Humans aren’t so special. Animals think much more deeply than we imagine.
Recently I posted a link to a news item honoring the passing of Hilary Putnam, with whom I briefly collaborated as part of a broad set of projects I oversaw at UC Santa Barbara on science and religion. Frans de Waal (who is very much alive!) was another scholar I briefly worked with, facilitating a dialogue between Frans and Evan Thompson, a philosopher, on the topic “Primates, monks, and the mind.”
What Frans says in his forthcoming book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, strikes to the core of “counting beyond two“:
How likely is it that the immense richness of nature fits on a single dimension? Isn’t it more likely that each animal has its own cognition, adapted to its own senses and natural history? It makes no sense to compare our cognition with one that is distributed over eight independently moving arms, each with its own neural supply, or one that enables a flying organism to catch mobile prey by picking up the echoes of its own shrieks. Clark’s nutcrackers (members of the crow family) recall the location of thousands of seeds that they have hidden half a year before, while I can’t even remember where I parked my car a few hours ago.
Why is it that we so often place reality on some continuum, as if everything is drawn by two polar magnets? De Waal traces the issue with animals back to Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, with God at one extreme and inanimate matter on the other. One can trace a rather direct line to the continuum dividing “natural” from “anthropogenic” (or, more provocatively, “artificial”) that my students in environmental studies know too well. What I hope to write more about soon is how this same continuum informs knowledge (matter vs. mind), ethics (facts vs. values), and politics (global vs. local). I won’t blame all that on Aristotle! But I will credit Frans, and others with whom I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate, as inspirations.