Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Evidence for animal mindreading

Ohio State research:
Scientists have caught male topi antelopes in the act of faking fear in front of females in heat as a way to improve their chances of having sex.

The male antelopes, observed in southwest Kenya, send a false signal that a predator is nearby only when females in heat are in their territories. When the females react to the signal, they remain in the territory long enough for some males to fit in a quick mating opportunity.

The signal in this case, an alarm snort, is not a warning to other antelopes to beware, but instead tells a predator that it has been seen and lost its element of surprise, the researchers found.

So when the scientists observed the animals misusing the snort in the presence of sexually receptive females, they knew they were witnessing the practice of intentional deception – a trait typically attributed only to humans and a select few other animal species.
The full paper is here.

This is an argument for animal mindreading, but I am not convinced. The authors claim that the topi snort for two reasons -- scaring lions and tricking females.

But the topi intentions in both cases are dubious. The topi may have no idea that the lions are scared, or that the females are tricked. The topi may snort because experience or instinct indicates that snorting gets him what he wants. The topi just wants to eat, avoid lions, and mate. Snorting doesn't get the topi any food, but it helps with those other two things. This simpler hypothesis may be all there is to it.

Human often do things with deceptive effects, without any deceptive purpose. Animals are much less self-aware, and maybe not self-aware at all. The obvious hypothesis is that the animals don't know what they are doing, and yet the paper does not even consider the possibility.

In other so-called deception, Sean B. Carroll writes that insects "display false eye and face patterns that mimic those of snakes, lizards or other animals."

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