Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Bilal Hussein, the right wing blogs, and the GOP | Main | Vietnam may restore habeas corpus »

October 31, 2006

Real elephants more self-aware than metaphorical counterparts


African elephant, originally uploaded by ucumari.

Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror and use their reflections to explore hidden parts of themselves, a measure of subjective self-awareness that until now has been shown definitively only in humans and apes, researchers reported yesterday. [WaPo]

Bush says America loses under Democrats while Sadr City is off limits to US troops as radical Shiite militiamen infiltrate the Iraqi Army.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef00d834c1407053ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Real elephants more self-aware than metaphorical counterparts:

Comments

Hey, those are Asian elephants in the story.

clearly one of your better post titles

Magpies have also been shown to recognize themselves in mirrors. If you shine a laser on them, when they are looking in a mirror, they start to preen themselves where it shows up.

TK

“…more self-aware than metaphorical counterparts” LOL!
********

Magpies have also been shown to recognize themselves in mirrors.

I raised a scrub jay nestling -a relative of magpies in the family corvidae- once and kept it as a pet. (Corvidae include crows, ravens, jays, nutcrackers and magpies.) This jay was in a class completely apart from other birds I've kept. It was deeply smart in a way that you’d expect from a dog.
Think twice before considering any corvid as a pet. It’s not unlike having a monkey around the house; they’re capable of boredom: they’ll get into everything, throw anything they can move around, and try to rip up the rest. Jays also like to cache food, which instinct mine turned into a kind of game: it would attempt to hide mealworms, pieces of cheese, etc, in unlikely places like under my collar or even in my ear. I can't remember what it did around mirrors. If I still had it, it would be fun to try the laser test.

Scrub jays, and probably other corvids, apparently have a “theory of mind”. Read all about smartass corvids in slow-to-load pdf format here and here

Personally I think it's a good idea to take the mirror test with a grain of salt. It's not clear exactly what it tells us about an animal's cognitive abilities and it's not obvious to me that it says anything about "theory of mind".

Also take with a grain of salt this article's claim that "monkeys never catch on". I worked with Marc Hauser on one of the experiments mentioned here -- attempting to adapt the mirror test for tamarin monkeys -- and we did achieve some positive results (an above-average increase in preening, not unlike the result pecunium mentions above, though we were hindered by small sample sizes.) More interestingly, we've observed wild rhesus macaques being fascinated with mirrors that they can hold in their hands -- a stark contrast to the aggressive behavior they often exhibit when presented with a stationary, full-length mirror. We theorized something about the feedback provided by being able to manipulate the mirror cued them in. All of which suggests that the mirror test is not cut-and-dry -- the outcome is highly dependent on how you set it up, and at the end of the day I'm not sure what it tells you, in any case.

Every once in a while one of my cats will walk past a mirror in the hallway, wee himself, and think he's seen another cat, and sort of jump, and do the holloween cat pose, then run off.

Is it true or is it a myth, that elephants respond to the dead bodies of their "fellow" elephants with grief, while other animals don't?

Every once in a while one of my cats will walk past a mirror in the hallway, wee himself, and think he's seen another cat, and sort of jump, and do the holloween cat pose, then run off.

Is it true or is it a myth, that elephants respond to the dead bodies of their "fellow" elephants with grief, while other animals don't?

>mirrors

I had a Siamese Fighting Fish when I was a kid. When the males of these fish see another male, they'll flare their gills and fins, shake threateningly, and if they're in the same tank, they'll fight (hence the name). If you put a mirror in front of one, they'll do the same thing. I was surprised, though, that once when I put the tropical fish book in front of the tank, with a 9-inch picture of a Siamese Fighting Fish on it, the 1 and 1/2 inch fish still recognized it and went into fight mode until I took it away.

I was a little puzzled when I saw this in the paper. An elephant is clearly smarter than an 18-month-old human baby, and most 18 m.os I know love to play "baby in the mirror". Was there ever any question than an elephant could learn this?

Cranky

I agree with Travis about being conservative attributing qualities of consciousness to the Elephant in this test.

As to the ToM (Theory of Mind) the October article in online Scientific American By Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman leads me to believe that the ToM will decline in explanatory power as we better get to know brain function.

ToM arose from studies of Autism. However, as ToM would seem to me to be rough and ready theory rather than reflecting embodiment of the brain workings. ToM therefore may retire as an explanation of what a human does, or an Elephant.
thanks,
Doyle

I agree with Travis about being conservative attributing qualities of consciousness to the Elephant in this test.

I think that’s the right position to take. Evidence of “intelligence” in animals should always be challenged with the most rigorous skepticism. Investigating cognitive function in animals is a serious and worthwhile endeavor and should be kept as free from faddish notions as possible. The subject is particularly difficult to keep on the rails as everyone, academic and amateur has their own ideas. Anyone who has owned a pet should know how easy it is to attribute “intelligence” to the actions of animals when it is really not warranted.

Intelligence is usually taken to mean something so completely unique to humans, and humans alone, that we forget that we’re like the imaginary mathematical flatlander guy who lives in two dimensions and cannot imagine a third. My cat can see (and catch) a shrew thirty feet away that is completely invisible to me. He can’t figure out how to crawl under a sheet of newspaper without pushing it aside though. Watch a robin on a lawn catching worms. A robin is stupid by any measure of intelligence that matters to humans, yet they pull worms out of lawns with an effortless efficiency that no human could master if he spent literally a lifetime trying to match a robin’s skill. A nutcracker can remember the exact location of thousands of food caches even after months of snow accumulation, yet is still just a bird in any other sense. A chickadee flies straight into a blackberry bramble at twenty-five miles an hour and lands without impaling itself on a thorn. How elegant is the design for the neural circuitry that makes that possible? Obviously the result of some pretty strong selection pressure: a chickadee is probably good for only so many crash landings.

The tiniest gnat with a collective neural wiring harness weighing about as much as a smoke particle, can find food and eat it (probably using odor gradients), find a mate, copulate with that mate, find the right place to lay its eggs, avoid predators (to some extent anyway), time its activities to sunlight, clean itself, fly, walk, sense vibration, heat, light, temperature, etc., orient itself properly with respect to gravity and probably to air currents, and on and on. It’s hardly surprising that we, with our couple pounds of brain are capable of a few card tricks and -with careful coaching- long division using paper and pencil.

Self-awareness as illustrated with the mirror experiments, a limited theory of mind, as demonstrated in a very few animals, and perhaps tool use, does, I think, represent something different. It approaches what we think of as intelligence anyway. One has to wonder though, given the number of animals over evolutionary time that could have drifted towards real cognition as we understand it, why has there been only us and our nearest extinct relatives? One answer is that no one else crossed the language barrier. But if that hurdle has been surmounted once, why only once? “Stupidity” clearly has its advantages.

Not that every single thing in the world ties in with World War II (or does it?), but I read an interview with a Nazi general, imprisoned at Nuremburg, wherein he shared his considered view that "intelligence" is really not a single quality, but a name we give to an amalgam of adaptabilities.

I like to imagine that animals or other forms of life simply have the awareness they need to have. We need to be aware of the time that our meeting starts, and of the time the grocery store closes. What awareness does a plant or a paramecium need? They have just that much, adapted to their particular situations.

Which Nazi was that? That’s exactly my point. (Not that I like to find myself agreeing with Nazis.) We (we humans and we animals) are an amalgam of very disparate abilities, simple and complicated, from being able, for instance, to perceive polarized light for navigation like a bee, to judging one’s audience well enough to sell a lie, like a con artist.

I like to imagine that animals or other forms of life simply have the awareness they need to have.

I think that applies to the animal Homo sapiens as it does to every other organism with a nerve cell or two. We’re only as smart as we need to be to feed and shelter ourselves and get a next generation underway. As far as I know, there is no genetic, developmental or physiological reason why we cannot all be an Einstein or a Shakespeare. Obviously, for Darwinian purposes we don’t need to be, Darwin awards notwithstanding. Getting back to the Nazi - who needs a master race when the duct-tape and bailing-wire, rattletrap, old four-cylinder beater, half-wit version of humanity has been quite successful so far?

Proudly counting myself among the stupid.

>(Not that I like to find myself agreeing with Nazis.)

Me either! Actually, I shouldn't say "Nazi" general, because he was a Wehrmacht general, under the Nazis, but I'm not sure if he was in the party. It was Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist. "I have often thought about the meaning of intelligence. Frankly, I believe intelligence is not an entity but a composite of various adaptabilities." He says this in The Nuremberg Interviews, by Leon Goldensohn (Robert Gellately, ed.).

>I think that applies to the animal Homo sapiens as it does to every other organism with a nerve cell or two.

Me too, I wanted to get at that but forgot to put us in the phrase (although you're the scientist, I'm just a layman guessing). I find it interesting that in order to survive as a species, we've kept on and on innovating, at first mostly for food production and shelter and related things, and then specialized more and more, so that the innovation, that began as a way of making each of us a part of cooperative ventures, has actually rendered us more and more separate. More to come.

I used the wrong, or just a half of the right metaphors above in referring to language as an evolutionary “barrier” to advanced cognition. Language is apparently at once a barrier, a threshold, and a catapult on the way to “intelligence”. I can’t think of anything that separates human cognition, or mentality, or whatever you might call it, from that of other animals that is more significant.

It would be interesting to look back on humans from a hundred million years or so hence. Will there be only one evolutionary foray into language and advanced cognition? Will language evolution be repeated independently several times among different lineages as flight or hearing has? Or is language and its presumed concomitant intelligence just a one-shot deal, an evolutionary dead-end?

Evolutionary biology uses the concepts of adaptive breakthrough and radiation. An example of which is: some ancestral ungulate developed a compartmentalized stomach including a fermentation tank (the rumen) supplied with co-adapted cellulose-digesting microorganisms enabling efficient digestion of grass (the breakthrough), which permited a bazillion different deer, antelope, wild sheep, oxen, buffalo, giraffes, camels, goats, etc. to evolve (the radiation).

One would think that language and advanced intelligence along with complex societies that language enables might be a breakthrough leading to a radiation. Or it could be that it sows the seeds of it’s own destruction – an evolutionary blind alley. We won’t know until a very, very long time has passed.

"I can’t think of anything that separates human cognition, or mentality, or whatever you might call it, from that of other animals that is more significant."

Maybe. This is a contentious area, but I think you can find the basic cognitive foundations of language in other animals, namely the capacity for symbolic refernce. What they lack is a knack for syntax (though some appear to be able to learn simple rules like word order), and production systems that are highly developed for vocal expression (again, there are some exceptions.) How much of a barrier there is between us and other species in this area depends on how much weight you give syntax and production in the definition of "language".

I think that our capacity for long-term planning, the visualization of future events and the mental coordination of our actions to achieve them, is another good candidate for human uniqueness. This appears to be one of the primary functions of the frontal lobes, which are the main thing that separates our brains from those of other animals, physiologically speaking. I believe that this capacity is probably tied to the more rich idea of what ToM is (the ability to place oneself in another's position is very similar to hypothesizing about one's own future states), so both may be uniquely human in some way. But this is tough stuff to parse out experimentally.

Daniel Gilbert has a good and entertaining popular book on this subject that just came out called "Stumbling on Happiness" which I'd recommend.

I think that our capacity for long-term planning, the visualization of future events and the mental coordination of our actions to achieve them, is another good candidate for human uniqueness.

I wish I could remember the name or the author of the book I read on this. A biologist, I think from a university in Washington state, was trying to isolate and explain what made human consciousness unique, and what we could define as consciousness. I found it interesting because many of the attributes he identified as indicating consciousness were present in some rudimentary form in animals or plants, but taken as a whole, it was like the difference between pre-urban settlements and cities. All the elements in a city are present in some pre-urban settlements (temples, granaries, specialization of labour, etc.), but for some reason, we know one as a city and another not. It is arbitrary to simply set a certain density of population and say, "this one is a city, and this one is not." So we're left with the certainty that with Teotihuacan, say, we're looking at a city, but within that certainty, always only a vague sense of when exactly it becomes a city.

Whoever the author was, long-term planning was one criterion for consciousness that he mentioned, but most of all, the ability to think in abstract terms, and hold more than one hypothetical outcome in mind. This, he said, seemed a peculiarly human trait. There were a couple of other things he mentioned too, but that's one that I remember. He mentioned that chimpanzees could and do actually practice deception, which indicates projection and planning, but holding different hypotheticals in the mind seemed only to be a human trait.

>language

Language does seem to be one of our criteria for awareness. Two cats screaming at one another know very well that they're saying something different from the two cats purring. So they're aware of some difference in their language, but again, they only have use for a few different sounds. I read last year or the year before that they'd done experiments with sheepdogs, border collies I think (one of the smarter dogs) and found that not only could they identify up to I think 100 different things by their human names, and not only could they go get the specific thing you asked for from the other room, picking from over a dozen things laid out, but that if a human said, "go get the (unfamiliar word)!", and there was only one thing in the other room for which they didn't know the name, they'd understand that that was the thing that was meant, and get it! I think that's wonderful.

>Or is language and its presumed concomitant intelligence just a one-shot deal, an evolutionary dead-end?

You wonder. Those are some pretty intelligent dogs! If I can use the word "intelligent."

Web surfing again, I have skillfully avoided the shoals of work, responsibility, self-discipline, and common sense. I did however read some interesting articles on the subject of theory of mind and language and their coevolution.

The comments to this entry are closed.