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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My post at MercatorNet: Wild animals are not people


From my post on animal minds:

Spurred by a horrific recent case, it focuses on their unpredictability, as far as humans are concerned: Herold wants the world to know that she is not a
"horrible" person and that Travis is not a "horrible" chimp. According to her, it is a "freak" thing.

Looking at the story from a traditional Christian perspective, I would pass on the question of whether Herold is a horrible person. I agree that Travis is not a horrible chimp. The very idea is an irrelevance; he is a chimp, period, and therefore not responsible for his actions.

But this incident was not a freak event. A wild animal kept in an urban environment may suddenly and unexpectedly rampage (which is why questions have been raised about pet ownership laws in the wake of this incident). All too typically, the stories sound like this ...

A companion piece by John Young addresses technical issues of animal mind, focusing on Alex the Parrot:

The New York Times obituary of Alex noted the judgment of some scientists that although the parrot learned to communicate in basic expressions, "it did not show the sort of logic and ability to generalize that children acquire at an early age." That is a key point. Sense knowledge, including the power to imagine and remember, fully explains Alex’s achievements. Constant repetition over many years of training conditioned him to associate objects with sounds and to imitate what his trainers did. In one exercise Dr Pepperberg employed a trainer to compete with Alex for a reward, such as a grape. The parrot saw what the trainer did to get the grape, and imitated him.
So far as I know, Alex genuinely had the skills he was credited with. But - just a caution - many accounts of animal intelligence achievements ("why, they're just like us, so we are just like them!") are overblown. (I'm not so sure about Alex's "last words," for example ... )

There is plenty of scope for observer bias in a field where only the discovery of intelligence will be rewarded and feted, but not the discovery of its absence. That doesn't mean that researchers are dishonest; only that observer bias is not likely to be addressed very often or very honestly.

The really intriguing part is that if a researcher tries to document animal behaviour that would tend to elevate animals without denigrating humans, he becomes a pop science target rather than a darling. Paging Eric Pianka ...

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