Dogs: People Too?
October 16, 2007 10:28 AM   Subscribe

What are the arguments for and against the idea that animals have self-awareness?

I'm in an anthropology class called Moral Consciousness that discusses human conceptions of selfhood. It's a very interesting class, but I have one problem with it- the professor has stated several times, in an off-hand, of-course-this-is-true sort of way, that ONLY humans have selfhood. He seems to have a basic assumption that animals don't, and that humans have overcome their instincts in a way that animals can't.

I've always been very interested in the idea that humans and animals are far less different than we usually assume, and I'm not sure if I can just accept my professor's assumption without some evidence. I'm reminded of statements like "animals don't use tools" and "animals don't have emotions" that were accepted for years and later disproven. So, when he says that only humans are capable of thinking of themselves as "I", or of rejecting food when they are starving, or of sacrificing themselves, or of thinking abstractly, it bothers me that he isn't presenting any evidence. I'm not sure if there actually IS evidence for these things, or if they're just baseless assumptions.

So- where can I find some decent evidence for and/or against my professor's statements? Are there actually papers and studies on the question of animal self-awareness?
posted by showbiz_liz to Science & Nature (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you could truly only answer this question by asking an animal this question. If the question was whether animals had emotions, the answer would be more clear, as they obviously do.

I also think that due to the different brain development and intelligence levels of different animals, that probably some do, and some don't.

One of the only non-human animal I know of who communicates in a human-like ways (sign language) seems to very clearly have a sense of self. Koko the gorilla refers to herself as "I" and signs about her own emotions.
posted by tastybrains at 10:36 AM on October 16, 2007


At least one elephant has self awareness, according to a study reported on the BBC website.
posted by Jakey at 10:37 AM on October 16, 2007


Sagan has written about it (follow the article's references for more).
posted by jamaro at 10:38 AM on October 16, 2007


On the "for" side, I recommend When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. I can't say the author fully proved to me that some animals have consciousness, but it was enough that I consider it a distinct possibility, at least for mammals. The anecdotes around non-mammals in that book I found less than convincing. Also, the author is aware of the possibility of falsely attributing emotion to animals due to anthropomorphism and strives to avoid that error (mostly, but not completely, successfully, IMO).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:41 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


I strongly strongly strongly suspect your professor is wrong (though I can't conclusively prove it, and I don't even think it's provable).

-- primates (humans, chimps, bonobos, etc.), elephants and dolphins pass the "mirror test." If you paint a dot on a chimp's nose and then stand the chimp in front of a mirror, it will rub its nose to try to remove the dot. A dog won't do this.

-- subjectively, I feel that "consciousness" has levels to it. Sometimes my "I" is stronger than at other times. Sometimes I'm very aware of myself (self-conscious). At other times, I'm hardly aware of myself at all. I'm almost running on instinct.

This gives me an intuitive grasp of how some animals could have a simplified form of consciousness. Even dogs.
posted by grumblebee at 10:43 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


My dog. I used to take a squeak toy and hold it in front of him and we would play a game where if he tried to bite it I would pull it away. He started "pretending" to look away, like, "ho hum I'm just looking up here at the ceiling, not waiting for a good moment to chomp on that squeak toy." He'd then jump and try to grap the squeak toy after having "fooled" me.

Then I'd toss it and he would run after it and bring it back. I miss him.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:43 AM on October 16, 2007 [3 favorites]


You can bet your professor's definition of selfhood is tautalogical. Whatever it is, it will always change to only include human beings.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:46 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


It was widely believed (back in the stone age) when your professor went to school that humans are super-special. This has been disproven so many times by so many studies that to my mind human "super-specialness" is about as believable as the theory that the moon is made of cheese.

Animals communicate, animals make war, animals can befriend animals of other species, I mean, what criteria are you going to use that says that humans have some innate superiority? Humans are the only animal that drives SUVs. That's about it. Humankind is a matter of degree. We communicate more. We have more friends and more degrees of friendship. We make bigger wars. We worry more and think more and do more. But we don't have any single capacity that isn't replicated in the larger animal world.
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 10:48 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


yeah we do: Written language.
posted by OldReliable at 10:50 AM on October 16, 2007 [1 favorite]


So, when he says that only humans are capable of thinking of themselves as "I", or of rejecting food when they are starving, or of sacrificing themselves, or of thinking abstractly, it bothers me that he isn't presenting any evidence.

I think of how difficult that would be to show or to prove. Tool using is kind of obvious, but even the emotion thing, a person could say that the animal is just reacting in a specific way that we are saying is emotion - a dog wagging its tail when he sees his master. But that begs the question of what is emotion. The sadness I feel or the happiness I feel is just as much neurons firing as what ever a dog "feels" when he wags his tail.

So when is it a physiological manifestation, and when is it being self-aware? Who knows and I doubt it is binary, there is probably a gradation. That is sort of the problem I have with people who say only humans are self-aware. It sounds almost creationist. Like who made us self-aware? God?

So the higher and more social the animal, the more likely it will have a developed sense of proto-self. A dog has a sense of proto-self, and dogs have been known to resist food when their master dies or when they are separated from their pack. Chimps who have been colored with paint can look into a mirror notice the paint in the mirror and try to take the paint off themselves. They definitely have a sense of self. Perhaps if you Google the chimp experiment it could lead you down research avenues?
posted by xetere at 10:51 AM on October 16, 2007


By the way: here's one way to define consciousness (this definition may or may not satisfy you, but it largely satisfies me):

We can't directly interact with the world. We can only "touch" it through our senses. So we built mental models of the world. Those models make predictions based on similarities. For instance, once I get the concept of "tree" down, I'll start assuming that anything tree-like is a tree. I'll also assume anything human-like is a human.

Now, when I look down (at myself), I see a human-like body. So it makes sense for my model to assume that there's a human at it's center.

True, it can't directly see that human's head, but that's no problem. If someone puts a paper bag over his head, I'm still going to assume he's a person. That's part of the model's prediction process. It expects parts to be hidden from view sometimes.

The model also includes a Theory of Mind. It makes sense that such a theory would evolve in social animals. I need to model you as a thinking being so that I can predict when you want to help me or harm me.

So if the model things of people as beings with minds and if it thinks of its center as a person, then naturally it should think of its center as a person with a mind.

If you accept this as a (simplified?) version of consciousness, it doesn't seem so out of reach of many social animals.
posted by grumblebee at 10:51 AM on October 16, 2007


The only way your professor will ever be convinced is by spending some quality time with animals. A few years with a horse will change his my, I suspect.

He'll likely brush off any peer-reviewed publications as "inconclusive."
posted by milarepa at 10:53 AM on October 16, 2007


An easy enough demonstration that dogs and cats have some sort of internal life, some kind of selfhood: they dream. There's something going on in their heads that is not a response to external stimuli, that is purely internal.

This doesn't mean that dogs or cats have the same kind of internal life as humans do, and it might well be a difference more of kind than degree. But the hypothesis that they are pure automatons can be easily rejected.

More specifically:

So, when he says that only humans are capable of thinking of themselves as "I"

If an animal doesn't communicate with human langauge, how the hell do we know what it thinks about anything? At least until we have full-scale simulations of their nervous systems, anyway.

or of rejecting food when they are starving

Dogs or cats that are in enough pain will refuse food unto death.

or of sacrificing themselves

Um. Really.

or of thinking abstractly

Either parrots, chimpanzees, or orangutans have been succesfully taught basic symbolic arithmetic. IE, you show them flash cards with "5", "+", and "3" on them, and they can pick the one that says "8".
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:59 AM on October 16, 2007


TeaTimeGrommit & OldReliable - I don't think it matters that humans can do things other animals can't. Yes, we have written language, but we didn't always. Other animals have abilities that humans will never have, as well. But not having written language or the ability to build skyscrapers doesn't mean that animals don't have self-awareness.

I wonder if people are confusing the question about whether an animal can have self-awareness with the question of whether animals have emotions.
posted by tastybrains at 11:00 AM on October 16, 2007


So, when he says that only humans are capable of ... of rejecting food when they are starving, or of sacrificing themselves, or of thinking abstractly...

Most of this is just patently false. I'm actually pretty shocked that your professor is saying these things:

-- apes and some birds fashion and use tools.

-- in one experiment, an ape was offered juice and she turned it down (madly gesticulating for its keeper to give the juice to the other apes). Granted, it wasn't starving, but it should cast a shadow of doubt over your prof's statement.

-- animals don't sacrifice themselves??? Even insects do this!

-- no one has conclusively proved that animals can think symbolically, but there's strong evidence that other primates can: sign-language and simple math experiments with chimps, etc.

Also, there's evidence that pre-verbal human babies can think abstractly.

I highly recommend this book: "Our Inner Ape" by Frans De Waal. (Second time I've recommended it on MeFi today.)
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on October 16, 2007


The question, I think, is: what does your professor mean by "self"? I agree that animals probably don't have moral selves, for better or for worse, but I have a feeling that doesn't rule out that they have another kind.
posted by koeselitz at 11:12 AM on October 16, 2007


Our brains are especially good at some classes of cognitive tasks. It's not easy to seperate out what consciousness is from those cognitive tasks, since each of us has only one inner-life datapoint to work with. If you work with children and individuals with neurological/developmental disorders you will learn extremely quickly that what and how we like to think of our selves is mostly an illusion. If you go through the real full spectrum of humanity and the same spectrum in primates, whales, elephants, etc. I bet that you would see much in common.

You should let your professor know that you don't think that he experiences things. He's probably a robot which only acts like it experiences things, but feels no qualia.

cf: Nagel, T. (1974), ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, Philosophical Review, 83, pp. 435–50.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:18 AM on October 16, 2007 [2 favorites]


Some of the examples given can be questioned as simple response leaning, flash cards with "5", "+", and "3" on them, and they can pick the one that says "8" for example. This is not good evidence on the ability to do math, this is evidence of pretty simple logic, when x and y are shown if I choose z I get a treat.

Having said that, I think there are examples, especially among primates, that show some animals are capable of abstract thought and have a sense of self. The mirror test indicated above is a good one.

I don't think it matters that humans can do things other animals can't. Yes, we have written language, but we didn't always. Other animals have abilities that humans will never have, as well. But not having written language or the ability to build skyscrapers doesn't mean that animals don't have self-awareness.


But the capacity to conceptualize such a thing then execute it might show an ability towards self awareness, yes other animals have talents we do not, but if you are talking about increased speed, strength, sight etc... these are primarily physical things (as opposed to a discreet mental process), we, as humans, are even able to consciously recognize those differences and build artificial means to replicate them.

It IS a partially a matter of degree, humans are more adapt at tool use, language development, abstract thinking etc, that allows for and predicates our self awareness (which could easily be reversed to say our self awareness allows for those increased functions).

Are certain primates self aware, most certainly yes. Is your pet dog who seems so smart? Likely not, which is not saying he doesn't experience emotions (that is a very differnt topic in many ways).
posted by edgeways at 11:26 AM on October 16, 2007


It's impossible to conclusively prove that other people have self-awareness, much less other animals. After all, there's always the chance that the solipsists are right, and that nothing outside of the self truly exists. So, you might start by asking your professor to provide evidence that you have self-awareness, and branch off from his suggestions. Other than "because they say they're conscious" -- and even then, some animals also do, as mentioned above -- I haven't heard any justifications for human self-consciousness that aren't shared by at least one animal.
posted by vorfeed at 11:35 AM on October 16, 2007


Your teacher is subscribing to something akin to a Cartesian view of the world. Descartes, way back when, said that humans are special because we have minds (and our minds are separate from our bodies). We are moral agents and we are capable of thought. The problem is... Animals aren't. Animals are just bodies. They have no mind. What this means is that animals are not capable of any mental activity. It may appear as though they feel emotion, or even basic pain. And they may (once in a long time) seem to be figuring stuff out on their own.. But that's all just appearances. There is nothing to them other than physical body, and so they don't really feel anything, and they have no thought.

That framework of thought may be dying out these days, but it's still pretty strong. And note that no amount of evidence to the contrary could ever disprove it. Point to as many animals appearing to have thought or emotions, and the Cartesian will just shoot back that it's all just a mirage of sorts--it's not really evidence of a mind.

That's the basic conceptual framework that (at least in my circles) leads people to think animals are not conscious beings.

Now, for the other side..

Grumblebee has already mentioned Frans De Waal, who is awesome. I have not read "Our Inner Ape," but let me quickly summarize the argument for animals having consciousness that De Waal presents in "Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong."

The basic starting point of De Waal's argument is the principle or parsimony. Basically, the principle of parsimony says that if something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and tastes like a duck, then it's probably a duck... Err, in other words, The principle of parsimony is the same thing as Occam's Razor. So, we can look at all of these animals that behave in some ways similar to us. We know that when we behave in such a way, it is because we are thinking certain thoughts or experiencing certain emotions. And so, the simplest explanation is to assume that when animals behave in the same sort of way, it is because they are thinking the same sorts of thoughts or experiencing the same sorts of emotions.

Basically, the argument goes that it is theoretically simpler (and thus more desirable) to assume that animals are capable of mental states than it is to assume that they are not.

Those are the main two arguments I know on each side of the fence.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:36 AM on October 16, 2007 [3 favorites]


So.. Maybe I should actually explain the point of my last post?

If your professor is a Cartesian of some sort, then no amount of evidence will convince him that animals are capable of any sort of thought. There would have to be more to the argument than just "look at all these animals seeming to act like we do!"

However, looking at De Waal's argument (and I'm sure there are other, similar ones), you can see how an argument against such a viewpoint can get started (i.e., "your theory sucks if it doesn't abide by Occam's Razor!"). Only after something like the principle of parsimony has been accepted can amassing evidence of animal behavior do something to undermine the opposing viewpoint.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:49 AM on October 16, 2007


Response by poster: Ms. Saint, it's funny that you should mention Descartes, because one of the professor's stated goals in this class is actually to sort of debunk Descartes. We talk a lot about the relationship between mind and body, and Descartes' conception of mind and body was brought up specifically to be challenged and compared with other systems of thought. It seems that my professor has a bit of a blind spot, though, where animals are concerned.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:01 PM on October 16, 2007


bonobos can aquire some rudimentary written language apparently.
posted by subtle_squid at 12:10 PM on October 16, 2007


Some of the examples given can be questioned as simple response leaning, flash cards with "5", "+", and "3" on them, and they can pick the one that says "8" for example.

IIRC, the demonstration asserted that the animal could do this for combinations it had never seen before.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:11 PM on October 16, 2007


By the way, I think that a very, very good place to start thinking about this issue is Joe Sachs' introduction to his translation of Aristotle's On The Soul. That's one of his main points -- that modernity has ignored the lessons that can be learned from the similarities between humans and animals. (That's why there's a monkey on the cover.) The introduction is not that long, pretty easy reading, and worth looking at, especially as a jumping-off point for other stuff.
posted by koeselitz at 12:28 PM on October 16, 2007


One of the funnier bits of Hofstadter's Goedel Escher Bach. an Eternal Golden Braid is where he burlesques arguments about why artificial intelligence is impossible, by mock-arguing that women are not really intelligent. The apparent evidence you see of intelligence in women is merely a mechanical imitiation of the _real_ intelligence that men have, and not to be confused.

I suggest that you find this passage and then try suggesting to your professor that women aren't self-aware, it only seems that way.

To be fair to your professor, is this in a context of discussing moral agency? Maybe you should ask your professor how moral agency and self-awareness are related (or think about it yourself).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:23 PM on October 16, 2007


Ah, here we are:

"In his wanderings, Loocus the Thinker one day comes across an unknown object -- a woman. Such a thing he has never seen before, and at first he is wondrous thrilled at her likeness to himself; but then, slightly scared of her as well, he cries to all the men about him, "Behold! I can look upon her face, which is something she cannot do -- therefore women can never be like me!" And thus he proves man's superiority over women, much to his relief, and that of his male companions. Incidentally, the same argument proves that Loocus is superior to all other males, as well -- but he doesn't point that out to them. The woman argues back:
"Yes, you can see my face, which is something I can't do -- but I can see your face, which is something you can't do! We're even." However, Loocus comes up with an unexpected counter: "I'm sorry, you're deluded if you think you can see my face. What you women do is not the same as what we men do -- it is, as I have already pointed out, of an inferior caliber, and does not deserve to be called by the same name. You may call it 'womanseeing'. Now the fact that you can 'womansee' my face is of no import, because the situation is not symmetric. You see?" "I womansee,"
womanreplies the woman, and womanwalks away..."

You may find an analogous (and equally bogus) argument is at play here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:26 PM on October 16, 2007


This is anecdotal, as opposed to clinical study. There were two bucks, born and raised together. One buck was hit by a car and seriously injured. His leg was broken, and he could never put any weight on it afterward.

The other buck stayed with him all the time. It scouted ahead for food and safety. It stood guard while he ate, even in the dead of winter, when it was quite hungry itself. The crippled deer, as a result, managed to survive two winters this way.

One of the morons in the neighborhood let its dog run. The dog charged the crippled deer. The other buck went berserk. It chased the dog through somebody's window, and then it ran out through the glass patio door. That buck died as a result. The crippled deer died the next winter, when it didn't have its protector.

The two bucks were more human than most humans I know. I saw this happen - the crippled deer's skull is in my back yard.

One other person, several hundred miles away, told a very similar story (minus the dog and the patio).

Your professor is full of it.
posted by clarkstonian at 2:34 PM on October 16, 2007 [3 favorites]


Some chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror. The ability to do this is clear-cut evidence that an organism perceives itself as an object (or as a "me" to use Mead's term). That may be a very rudimentary sense of self, but it is self-awareness nonetheless.
posted by Crotalus at 2:42 PM on October 16, 2007


On the subject of animals refusing food........Monkey Strike! No, it's not a funny. It's a report on a study finding that some monkeys will go on strike if they see other monkeys being paid 'more' for performing a task than they are.

There is also evidence that some animals may have some concept of deception beyond simple learned behaviours. Primates and ravens, for example. This is important because it requires an understanding that another animal has different knowledge than you do and that you can manipulate that knowledge to your advantage. I'd say that, if proven, it would be fairly definitive proof of a sense of 'self' and 'other'. The jury is still out on this one, but it seems that the prevailing wisdom is that their is no sharp distinction between humans and everything else, but rather a gradation.
posted by Jakey at 2:48 AM on October 17, 2007


...and since the point that animals are self-aware has been made several times in this thread, as I think it should be, I'll take a moment now to try to make the point that animals aren't morally self-aware.

Now, again, I don't know what your professor means by "self." And I think it's a silly word to throw around without defining it. (Professors tend to throw big words around haphazardly, though.) In fact, it's an interesting question whether such a thing actually exists.

However, I think it can be argued that humans have access to a moral plane that animals do not. Flatly put, animals don't think about right and wrong, nor do they have any use for such things. Aristotle, who (I believe) thought more deeply about the experiences of animals than any other thinker, distinguished human beings from other creatures by saying that "man is a political animal."

My own observation of horses indicates that animals share every experience with humans except the use of language. This statement cannot be understated, and must be understood fully. I've seen horses risk severe bodily injury out of a desire to remain physically close to each other; it is always remarkable to me to observe the range of passions animals can go through: affection, frustration, disinterest, pain, pleasure, happiness, depression. All of the feelings which human beings can feel can also be felt by animals, some more by some species than others. But language does make a very big difference. For one thing, animals feel these things with an immediacy that cannot be mitigated. When a human being has a stomachache, even a severe one, that human being can tell her/himself, "this pain is awful, but if I drink water and lie down, it will be gone later." No such comfort is available to an animal. A horse with a severe stomachache can kill himself by pacing or not eating or drinking if they don't have a human to make sure they don't.

Language has larger implications, as well. Humans are able to, and often must, make consideration of things like "the common good" and "the moral good." There are very complex and very hard-to-understand systems built up around those things inside our minds. It's also tough to keep in mind the fine line between what animals can do in this arena and what they can't. Herd animals clearly experience things like a herd instinct; they care for each other on a broad scale, in ways that can amaze us constantly. clarkstonian mentioned a pretty intense on a few comments up. Personally, I've seen the lead horse in certain herds display a remarkable ability to watch for every other horse in the pack, to pay very close attention to every aspect of the environment and every hint of communication from other animals. It impresses me constantly, and it's often that I share the Swiftean sentiment that living among horses might be a lot nicer than living among human beings.

However, one thing I don't believe animals can do is think morally or politically. An animal experiences what's at hand and reacts accordingly; they can learn to anticipate and to avoid bad results, but they're never seperated from their moment-to-moment experience by anything more than instinct and vague impressions. An animal, in other words, can't say to itself, "what is it like to be that other animal?" It can care for another, feel affection for another, but it can't put together words in its mind to try to understand what it's like to be the other, much less utilize that understanding within the context of its actions. A human, on the other hand, can not only begin to understand what it's like to be another human, it can begin to universalize that understanding (since universality is an inherent quality of language) and try to generalize about "the common good." A human can argue about what arrangement this herd of humans should be in, a human can try to figure out whether the other humans should decide where we should go and what we should do or whether only one human should be in charge. Joe Sachs (in the introduction I mentioned above) phrases it like this: there are many social animals, but humans are the only political animals. The chief advantage that humans have over animals is the ability to think about the good.

Of course, the fact that our experience can be mitigated by language has other effects, too. An animal feels affection or it doesn't. We're able to explain our affection and even to act against it by talking ourselves out of it. We can desensitize ourselves to the point where our experience doesn't affect us. We can, in short, convince ourselves of just about anything we choose, and we can manipulate ourselves and become something different. We have the ability to choose, which is what morality is. That's why I think Aristotle also observes that, since man is political by nature, "a man who unable to live in society or finds it unnecessary must be either an animal or a god."

If you define "moral self" as "an ability to think through the essential experience of another being and modify future behavior accordingly," then I don't think animals have moral selves.
posted by koeselitz at 11:56 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


It almost goes without saying that I don't mean to say that humans are morally superior to animals. That wouldn't even make any sense: morality is foreign to them, and it would be silly to hold them to a standard for which they have no consideration or need. But morality applies to humans, and that means that humans can conceive of the experiences animals, and ought to act with mercy and kindness toward them. This is a point frequently overlooked today. I think humans are more brutal now toward animals than they've ever been, and I think it's morally appalling.
posted by koeselitz at 12:05 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]


However, one thing I don't believe animals can do is think morally or politically... An animal, in other words, can't say to itself, "what is it like to be that other animal?"

I suspect you're wrong. Again, read De Waal. (He has a whole book about animal morality.)

I would agree that, like most of what we've been discussing in this thread, it's a matter of degree. Chimps probably have a weaker Theory of Mind than humans, but weaker is not not at all.
posted by grumblebee at 5:50 AM on October 18, 2007


grumblebee: "I would agree that, like most of what we've been discussing in this thread, it's a matter of degree. Chimps probably have a weaker Theory of Mind than humans, but weaker is not not at all."

I agree that there's a matter of degree there-- as I've said, it's hard to divine the space between animals and humans-- but it seems to me that language has a relatively large impact on our lives, one that is much larger than we usually imagine. That doesn't mean it's always a good impact, as I said, but it's a categorical difference.

I guess the root assumption I made was that politics and morality are formulations of language. (That's a pretty big assumption, I admit.) This is not to say that the accompanying feelings and experiences aren't available to animals; only that formulating them in the universal ways that language allows us to isn't possible.

Also, by the way, rest assured that your recommendation of De Waal is being taken seriously. I'm looking forward to it, but my paycheck doesn't come in until tomorrow.
posted by koeselitz at 7:02 AM on October 18, 2007


Yeah, I think most people (for the balance of the 20th Century and earlier) believed that morality and politics are based in language. That seems like a logical assumption. But researchers like De Waal and experts in pre-verbal human development have shown that this is wrong.

"Shown that this is wrong" may be too strong. They've shown that we have strong reason to believe that you don't need language to have morality, politics and abstract thought. Those things exist in all primates (and in some other intelligent animals). Language is a tool that helps us refine those traits, but it doesn't cause them.

By the way, I would certainly agree that our moral and abstract-thinking abilities are more complex than those of other primates. But I'm less sure about politics. In many ways, Chimps seem far more political than humans -- more complexly political.
posted by grumblebee at 8:25 AM on October 18, 2007


I guess one would have to define politics. I'll get back to you when I pull that off.

Thanks for the discussion. Very interesting, grumblebee.
posted by koeselitz at 7:47 AM on October 19, 2007


Define consciousness first. Any terms that are jargon need to similarly be defined out. Then you can realistically start looking for things that meet that definition.

One detail about Koko that I remember from the original National Geographic article was that she synthesized signs into insults (among other things), a favorite being "you dirty bad toilet."
posted by plinth at 5:59 AM on October 22, 2007


I believe primates (and probably many other animals with complex brains) have some form of consciousness, but I'm skeptical about the "you dirty bad toilet" things. That could also be a series of nonsense words.

One has to be very careful of the "Clever Hans" effect.
posted by grumblebee at 8:12 AM on October 22, 2007


I know I'm late to the party here, and I know it's a self-link, but I thought I should point out that this subject has always fascinated me, and that for the past year (or more?) I've even kept a blog about animal intelligence stories in the media.
posted by jdroth at 9:05 AM on November 12, 2007


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