AR Philosophy > Debating AR

Summary/comments of PBS video on animal reasoning and language.

Question:  How are humans different from other animals?

 Two extremes:

Anthropomorphism:  projecting human traits, abilities and motives onto other species.

 EXPERIMENTER BIAS can lead to this. If an experimenter believes that (or hopes that) animals have a certain ability, she might give the animal hints or cues. The most famous example of this is Clever Hans. In the early 1900s, a horse named Hans and his trainer (Wilhelm von Osten) were well known for their amazing performances. Someone in the audience would ask Hans to add 4 and 3. Hans would stamp his hoof 7 times.

A psychologist named Oskar Pfungst was skeptical. He showed that if the trainer didn't know the right answer, Hans couldn't figure it out either. Hans wasn't really counting ? he was just responding to subtle cues from his trainer. If the right answer was 11, the trainer wouldn't smile or relax until Hans stomped 11 times.

 There are a few possible cases of this on the video. In one study, a chimp must point to a number on a television screen corresponding to how many objects he just saw. Unlike the well controlled experiment with dolphins (where the experimenter wore goggles to prevent giving signals to the animal), in this case, the experimenter gave off a lot of verbal and non-verbal "hints" about the right answer. It is very appropriate to be skeptical when an animal gets the right answer in a situation like this.

 Speciesism (term coined by Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer):  assuming that humans are qualitatively different from other species.

 SELF-SERVING BIAS (interpreting things in a way that favors your own interests) can lead to this. Given that humans use animals for so many purposes, we are motivated to perceive them as being different from us (not conscious, not capable of reason, emotion).

Descartes:  Only humans have consciousness and the ability to experience pleasure and pain. 


Can animals REASON?
Can animals understand LANGUAGE?

Can animals SUFFER?
Are animals CONSCIOUS?

This video addresses several aspects of animals' ability to reason and use language.

 The general question: Do animals show evidence of abilities that go beyond trial and error learning? Do they show evidence of having mental representations (maps, concepts, understanding of language, arithmetic)? Can they solve problems by figuring them out (insight) as opposed to just trying things until something works (trial and error)?

 1. Use of MENTAL MAPS.

 -Rats in maze could find a NEW way to get to food when the old route was blocked.

-Hummingbirds could remember which (fake) plants they had already eaten from.

-Elephants could remember routes to water.

-Clarks nutcrackers could remember where 90% of 30,000 pine seeds were buried (even under the snow).

 2. Creative problem solving.

 -Chimps getting banana using boxes and sticks (replication of a very famous study by Wolfgang Kohler).

-Raven getting fish

  Skeptic: Maybe the chimp just tried things over and over (trial and error) until he finally hit on the right solution.

 To get around this objection, it is necessary to demonstrate an animal can solve a NEW task on the FIRST trial.

 New experiment with raven: food is at the end of one string but not another. Can the raven figure out how to get food, EVEN THOUGH IT HAS NEVER ENCOUNTERED THIS PARTICULAR PROBLEM BEFORE? IF IT CAN FIGURE OUT ON THE FIRST TRY, it RULES OUT trial and error. Even when the strings are crossed, making the problem more difficult, the raven solved it on the first trial.

3. Use of tools.

chimps using sticks, leaves as weapons.

birds using twigs to get insects out of trees.

 4. Learning through imitation.

 orangutan washing clothes and self.

dolphins imitating other dolphins (and also humans)

 5. Representing abstract concepts.

 Basic design of the task with the pigeons pecking at pictures for food.

Type A picture leads to food

Type B picture does NOT lead to food

Question: Can the pigeon learn that it should peck at A but not at B?
Pigeon could learn to discriminate:
(A) TREES from (B) NON-TREES (cars, ferns)
(A) Picassos from (B) Monets

They could not learn to discriminate (A) two lines that were the SAME length from

(B) two lines that were DIFFERENT lengths.

This suggests: SAME/DIFFERENT is an abstract concept beyond capacity of pigeon.

They could learn to discriminate (A) large area covered from (B) small area covered

(Interestingly, the students had a tough time with this one ? humans look for patterns that are meaningful ? "Large" vs. "Small" surface area of randomly shaped patterns isn't a hypothesis that occurs to us.)

6. Understanding arithmetical concepts.

 Dr. Irene Pepperberg (U of Arizona) has a parrot Alex who could count the "yellow blocks"
Chimp: could count the nuts in the bowl

 Skeptic: He says what would REALLY be impressive would be evidence that an animal could do ARITHMETIC.

 New experiment: can a chimp do arithmetic? Can a chimp ADD the number of apples in one bowl to the number of oranges in another bowl and get the right total? Answer was YES.

 7. Understanding language.

 Can animals use something like words to communicate?
1. Chickens ? make different sound to convey warning about a ground predator vs. an aerial predator. Experimental evidence: play the two different sounds to a chicken and the chicken responds in two different ways (hiding in corner if it's the sound signaling a ground predator vs. ducking if it's the sound signaling an aerial predator).

2. Dog: responded appropriately to down/cover your eyes/speak/crawl/etc.

 Skeptic: BUT, humans can invent and use NEW words.

 New study: Alex the parrot could identify wool, paper, rock ? he had to LEARN these words.

 Can animals understand syntax?
Consider the following two sentences:
The girl walked to the dog.

The dog walked to the girl.

 These two sentences contain EXACTLY the same words, but in a different order.  Because the words are in a different order, THE TWO SENTENCES HAVE DIFFERENT MEANINGS. That is syntax (structure of the sentence) conveys MEANING. The question in the dolphin study was whether dolphins could understand that the ORDER of words (communicated in sign language) conveyed meaning. That is, could the dolphins understand that the exact same words, arranged in two different orders meant two different things. The answer was yes.

 Skeptic:  His opinion is that trial and error is the basis of all animal learning (even though at the very beginning of the film he said that trial and error learning could not explain the rat's use of mental maps.

No one can deny that there are huge differences in what humans can do and what other species can do. However, the Skeptic wants to draw a sharp line between humans and other species. But the evidence presented in this film contradicts this conclusion.  The animals demonstrated creative problem solving, could understand new words and even syntax.