Monday, March 19, 2007

animals are people, too

And vice versa, of course. From today's Washington Post:

Scientists such as de Waal argue the research suggests that, much as people believe in the originality of their thoughts, a lot of human cognition probably takes place at an automatic level, guided by inborn tendencies. About the woman with the possessive boss, for example, de Waal said: "I am sure her boss is not consciously doing that. It just bothers him if she has a chat with a rival."

Two recent studies from the world of birds give us a glimpse into how far back in evolutionary terms complex behaviors that we would normally associate with humans go. One of these behaviors has a nice altruistic aspect to it. The other, not so much. But more on the morality question later.

Emily DuVal, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, found that male lance-tailed manakins display the behavior seen at nightclubs, where a person plays "wingman" or "wingwoman" to help a friend impress a potential mate ...

All of this raises interesting questions. If a human playing wingman or wingwoman for a roommate is doing what the lance-tailed manakin has done for thousands of years, how much conscious thought is actually necessary for such behavior? And could the Tony Sopranos of this world plead not guilty by virtue of evolution?

Frans de Waal argues that there is a difference between cowbirds and human gangsters. A Tony Soprano knows what he is doing and understands the consequences. "The birds may not even know what reproduction is," he said. "They are not thinking, 'If I trash the nest, next time they will be careful.' "

Or . . . are they?

(article by Shankar Vedantam)

Some admittedly sloppy writing in there, and often it's difficult to distinguish what's being observed versus what's being projected (cowbirds as HBO-style Mafia bosses?!). The piece does raise the question of how much human action is intentional, and how familiar many quotidian human behaviors are among birds and chimps. Also, I did not know that lance-tailed manakins go to nightclubs.

1 comment:

Karl Steel said...

I'm more interested in the 'or are they' question at the end than I am in the material that leads up to it.

The stuff that leads up to that question is boilerplate Evo-Devo (again, from the one book I've read on the stuff, the polemic, but (and?) short and cheap Neo-Liberal Genetics). It's typical for this approach to discover transpecies patterns of thought (without much attention to the particular species being dragooned into the example: cowbirds? why cowbirds? how did cowbirds get to represent our past? or our present?) and to argue that such patterns undercut our confidence in free will. Our (irrational) decisions, in this standard argument, get deferred into the decisions of Reproduction, which has its own reason. There's hay to made here on the dislodging of reproduction's reason from our thought, but that's not what I'm up to, right now.

Rather, I'm irked at the confidence, at least in this excerpt, at least until the end, in the lack of reason, lack of foresight, lack of thought in animals. We're back, I think, in the territory of Derrida v. Lacan, 'And Say the Animal Responded?' Who's to say that animals don't operate, as much as we do, by a mixture of decision and being made to decide?

Comparative ethologists, I suppose, but only if they're resolutely posthuman.