “Why don't chimps play baseball?” not with their anatomical incompatibilities but with “Because you can't explain the rules to them.” ...

Koko can, as a result of years of training, name hundreds of objects when prompted, but she does not engage in discussion. ...

Indeed, limited verbal skills are the norm among wild primates. Vervet monkeys have what is perhaps the closest thing to human language, and it does not begin to measure up in its complexity. As Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania have observed from their extensive studies of these animals in East Africa, the vervets make distinct predator alarm calls for “eagle,” “snake” and “leopard.” These buzzy shrieks or “words” are not learned like human words but are innate. Although the alarm calls are arbitrary, like our words, they are never used to gab about a snake they saw yesterday or to fear-monger about a leopard they may encounter tomorrow. Even if one argued convincingly that these calls are monkey words, it is difficult to get from that rudimentary “language” to one in which the speaker can explain, “When we have sex, that's what starts a baby growing.”
Animals just do not have the communication skills or the future planning or the cognitive development that would indicate understanding.

There are lots of studies claiming to show how smart animals are, but usually the researchers are fooled into a richer interpretation of the data, when a leaner one will suffice.

If animals lack the abstract reasoning, language and future planning capabilities needed to intentionally procreate, then they must know what to do (have sex) even if they do not know why (that having sex is what allows them to produce offspring and perpetuate their species). Indeed, animals may carry out all kinds of seemingly complex behaviors without actually anticipating the outcomes. Cognitive scientist Sara Shettleworth of the University of Toronto points to the example of crows that drop walnuts on hard surfaces and thereby break the nuts open. Many observers assume that the crows consciously perform this behavior with the aim of obtaining food. But a more scientific approach to understanding the nut cracking, Shettleworth notes, is to assume the cause is “proximate”: the bird's internal physiological state — hunger — is linked to the presence of walnuts and hard surfaces. That is, physiology that encourages conditioned food-procurement behavior based on past success is what causes a crow to fly above hard surfaces and drop nuts, not the crow's logic about how to best satiate its hunger.

Looking to proximate causes for animal behavior is a difficult concept for humans to accept. We assume that because we know why we do things, other animals doing something similar must also know, and we anthropomorphize their behavior. But that kind of reasoning lacks the rigor needed to truly understand animal cognition.

It is more logical to explain gorilla behavior, and indeed most of the things that animals do, without attributing to them any of our powers of imagination, especially where baby making and biological paternity are concerned.
This principle is particularly difficult for dog owners and other animal lovers to accept. They typically insist that their pets are conscious, and experience all sorts of human emotions.

I previously criticized rich explanations for monkey morality, when a lean explanation suffices. I am beginning to think that a lot of rich explanations of human behavior are also unwarranted.

Update: From Bizarro:

Here is an Economist mag essay on how smart animals are.

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