0421: Anecdotes and Anthropomorphism

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Today’s title comes from a fascinating article in the latest issue of Atlantic Magazine. Entitled “How Animals Think,” the article refers to the work of primatologist Frans de Waal who makes “… a passionate and convincing case for the sophistication of nonhuman minds.” Like many of you, I grew up being taught that the non-human version of thinking was “instinct” and nothing more. And, despite the various anecdotes of animal behavior suggesting otherwise, and despite being told that it was our need sometimes to imagine human traits in animals, there was no truth to any of it.

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Rather, thanks to advances in technology and scientific research, we are beginning to see that “As de Waal recognizes, a better way to think about other creatures would be to ask ourselves how different species have developed different kinds of minds to solve different adaptive problems.”

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In fact, in many cases those particular kinds of minds can be quite astounding. Last Sunday’s NY Times ran an article entitled “A Conversation With Whales,” in which the following statement is made:

Sperm whales’ brains are the largest ever known, around six times the size of humans’. They have an oversize neocortex and a profusion of highly developed neurons called spindle cells that, in humans, govern things like emotional suffering, compassion and speech.

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Times have changed. Most phones these days have video capability, Youtube and Facebook now exist and abound with examples of animal behavior that previously had rarely been seen (those anecdotes that that had been so easily dismissed in the past).

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Whether it be a chimp hugging Jane Goodall goodbye or the mourning rituals of elephants, these and many other examples are helping us to evolve to a greater understanding of the world around us and, perhaps, our own place within it.

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So I had  a mix of emotions when I took these images recently in the back rooms of La Specola, the noted natural history museum in Florence, Italy. It was simultaneously compelling and repelling. While this taxidermy in the pursuit of science and research served its purpose in the past I assume that more enlightened minds now see that such practices are no longer appropriate.

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And, after having spent many Sunday afternoons visiting the Bronx Zoo as a kid, I can hardly approve of the caged displays of animals anymore.

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Despite this long history of misunderstanding, attitudes are changing. Animal sentience has been codified into law in New Zealand and France recently. In August of 2012 an international group of prominent scientists (including Dr. Stephen Hawking) signed “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” declaring animal sentience as real.

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It is certainly something worth considering.

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Let me make a switch now to perhaps the other end of the “consciousness” spectrum – lichen! Not a lot of brain activity around here.  But an interesting organism nonetheless.

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Thanks for the visit.

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