How animals fare in a human arena

Animal Cognition
October 18, 1996

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind," asserted Darwin in 1871, thus establishing a clear break with Cartesian duality of animal automata and human minds. But only now is Darwin's hypothesis undergoing proper examination. Human experimental psychology in 1871 excluded comparison with animals. True, behaviourism brought humans and animals into the same arena, but the mind was missing. The 1950s saw a cognitive revolution in which human psychology sought new analogies: Chomskyan linguistics and, ironically, automata-computers. Ethology (the study of natural animal behaviour) was developing and laying the ecological and evolutionary foundations for study of animal knowledge.

Perhaps it is for the best that the separate parts of modern comparative psychology developed in their own way. At its heart lie basic unresolved questions of epistemology. Comparative psychology's pastiche of theoretical perspective and ingenuity of methodology may now be uniquely poised to contribute to such questions. What might animal minds tell us about the generality of Kant's "categories of understanding", for example? How would an animal with no a priori understanding of causality behave? The pessimistic species solipsism of philosophers such as Thomas Nagel is not universal; it has not, for example, dampened the imagination of Daniel Dennett in his recent Kinds of Minds.

Animal Cognition accounts for all the main study areas as well as some key experiments. The treatment is economical, empirical and overtly psychological. It is the experiments that Jacques Vauclair likes to sink his teeth into. Straightforward chapters cover the cognitive implications of tool use, spatial orientation, communication, imitation, theory of mind and self-awareness. He has a knack for distilling out the essence of experiments and letting the reader decide.

But the book is not devoid of theoretical context. A whole chapter is devoted to Piaget's "experimental epistemology" and its application to comparative psychology and the book concludes with a sketch of semiotics and its application.

Animal cognition has been in danger of becoming something of a bandwagon, with researchers nourishing their own theoretical idiosyncrasies, speculating on the basis of their own particular experiments on their own particular species. Since ideas come rather cheaply, Animal Cognition has wisely built its foundations on empirical ground.

Thomas Sambrook is research associate, department of anthropology, Durham University.

Animal Cognition: An Introduction to Modern Comparative Psychology

Author - Jaques Vauclair
ISBN - 0 674 03703 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 206

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