MichaelCD - The Blog.

The thoughts of Michael Cadwallader. Coffee loving, history book reading, Cheshire man.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Minding the gap

It does feel rather churlish to have a moan about something as good as the Royal Society’s online webcast service. I mean here’s an opportunity to listen to world class scientists debating some interesting and cutting-edge scientific subjects, all from the comfort of your computer chair. An opportunity that many people must have craved, since the inception of the society under Charles the 2nd. But, alas, I do have a major problem with their last presentation. So, moan I must.

The title of this discussion was ‘Mind – The Gap’. The gap in question is the one between the minds of humans and animals. Or, if you prefer the vacous politically-correct term 'non-human animals'. In its own words the presentation asks:
How have human attitudes to animals changed over recent decades? Our panel of experts will discuss what, if anything, really distinguishes human beings from their fellow creatures presentations.
This is an area that I find fascinating, and so I was looking forward immensely to listening to it. My hope was that cognitive fluidity, the lingustical theory of human intelligence, would receive an airing. And, with Nicky Clayton, a biologist who focuses on the mind of crows and Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary psychologist, the panel contained a couple of top-class experts. An intelligent discussion seemed on the cards. But, then I noticed the name of Will Self. The same one who makes Have I Got News For You and Question Time unwatchable (for myself) when he guests on them. What on earth was he doing there, I thought.

Luckily enough, Mr 'I don't regard myself as British' was first up, and his qualification for being on the panel was explained. Self apparently wrote a novel entitled Great Apes, in which his lead character Simon Dykes engages in a night of heavy alcohol and drug use and wakes up as a chimpanzee, in a world where chimps are humanity's superiors. An idea which has more than a whiff of misanthropy to it.

After the debate chair, novelist Maggie Gee, started proceedings, Self started with his rhetoric. The only thing of any substance he said was that humanity is currently wiping out ‘our closest living relative’. Incidentally, the phrase ‘our closest living relative’ he uttered repeatedly. It's as if we somehow needed the point ramming home. Yes Will, that truly would be a tragedy, and I would urge everyone to donate to the WWF, but, frankly, what has that got to do with the gap between the minds of human and animals? Then we have another Self gem. Whilst he's talking he remarks:
So-called western civilisation, although that statement seems like a bit of an oxymoron, to me.
It took all my will not to switch the presentation off after that remark, but I persevered. Self finished with some egalitarianism when he states that we are finally realising what tribal people have known forever, that animals are 'different, but not inferior'. The irony of Self's comments wasn’t able to grasp, is that the reason Chimps are being hunted out of existence is because of a demand for ‘bush meat’. And that this demand comes not from ‘so-called western civilisation', but from those ‘enlightened’ tribal people, that Self is so fond of.

Nicky Clayton was next up, talking about intelligence and brains. So, we finally entered 'proper science' territory. Clayton began by skipping over the religious and historical views of animal intelligence, and then quickly reached humanity's evolution. The puzzle, for her, was that language and culture had only really developed in the last 40,000 years. For 80,000 years before that, we seemed to be in an intellectual stasis. Her question was why? At this stage I was just waiting for 'cognitive fluidity', to be mentioned. But, her view is that biology doesn't seem to point to differences between human and animal intelligence.

Andrew Whiten, takes a slightly different approach. He does mention the 'gap' between humans and chimpanzees. Nonetheless, he states that the gap has 'narrowed', and he talks about the similarities between humans and chimps. He mentions the chimp tool sets showing up at the moment, mentions the warlike instincts of chimps and talks about the culture of chimpanzees. Cultural transmission is also touched on, as this is spread in a similar way to human culture. Whiten ends with the statement that similarities of cultural transmission is one thing, but the difference between human culture and chimp culture is obviously massive. Some sanity had, therefore, been restored to proceedings.

After the cat-loving novelist Doris Lessing's speech, we reach the questions and debating section. First up is the subject of animal emotions. The conclusion for this line of thought is that it's not a very well researched' area. Then Maggie Gee asked the question: are humans animals? And misanthropic Self is on again. His view was that Doris Lessing takes the view that animals need to be elevated to the level of humanity, he thinks that humans need to be lowered to the level of animals. Given his past history, perhaps he has a point about the level of behaviour of some human beings.

The debate was then opened to the audience. The first contributor expressed surprise that no one had picked up on the fact that human beings understand the concept of cause and effect, and the fact that this is missing from all animals, even chimpanzees. Another contributor asks Nicky Clayton whether intelligence and ingenuity are, in fact, the same thing.

Andrew Whiten responds to the first question, stating that there is a large difference between our own, and a chimps concept of cause and effect. Although, he does provide an example of an experiment pitting chimpanzee v human child. In this experiment the chimpanzee varies its approach to a specific problem, whilst the human child does no, the reason for this being our childhood culture of conformity. We then have some animal rights type of questions. A man who quotes Peter Singer, talks about the need to avoid 'generalisations' because we could do 'the same thing with racism and sexism.' Perish the thought.

And then, at last, we get to linguistics. A man says that feral children over the age of seven have the ability to recognise themselves in the mirror, but cannot reach the same level of cognitive fluidity, as normal humans. Sadly, this question got buried under another debate on the validity of anecdotal evidence, and was not satisfactorialy answered

All in all, I was a little under whelmed. There should have been an expert in the brain's architecture, on the panel. The facets of intelligence which are unique to our species were only discussed after contributors from the audience mentioned them. And whilst cognitive differences between our ‘closest living relative’ and ourselves should not be overestimated, they should definitely not be underestimated, either.

It was a shame that this important and interesting subject was sometimes reduced to the rhetoric of the lunatic-fringe of the animal rights movement. There was an admittance of ‘differences’ between humans and animals, but they couldn’t conclude that these differences render humanities minds superior to those of animals. It would offend their sense of egalitarianism to say that only mankind can achieve the highest form of thought. But this is the truth, and science must yield to truth however uncomfortable to the political beliefs of the scientists involved.

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