Theory of Mind

Animal cognition seems to be in the air this month. I read a review by Frans de Waal of two books on the subject a few days ago, and today find that one along with two more at SciTech. Each is about one of the books that de Waal reviews, so the three together make an interesting comparative package, and they’re all interesting in themselves.

This one on Clive D.L. Wynne’s Do Animals Think? is not only interesting but also quite amusing.

Students in the first-year university philosophy classes that I teach often believe that their dogs, cats, budgies, and goldfish are thinking pretty much the same thoughts they are. Unfortunately, some of them are right, I point out – but I point it out only when I’m in a grumpy mood…Ditto for tales about dolphins using “an elaborate language among themselves that we are not smart enough to decode,” to say nothing of whale songs, weeping elephants, and loyal hounds.

The weeping elephant item is of course a sly reference to Masson’s book When Elephants Weep. I especially like the dig because I had a similar one in the Fashionable Dictionary, but had to take it out on grounds of obscurity. Masson and the book are not well known enough, so the joke would have fallen flat. But I can put it in the FD on the site. I’ll have to do that one of these days.

And another item.

Do Animals Think? contains a series of intermittent chapters in which Wynne describes and enthusiastically marvels over honeybee hive life, bat echolocation techniques, and pigeon homing methods.

That word ‘echolocation’ appears in one of the FD definitions – one of the original ones, so it’s already on the site. My colleague wondered if it was a real word – it looked like something to do with virtual chocolate. Well, see, that’s the difference between sociologists and zookeepers. He is familiar with words like functionalism and Durkheim, and I’m familiar with words like echolocation and shovel. Anyway, there is the word, big as life, and used by someone other than me, which I take to be pretty good evidence that it’s a real word.

The other review, of Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings, is not particularly amusing, but it is interesting.

Robin Dunbar was on Start the Week last week, and he was so interesting that I was inspired to re-read his excellent book The Trouble With Science. (There is a paragraph on the book In the Library.) He talks about social cognition, and whether animals have a theory of mind – chimpanzees have some, the equivalent of a five-year-old child’s, but they are left in the dust by a child of six, and dolphins have none at all. Then he discusses what an elaborate theory of mind humans actually do have, that we can actually go five levels (she thinks that he thinks that they think that you think that I think), and that doing that takes an enormous amount of brain power, which seems wasteful. What is it for? (Wasteful things seem to need explaining, of course, because it seems as if they would be selected against.) He has a suggestion – Andrew Marr thought it was ‘religion’ but Dunbar corrected him: not quite. Imagination, is what he thinks it’s useful for: imagination which makes two things possible: religion and story-telling. Both of those, he thinks, make social cohesion possible. Humans live in groups, with an implicit social contract, which means they have to sacrifice immediate benefits for long-term ones, at times, which is a situation exploitable by cheaters (you know: Prisoner’s Dilemma, game theory, all that). So religion works to discourage cheaters – if Dunbar is right, at least. At any rate it makes for a very interesting discussion. Marr asks if he thinks that that means religion will always be with us. ‘I hope not!’ says Dunbar, and everyone laughs a good deal. And they talk about the way that religion makes small group cohesion possible and by the same token makes people want to kill people who believe differently. Yes doesn’t it though. Well now I’ve told you nearly all of what was said, but never mind, listen anyway.

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