Fuzzy logic and furry reasoning

Do Animals Think?
March 25, 2005

The title of Clive D. L. Wynne's book is somewhat misleading. Wynne is not so much concerned with whether or not animals think, but with how we humans should think about animals. The book is primarily an admonition against anthropomorphism.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines reasoning as the adapting of behaviour to solve problems. According to such a definition, all problem-solving based on simple associative learning counts as reasoning.

Hence, Wynne argues that the ability of wasps to learn to associate certain odours, such as TNT, with sugar water, counts as reasoning. I doubt many people would agree.

Wynne also states that many species can reason, in terms of going beyond the information given and deducing conclusions. Yet, what he argues is that although, on the surface, some animals' behaviour may look complex, it is actually based on very simple mechanisms. Hence, their behaviour looks like, but is not, reasoning as we would understand the term.

Next, he sets about debunking what he considers inflated claims about the mental abilities of animals. Some of the criticisms are interesting, such as his detailed analysis of transitive inference in monkeys, rats and pigeons. Others are somewhat more off the mark. He criticises research by Brian Hare et al on feeding competition and visual-perspective reading in chimpanzees, contending that the apes could be responding to intimidation rather than visual perspective. However, he seems unaware of control conditions that discount such an interpretation.

The chapters on bats, pigeons and dolphins say almost nothing about animal reasoning. Instead, they delight in the sophisticated research that has revealed how differently these animals' sensory systems operate from our own. The reason Wynne spends so much time celebrating such research is because one of the main theses of the book is that animals are valuable not because they are similar to us, but because they are different.

The final chapter picks up on this theme and considers its relevance to animal rights. Wynne discusses the Great Ape Project, in which eminent scientists such as Jane Goodall and Richard Dawkins argue that great apes are so like humans, both genetically and psychologically, that they should be awarded legal personhood. Wynne argues against such a move, stating that animals do not need to be like humans and do not need to be intelligent, conscious or to feel pain for us to find them valuable. After all, we value inanimate objects such as paintings, so we should value animals in the same way, as sources of wonder and excitement, both scientific and aesthetic. I find Wynne's reasoning here cold and detached. His arguments seem more relevant to wildlife conservation than animal welfare. I agree that we should do our best to conserve species, irrespective of their similarity to humans. However, under what circumstances should we decide whether the treatment of an individual animal is unnecessarily cruel? Is clubbing a chimpanzee to death fundamentally different from swatting a bee? As one of the chapters in Wynne's book shows, bees are amazing and fascinating creatures. Nevertheless, I believe that chimpanzees are more capable of suffering than a bee. I can offer no definitive scientific justification for my position beyond the fact that chimpanzees behave and are physiologically more similar to me and therefore are, I assume, more likely than a bee to suffer in the same ways that I do.

Although I do not agree with many of his conclusions, I found Wynne's book entertaining and thought-provoking nevertheless. It is perhaps a little too lightweight for professional animal researchers, but it is pitched well for a general readership.

Debbie Custance is lecturer in psychology, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Do Animals Think?

Author - Clive D. L. Wynne
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 268
Price - £17.50
ISBN - 0 691 11311 4

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