Monkey Think, Monkey Do?

By Stan Persky | April 23, 2004

Clive D.L. Wynne, Do Animals Think? (Princeton, 268 pages, 2004)

The answer to the title question of Clive Wynne’s book, Do Animals Think?, is: Not very much. I mention this right off the bat not only to dispel unnecessary suspense but because Wynne, a University of Florida psychology prof and the author of an earlier textbook on animal cognition, writes so charmingly about the behaviour of honeybees, bats, pigeons, and dolphins that one almost forgets that for considerable stretches of Do Animals Think? he says very little about thinking at all.

But his survey of what we do and don’t know about non-human animal thinking and doing is a useful antidote to widespread sentimentality about what goes on in the brains of birds, beasts, and the rest of us. 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.

Wynne, a peripatetic academic who grew up on the Isle of Wight, begins his consideration of animal minds by noting the wide “range of attitudes in our society toward animals,” from moral extremists to mindless burger-consumers. He recalls that in the early 1990s, his native outcropping, one of the sleepier of the British Isles, was awakened by a series of bombings set off by a nutty animal rights activist named Barry Horne. Wynne’s point is that Horne represents the extreme of false certainty about the nature of animals and their treatment by humans. Such people are so certain of their beliefs that they’re prepared to blow up those who disagree—an extremism hardly confined to animal rights issues, of course. (Horne, by the way, died in prison in 2001, while on a hunger strike against animal experimentation, thus proving once again that fervent sincerity is not a guarantee of good sense.) Wynne, who actually knows a lot about animals, is much less certain about the natural world. At his broadest, he asks: “Are we human beings alone on this planet in our consciously thinking minds, or are we surrounded by knowers whose thoughts are just too alien for us to understand?” Or as Wittgenstein famously suggested, If a lion were to speak, we would not understand what it said.

Wynne also notes, “Human beings have always lived among other species, and we fret, now perhaps more than ever, over the correct way to deal with them.” Part of the reason we fret is because of the moral questions about human (and inhumane) treatment of non-human animals, questions first raised in the early 1970s by philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation, which spawned a movement for animal rights. But an equally important reason for our interest in the question that Wynne asks is that we’re interested in the nature of human being, and we think that the answers to questions about non-human minds might tell us something about human ones. That line of thought has gathered increasing momentum in the past half-century as more of us have come to believe that minds and thinking are natural features of embodied human brains rather than supposing that immaterial substances, souls or divine agency are involved in the process of producing words and thoughts.

Although people are fascinated by animals, Wynne observes, not many of them know much about animals or about the scientific work of the last century to improve our understanding of animal minds. In place of knowledge, there are lots of urban and jungle legends. “If I had a penny for every time I have been told that chimpanzees are genetically as nearly identical to us as makes no difference and, given appropriate training, can communicate in human language,” Wynne says, “I would have a great pile of small change.” 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. “What I want to do,” Wynne proposes, “is sweep all the debris of traditional views of animals, now mixed up with mauled science, right off the table and start again—that is, start with the reliable knowledge we have of what animals do.”

Wynne’s schema for thinking about all this, which employs the awkward metaphor of a “similarity sandwich,” is a three-level distinction of differences and similarities between human and non-human animals. “The bottom layer is a layer of dissimilarity,” he explains. Each species has unique sensory capabilities, from the sonar of bats and dolphins, to the ultraviolet light seen by birds, and the sensitivity to electric and magnetic fields experienced by some fish. “The obscure Australian duck-billed platypus can tell if a battery has any current left in it,” Wynne notes in one of dozens of oddball factoids he provides, then deadpans, “though there are easier methods of testing batteries.” The point is to recognize the diversity of the animal kingdom at this level.

The middle layer of Wynne’s sandwich, an admittedly squishy layer (more like cream cheese than ham, Wynne says), refers to “basic psychological processes like learning and some kinds of memory, along with simple forms of concept formation, such as identifying objects as being the same or different from other objects… All of these seem to be common to a wide range of species and to operate in similar ways in animals as diverse as chicks and chimpanzees.”

At the top level we return to dissimilarity. “After forty years of trying we can say definitively that no nonhuman primate (or any other species) has ever developed anything equivalent to human language,” Wynne reports. Unlike humans, “even chimpanzees, though they may recognize themselves in mirrors, are very slow to understand the motives of other individuals. They seem no better able to place themselves imaginatively into the shoes (or paws or hoofs) of another individual than are autistic children. This is a very surprising fact, and one that animal behaviour scientists have been reluctant to face up to. There really is a difference between humans and other animals. A pretty big difference.” Since this a controversial claim, it’s a topic that Wynne takes up later in some detail, making his way through the findings of primate language acquisition studies, whose modest conclusions turn out to be far from the enthusiastic popular accounts of tool-using, sign-language conversant chimps.

Though humans are distinct, if not utterly unique, Wynne is not at all suggesting that some “divine intervention separates us humans from all the rest of creation. In denying human-style language to any other species, I am not sneaking back in some special vital spark in the human case, I am not trying to lift humans up from the beasts and closer to God… To admit that humans are different does not return them to the centre of the universe.” That is, Wynne is a straightforward Darwinian and, like thinkers including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Owen Flanagan, is prepared to argue that evolutionary development is the best explanation of human intelligence and communication capacities.

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. Along the way, he tells engaging stories of how various scientists figured out what we know about these behaviours. Although minuscule bee brains, and those of birds and bats (the smallest of mammals) are apparently capable of memory, communication, bits of learning, and rudimentary reasoning, none of this activity approaches anything we would call thinking.

Wynne has a bit of fun with philosopher Thomas Nagel’s well-known 1974 essay (well-known, at least, in philosophy circles), “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, in which Nagel argues that we cannot know what it is like to be a bat, even if we shut our eyes, make little squeaks, and listen for the returning echoes, as we try to imagine ourselves flapping our leathery batwings. As Wynne summarizes Nagel’s argument, “Bats have subjective experiences. But what these experiences feel like to a bat, that is impossible for us to know. We could guess… [but] our guesses would be reflections of our human concerns, not the accounts bats would give of themselves.” Later, Wynne twits Nagel by asking, “What is it like to be a philosopher?” So, instead of wondering about bat subjectivity and the impossibility of our experiencing it, Wynne goes on to look at what we can and do know about bats, which is considerable.

While I’m certainly in favour of having fun at the expense of philosophers, Wynne’s handling of Nagel points to some of the weaknesses in Do Animals Think? In asking his odd question, what Nagel was after is the irreducible subjectivity of consciousness, and his point was that many philosophers tend to ignore the notion that “there is something it is like” to be an X when they offer naturalist or materialist accounts of minds and brains. Wynne tends not to say enough about consciousness or brains in his book, nor does he really ask, as philosopher Martin Heidegger repeatedly did, “What is thinking?” That’s not to say that Nagel’s argument has secured anything like agreement among philosophers and neuroscientists. Probably a more relevant question for our concerns about how human minds work (and what they feel) is something like, “What is it like to be a person with Down’s syndrome?” That is, such a question might tell us something about how “normal” brains work by better understanding the thinking of human brains damaged by Down’s syndrome, and here at least, we have the ability to acquire accounts of how the world is experienced by such people. For instance, if some people with Down’s syndrome have difficulty understanding a bus schedule or a class timetable, that might help us understand the kind of conceptualization and reasoning performed by “normal” brains.

For most of the animal kingdom and nature, “red in tooth and claw,” it looks like instinct, or hardwiring with some adaptive capacities as we would say nowadays, handles most of what in humans involves thinking. And conversely, most of what humans think about doesn’t occur to the brains of non-human animals. In case there’s any doubt about nature being red in tooth and claw, Wynne provides a brief account of digger wasp reproduction. One species of the wasp forgoes the time-consuming task of digging holes to deposit their eggs, “and lays its egg straight into the body of a mole cricket. The cricket is temporarily paralyzed but quickly recovers and goes back about its business. After a week or so, the tiny wasp larva emerges and feeds on the cricket from inside out. Within a few weeks the grub is full grown, and the mole cricket has been destroyed.” It’s not the subject of a Disney animated movie, as far as I know.

The grisly habits of wasps is the example Wynne uses to recall the work of French naturalist J. Henri Fabre, whose The Hunting Wasps (1919) tells us most of what we need to know about animal hardwiring. In a chapter called “The Wisdom of Instinct,” Fabre describes (and Wynne redescribes) the ingeniousness of the mother wasp’s instinct for provisioning her young. The wasp digs a burrow in which she deposits the egg, then “the otherwise vegetarian adult wasp turns to insect hunting solely to secure suitable food for her egg,” catches the insect (a beetle or locust), paralyzes but doesn’t kill it with a self-produced poison, puts it down at the lip of the burrow, goes in to check that the egg and burrow are okay, returns to the burrow mouth, drags in the paralyzed insect, then collects some tree resin to seal the burrow, and flies away. The baby wasp emerges from the egg, munches on the fresh meat of the paralyzed insect (if it died it would be inedible), and digs out into the big world.

In the subsequent chapter, “The Ignorance of Instinct,” Fabre says, “The wasp has shown us how infallibly and with what transcendental art she acts when guided by the unconscious inspiration of her instinct; she is now going to show us how poor she is in resource, how limited in intelligence, how illogical even, in circumstances outside her regular routine.” When Fabre moved the paralyzed locust, even slightly, from the lip of the birthing burrow while the wasp was inside inspecting it, when the wasp came to the lip and noted the altered location of the insect, she moved it back to the lip and then went back into the burrow to check it out once more. “And she would repeat this inspection for as long as Fabre could find the patience to test her; with each new disturbance, the mother wasp repeated the inspection of her burrow.” I seem to remember reading elsewhere—I think it was Daniel Dennett’s Elbow Room (1984), which uses a similar example—that one sadistic researcher repeated the business of moving the paralyzed prey some 40 times, and each time the wasp went through the whole rigamarole.

Students in the philosophy classes I teach are only momentarily persuaded by such examples. Invariably, they return to the question, “But how do you know that Fido and Felix aren’t thinking just like us?” Well, I say, they give no evidence of such thinking in their behaviour or in their communications, presumably because they don’t have the kind of brains that have evolved to do that sort of thing. “But maybe they’re thinking thoughts, anyway,” they insist, perhaps thinking of oppressed people under dictatorial regimes who have thoughts they don’t utter. “And maybe they have their own way of communicating them,” the students add, as prepared to entertain the notion of animal psychic powers as they are to consider human psychics. Even my concession that their pets are thinking about their arrival home from school, and are happy to see them, and are thinking about food, walks, taking a pee or digging up a well-remembered buried bone, doesn’t appear to satisfy them. They seem resentful that I deny that their dogs and cats are pondering the prospects of the local Vancouver hockey team to win the Stanley Cup this year.

That brings us to the central chapters of Wynne’s book, the ones about other primates, since they’re the creatures who are the most likely candidates for thinking. “I want to start,” he says, “by considering the various attempts that have been made over the last century and a half to train animals to use human language. The critical question to bear in mind is, Has any animal succeeded in learning an open-ended language system like our own, or have other species only mastered communication in a more closed manner…?” Wynne then reprises the history of language acquisition efforts with chimpanzees and gorillas.

The notion of chimpanzee speech acquisition achieved a “colossal breakthrough” in 1970 when two researchers, Allen and Beatrice Gardner of the University of Oklahoma, taught a chimp named Washoe to use about 125 Ameslan or deaf language signs. “Suddenly, what had been the standard view was overturned,” Wynne says. “Prior to the Gardners’ research, the prevailing position was that chimps were incapable of learning human language because they lacked the specialized brain structures that underpin its comprehension and production. With the publication of Washoe’s feats, the new received wisdom became that chimpanzees only lacked the ability to speak.” What happened after that was curious. The story of Washoe passed into educated popular wisdom, and it became a staple of urban legend. Even today, one can find instances of the widespread assumption of chimp linguistic capabilities. In a current issue of a philosophy magazine, the author of an article about animal rights asks, “How can we really say that other animals—especially the ‘higher’ mammals such as chimpanzees—do not have their own set of verbal complexities unique to their particular species? Only hubris could allow us to think this, given the accumulating pile of evidence to the contrary.” (Jeremy Yunt, “Shock the Monkey,” Philosophy Now, Jan.-Feb. 2004.)

It’s the subsequent “pile of evidence” that is to the point. While the signing chimp story passed into popular currency, other researchers were discovering the limits of chimp language acquisition. Herbert Terrace of Columbia University published Nim in 1979, an account of his work with a chimpanzee he named Nim Chimpsky, with a little intended malice toward linguist Noam Chomsky. Terrace began with a predisposition favouring environmental factors in language learning as opposed to the innate language acquisition mechanisms proposed by Chomsky. At the end of several years’ work with Nim, Terrace concluded, according to Wynne, “that what Nim was doing had little to do with language as we normally understand it. Instead… the chimps had achieved a simpler form of learning: that making certain signs led to certain consequences. The chimps had learned to produce certain arm and hand movements to demand things they wanted: ‘I do this; I get that.’”

Terrace also noted several other limits to chimp learning. The vocabulary acquired by apes, about 250 words over three or four years, is pretty modest compared to human infant acquisition rates. The chimps never experienced the “spurt” of language learning that occurs in humans at about age two. Although there is a bit of controversy about particular primates and their vocabularies, Wynne reminds readers that “though it is always fashionable to bemoan the limited vocabulary of contemporary youth, the average U.S. high school graduate knows around 40,000 words.” I’m not sure I’ve observed 40,000 word vocabularies in most of my students, but even a half or a quarter of that puts it beyond mere quantitative comparison with Nim. Of course, the argument about vocabulary size is subject to the objection of the irrelevance of criticising dancing dogs, since the wonder is that they can dance at all.

But while humans are stringing together little sentences at age 3, “this never happened to Nim. The average length of his utterances remained stuck at only a little over one word throughout his training period.” Even more important, neither Nim or any of the subsequent language-acquiring chimps of the 1980s and 90s ever demonstrated anything close to a minimal grasp of grammar. “And grammar,” argues Wynne, “is what makes the difference between being able to express a number of ideas equal to the number of words you know and being able to express any idea whatsoever.” Grammar is what turns lexicons into open-ended systems, and without it, you don’t develop what we call thinking. Yes, there’s a little thinking going on in other primate species, but not much. Wynne comes to similar conclusions about non-human primate tool-use, self-identification and “culture.” Yes, there’s a bit of it, “but on the other hand—how slight this culture is.”

“For all the excitement and all the TV documentaries,” Wynne concludes, “the so-called ‘language-trained’ apes have not learned language… They sign or press buttons because doing so gets them what they want. They can be drilled to string a couple of signs together but usually can’t be bothered. Although some of them have been in training for decades, there is nothing to suggest that any of them ever comprehend grammar. Grammar is the crucial lubricant that opens language up from being limited by our vocabulary to being completely infinite in its expressive possibilities.” As Wynne says at another point, “Without grammar there is no language.” And maybe, without language, there isn’t much thinking.

Although my interest in the question of animal thinking is primarily connected to questions of human consciousness and the nature of minds and brains, most people are interested in the moral issues involved in how humans treat animals. Wynne takes up the issue of animal rights at the end of his book, particularly the demands made in the “Declaration on Great Apes” by a number of respected thinkers who call for giving other primates “legal personhood and some of the rights now reserved for humans.” This is a complicated debate whose details are beyond my purview here. Wynne is, to my mind, appropriately skeptical about the animal rights argument advanced by Peter Singer and others, and appropriately sympathetic to a world view that regards other animals as intrinsically valuable and deserving of protection against cruelty, especially human cruelty.

Do Animals Think? is valuable because it is directed to general readers—no specialized knowledge required to enjoy it. The writing is lively, and Wynne is very helpful in debunking popular myths about what goes on in animal brains, without in any way undercutting the wonders of the natural world. His is the sort of book worth trying out on students thinking about the philosophy of mind.

Vancouver, April 23, 2004 3415 words

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in N. Vancouver, B.C.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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