This is a reply to Ben Hammersley’s [“comment(This ought to work)”:http://www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog/archives/001346.html] on the previous entry. It will probably form part of the review I write.
Tallis argues that there are fundamental differences between our experience of the world and animals’; further that these differences have arisen by natural selection. He is a species chauvinist, but so might a bat be, arguing that he is not just a lizard.
So, of course he knows there is a range of cognitive abilities in nature. But you can believe that, and still believe that human knowing is different from anything else. His arguments for the distinctiveness of human knowing are both philosophical and anatomical. I haven’t gone into them here, though I think I will have to.
For the moment, though, it’s worth pointing out that your examples all beg the question. The whole point of Darwinian ethology is to show that behaviours which would show foresight _if we did them and could give reasons for them_ may evolve before reason and thus show no foresight at all. Ants milking aphids have no idea what they are doing though they are involved in an extremely complex system involving long-term payoffs. Ditto the famous tooth-cleaner fish who were used as the first example of reciprocal altruism.
Since animals can behave _as if_ they had foresight, and _as if_ they had deliberateness, without, so far as we can tell, having any such thing, there is a problem.
One solution is Dennett’s: to maintain in principle that foresight, deliberateness, agency, etc don’t exist in themselves. They are merely names we give to certain patterns of behaviour; and, if something consistently displays such behaviour, then we should credit it with the supposed underlying qualities. I think this is mostly balls, but built around two important truths, the first is that the recognition of foresight, agency, etc is a distinctly human ability. We recognise them because we possess them. The second is that very complex collective behaviours can arise from simple parts.
But if you reject Dennett’s radical behaviourism, you have to say that ants don’t understand ecology, that cranberry bushes aren’t predicting a hard winter when they fruit abundantly in autumn, and that something different, and distinctly human is going on when we analyse the behaviour of the ant farmers, or look at the thickness of a prairie dog mound and say the winter will be a hard one.
Once you take this step, the burden of proof shifts. There are lots of behaviour which would display, or might display, foresight if a human did them, but need not do so if an ant does. So it’s up to you to show that a squirrel knows about winter, and hard times ahead, when it buries nuts. It’s up to you to show that bonobos know what they are doing when they punish free riders. Difficult, this last, since, if you’re right about the activity, even the very smartest humans didn’t understand it until thirty years ago: the idea of “punishing free riders” is dependent on a really complicated scaffolding of language, experience, and mathematics. Obviously bonobos can do it. But I don’t think they can understand that’s what they’re doing, any more than genes can; and you can perfectly well analyse a lot of the activity of the genome in terms of punishing free riders.
This just reinforces Tallis’s point about the way that foresight, deliberation, etc, act in some sense contrary to natural selection. If we had to understand what we were doing before we could do it, we could never have evolved to the point where understanding is possible. The Bonobos’ ability to punish free riders may well be a pre-requisite for the evolution of human intelligence, with its ability to entertain concepts such as “ecology” and “the punishment of free riders”. But they couldn’t do it if they had to understand what they were doing. Only we can do that.
I think that some animals have some glimmerings of foresight. Some have ideas of agency. Bonobos are smarter in all sorts of ways than fish, or even greyhounds. But humans have two really important differences from other animals. The first is the use of our own bodies, and especially our hands as tools, which leads to external, collective tool use. The second is language, which is also collective. So our grasp of the world is not just a simple matter of individual cognition. If we are preparing for a hard winter, this involves many other people’s experience of “winter” — all that went into shaping the word. Both these mean we can think about what we do in a way that other animals just can’t, even though they can do, and perhaps to some extent think.
At this point, Tallis’ argument gets really complicated, and I am going to have to think about it some more.