Thursday, June 04, 2009

Scientist's understanding of animals finally catching up with that of farmers and pet owners

Fundamental assumptions about animal consciousness — that they do not have self-awareness or the ability to create mental models of the external world — are slowly being revised. The position, long held by science, is that self-aware consciousness was uniquely human. In the last few years many pieces have appeared in the general news on studies that show animals are capable of deceit, duplicity, premeditate behavior as well as an innate sense of fairness (National Geographic: Monkeys Show Sense Of Fairness, Study Says).

It's a little unfair to pick on science in general, as an institution, but really, how am I to take seriously scientific perspectives on evolution, materialism, spirituality or the mysteries of the universe when these long help assumptions and chauvinisms persist so "doggedly". I find I have no choice but to remain, on almost all things of importance, undecided and uncertain. ;)

Recent articles on this theme:

Monkeys appear to be capable of feeling regret. From the NYTimes: In That Tucked Tail, Real Pangs of Regret?

The latest data comes from brain scans of monkeys trying to win a large prize of juice by guessing where it was hidden. When the monkeys picked wrongly and were shown the location of the prize, the neurons in their brain clearly registered what might have been, according to the Duke University neurobiologists who recently reported the experiment in Science.

“This is the first evidence that monkeys, like people, have ‘would-have, could-have, should-have’ thoughts,” said Ben Hayden, one of the researchers. Another of the authors, Michael Platt, noted that the monkeys reacted to their losses by shifting their subsequent guesses, just like humans who respond to a missed opportunity by shifting strategy.

From the Economist: Unnatural selection: Animals have personalities, too. That may be biasing studies of them

THAT people have personalities goes without saying. There are the shy, the cruel, the kind, the sceptical. Pet owners will quickly argue that their animals have personalities too. It is hardly uncommon to hear a dog described as friendly or inquisitive, and scientific research has confirmed that dogs do indeed have personality traits similar to those found in people. In dogs, for instance, these are usually referred to as energy-level, affection-aggression, anxiety-calmness and intelligence-stupidity; in people they are extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience and conscientiousness.

Yet in spite of all this, rather little has been done to find out if such characteristics exist in wild animals. One such study, published recently in Animal Behaviour, shows not only that some do, but also that the presence of such traits is skewing the way data are collected by researchers.

Previously, on The Sherman Foundation: Deceit & Murder and Sex and Shopping

Related external links:
From the NYTimes: A Highly Evolved Propensity for Deceit

From The Economist: Of music, murder and shopping

From Do Apes Laugh When Tickled?

TED Conference: Joshua Klein: The amazing intelligence of crows

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