Monday, March 23, 2009

[X] = us

“For both scientists and laypersons, [X] has long been held sacrosanct as being uniquely human, a defining characteristic of what separates ‘us’ (humans) from ‘them’ (all other creatures). Too, a long-running debate exists about the more arcane issue of defining [X].”

In this case [X] = Language. For Oliver Sacks (see my post of Feb 28) it is music, or rather, moving to music’s rhythms. The habit among science writers of holding out for something “uniquely human” is deeply ingrained and shows little sign of being abandoned. Used to be, this habit was broader, however. Used to be a matter of course that the whatever-it-is being addressed was the very thing that separated us superior folks from those not-quite humans, the savages, the colored, the not-Christians, the women. That habit seems to have been moved safely to those whom everybody agrees are not human, that is, the animals.

One of science’s taboos is anthropomorphism. As a corrective to assuming that any given animal will have easily understood motives, that we can guess correctly what the cat or the bat or the rat will do because that’s what a human would do (nevermind our poor track record of human mind-reading), setting anthropomorphism aside isn’t a bad idea. A cat does what it does for cat reasons, a rat for rat reasons, etc. But, as with many a human behavior, the other extreme is just as bad.

The prevailing orthodoxy when Irene Pepperberg began her language studies with Alex the parrot (mid-70s) was still pretty much B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, which, to put it crudely, saw animals as machines without thought or consciousness. Animals were seen as reacting to stimulus, not making decisions. Don’t even bother talking about consciousness. Consciousness can’t be proved.

I think we tend to get all wrapped up in consciousness and confuse ourselves into thinking consciousness is one of those defining characteristics of being human, and way more important than it really is. Don’t get me started on the history of the arcane debate over defining consciousness, even among humans.

When she was trying to present the first results of her studies, Pepperberg ran up against the backlash against language studies among nonhumans. Mostly it was the chimps that set people off. They’re not really talking! Anthopomorphism! shrieked the critics. How dare anybody go imputing to animals uniquely human traits! The major science magazines would return her work, Pepperberg suspected, unread.

under discussion: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

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