EDGE 3rd Culture: Marc Hauser: Animal Minds - Page 6
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Now why should we care? There's a large group of people out there who love their pets and think that their dogs are Einsteins, and I want to show them that they should not be satisfied with their own intuitions. Our own intuitions are often not good guides to what animals are doing, in the same way that our own intuitions are often poor guides in terms of how human infants think about the world. One of my goals is to reach the public in a way that will make the science more palatable and make it less controversial. The way to do it is the following: for people who study animals in the wild, or study animals even in the lab, we are often flooded by incredible observations of what they do or they don't do, and it's very tempting to interpret those in specific ways. The lay public has the tendency to think that scientists diss those one-off observations. If they come to you and tell you, look, my dogs just did the most fantastic thing. I left them six hours from our house and they found their way home. Isn't that amazing? Scientists will say, well, no, because it's only one observation and we can't really do much with one observation. That's a mistake. It's not that scientists think that one observation is irrelevant; it's that it's unsatisfying. What I want to convince people of who are interested in animals is that they should be unsatisfied too. And what I do is give an example of a personal experience that I had with an animal that just whetted my appetite for more questions, and I want the lay public to be equally whetted by these observations.

The example is the following: I was an undergraduate, and working at a tourist spot called Monkey Jungle, in Florida. I had to make some money because I was quite poor, so I decided to take a job raking whatever dropped below the cages, away from the cages, as well as being the feeder. One day I noticed that a spider monkey, a species that inhabits the rainforests of South America, was intently looking at my raking. I didn't think that she was that interested in the raking, so I thought maybe she was interested in me. She had a mate, who wasn't paying much attention. I put the rake down and approached the cage. As I approached, she approached and sat on the other side of fence from me. She looked me in the eyes, and put both of her arms through the cage and wrapped her arms around my neck, and cooed. She sat there for quite a long time, a few minutes. Her mate then approached; she unwrapped her arms, smacked him in the head, and went back to putting her arms around my neck. You can imagine the kinds of thoughts that might go through your head in this experience; you're really connected with the animal, they're in love with you, there's a million possibilities.

JB: Maybe she wanted something from you.

HAUSER: Maybe she wanted more food, maybe the previous trainer had trained her to do this. Maybe she was trying to make her mate jealous, you know, new boy on the block, — there are all sorts of possibilities. It is interesting to try to narrow some of the possibilities. Simple experiments. If somebody else came by and was raking the enclosure would she do the same thing? What if it was a female? What if it was a young boy? What if it was an older man? These are the kinds of things you could quickly eliminate as possibilities. If it's specifically me, why me? Is it something about the way I behave; is it something about the way I look? Is it something about the way I smell? Let's change my clothes. Is it just me with certain clothes on; I was in the same clothes every day. Very quickly one could eliminate a lot of uninteresting possibilities, and begin to narrow it down to some interesting possibilities.