EDGE 3rd Culture: Marc Hauser: Animal Minds - Page 2
Home|Third Culture|Digerati|Reality Club

I've been looking at different domains of knowledge, and asking the question, what pressures would have shaped ways of thinking in different organisms, trying to get away from the common approach to thinking about humans, human evolution, and animal cognition, which is to say, humans are unique, and that's the end of the story. All animals are unique, and the really interesting question is how their minds have been shaped by the particular social and ecological problems that the environment throws at them. For example, instead of stating that humans are unique, we ask the question: what pressures did humans confront, that no other animal confronted, that created selection for the evolution of language? Why can other organisms make do with the kind of communication system they have? Why did we evolve color vision? Why did other organisms not evolve color vision? Why do certain animals have the capacity to navigate in space with a simple mechanism like dead reckoning, and other animals need other kinds of machinery in order to get by in space?

This leads to a scientific approach to the study of animals and humans that brings the two groups of organisms together for the first time. What we're now approaching is a new period in the study of animal minds, where we can use techniques that in part have been developed within the study of humans, and apply them directly to the study of non-human animals. Conversely, methods developed on animals are being used by cognitive scientists studying humans.

Here is one example: Researchers studying cognitive development, such as Susan Carey, Elizabeth Spelke, and Renee Baillargeon, have implemented a novel technique for asking human infants, who of course lack a functional linguistic system, about how they think about the world. The technique is quite simple, and is really just a bit of magic. The idea is that when we watch magic shows such as those carried out by the great Houdini or David Copperfield, we're engaged because the magician is violating, in front of our very own eyes, all sorts of assumptions we make about the physical world. Bodies are not capable of being cut in half and then put back together again in any kind of symmetrical way, and yet that engages our attention because we expect bodies to cohere. If the logic of a magic show, or the special effects of a program on television or a movie, grabs our attention precisely because it violates our expectations, then we can ask the question, what do infants or non-human animals bring into the world in terms of their expectations about how things should work? If they too carry specific expectations, then we should be able to create a magic show and grab their attention. Importantly, they should be more interested in a magic show than in a comparable demonstration that is consistent with the way the world works.