Friday, April 29, 2011

Does a frog have a plan?

Darwin. We always come back to him. Archimedes, Leonardo or Gauss are too incredibly smart, superhuman, they must have come from another planet. The nice thing about Darwin is that we can relate to him, walking on his “thinking path”, studying his barnacles and earth worms, what a nice, nice man.

Charles and William Darwin

Darwin understood two fundamental things about animals and humans: 1) Humans are like animals, and 2) Animals are like humans. It is astonishing that the former has been accepted by science, the latter scorned and ridiculed. Come on: If A is like B, then B is like A. In Euclid’s Elements, the first “common notion” (a kind of axiom) is that “Things which equal the same thing also equal one another”. Combining this with reflexivity, that anything equals itself, it can be shown that equality is symmetric: If A equals B, then B equals A.

In Darwin’s “The Descent of Man”, he exposes a rather extreme anthropomorphism: “Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber, who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies”. Obviously, his intention is to place humans in their phylogenetic context, to illustrate that the difference between us and other animals is a matter of degree, also when it comes to cognitive abilities. Following in his footsteps, innumerable biologists have explained human behaviour in terms of mechanisms observed in other animals (Desmond Morris made this approach famous in his book “The Naked ape”, 1967). But the logical converse, to understand animals in terms of human behaviour, has been condemned as unscientific. It’s crazy.

No, it is the idea that animals are qualitatively different from us that is unscientific, based on an antiquated, pre-Darwinian concept that humans are something else, above the rest of the world, created in God’s image. So why has ethology become so warped, banning the merciless logic of anthropomorphism from science? I completely agree that we get nowhere using undefinable, unobservable, wishy-washy terms like “consciousness” when describing behaviour. But this goes for the study of humans as well as the study of animals – no difference there. It is perfectly possible to study animals in an objective way, using our unique knowledge of human reactions. This is called cognitive ethology.

Do not be ashamed to think that your cat is having fun when playing, that a moose feels horror and pain when hunted, that a duck can be in love. How could it be otherwise? We are like them, they are like us, we are all in this together, everything is connected. That was Darwin’s revolutionary insight.

I’ll have my hamburger now.

Finally: I never thought I would cite a philosophical paper, but this is a rather good one:

1 comment:

  1. Great article!
    For me it is absolutely amazing how many contradictory beliefs the human mind can hold at the same time.
    Not only the people do not realize the animals are like humans, they even do not consider all the animals equal. Everyone knows the dog is the human's best friend (some says even better than a husband) while pig is a dull and stupid piece of meat. Rationally thinking there is no reason to differentiate like this but even the most rational rationalists successfully push this knowledge down when they take a seat at the dinner table (including me). That's why I think the people use reasoning and logic far less then they think they do.