Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dec 23: Alison Hawthorne Deming on Donald R. Griffin's Animal Minds

Donald R. Griffin devoted his life to the scientific study of animal thinking and consciousness. He countered the prevalent notion that animals are sleepwalkers, unconsciously zoning out through a life of instinctive actions. In Animal Minds, originally published in 1992, revised and reissued in 2001 by the University of Chicago Press, he makes the case that animals think consciously and reflect on their actions. Here’s a link to some excerpts that will serve as an introductory essay. He draws examples from the waggle dance of honeybees, the fishing techniques of green herons, the architecture of bower birds and beavers, signature whistles of dolphins and semantic alarm calls of vervet monkeys. He is motivated by what I can only call scientific empathy. “We want to understand,” he wrote, “what the lives of these other creatures are like, to them.”

I love the parsimony of a scientific mind. Ideas must be tested out through observation. In a culture that justly makes room for loudmouths and cranks, I welcome the attentive eye and skeptical voice of a scientist patiently testing the boundaries of reason, allowing speculation to lead him into a jungle or a laboratory to see what the world has to say about his ideas.

Griffin saw animal communication as one window into animal minds, “a source of objective evidence about the thoughts and feelings that have previously seemed so inaccessible to scientific investigation.” An animal able to anticipate the actions of a predator stands a better chance of survival than one who cannot do this. If the predator signals its intention to attack—the cry of an eagle, the crouch of a leopard—and the potential prey animal gets the message, that’s much better than waiting until it’s attacked. Reading another animal’s intentions, thinking ahead and warning one’s companions would be very good skills to acquire in a predator-eats-prey world. But are animals capable of this kind of perception, reflection and communication? Griffin says there’s a continuum of sentience out there. It’s quite simple in some creatures, quite complex in us. Yet we’re not the only ones who think through a problem, learn how to solve it and share that information with our friends.

One of the clearest examples of animal communication suggesting conscious thinking comes from studies of the alarm calls of vervet monkeys, first written up in the scientific literature in 1967. These are small monkeys that live in close familial groups in Africa. Vervets recognize each other as individuals. When a baby vervet calls out, its mother turns toward it. Other monkeys in the group turn not toward the baby but toward the mother to see what she will do. When a vervet sees a dangerous predator, it gives an alarm call specific to the type of predator approaching. When a leopard approaches, the call is a squawk followed by a series of wobbling gobbles. This sends the vervets up a tree and onto a limb too thin for a leopard to maneuver. When an eagle approaches, the call is a series of low clucking vibrations. This sends the vervets into bushes too thick for the eagle to spot them. When a python approaches, the call is a ticking sound like a Geiger counter. This makes the vervets stand on their hind legs and look around to find the snake, then move away from it.

The conventional wisdom for ethologists used to hold that animal communication was “comparable to human eye blinks, blushing, gasps of surprise, or groans of pain”--mere reflex actions with no intention or conscious thought behind them. Griffin calls this general view of animal communication the “groans of pain” (GOP) interpretation. Try telling that to a vervet.

Griffin breaks the barrier between animal minds and human minds. Conscious thinking, he says, is what makes life feel real and important to us. So, as Gertrude Stein wrote (though not to a vervet), “Here’s to your inner life,” all of you out there in the wilds.


Alison Deming is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Rope (Penguin 2009), and four books of nonfiction, with Zoologies: On Animals & the Human Spirit forthcoming from Milkweed. Her work has been widely published and anthologized.  She is Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada.

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