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Field & Street


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Do fish think? Years ago, in a famous Second City routine, Severn Darden concluded that they do, but not fast enough. For most students of animal behavior, whether they are ethologists, psychologists, or evolutionary ecologists, the question itself is absurd.

The dominant view in these sciences has been that animals are automata, genetically programmed robots who do the things that natural selection has directed them to do with no idea why.

Armed with this behaviorist doctrine, ethologists watch a woodpecker rap its beak against a tree trunk until it dislodges the loose piece of bark that covers a beetle larva. They watch as the bird eats the larva. They set up experiments to discover how the woodpecker chooses pieces of bark to bang on. They count the number of bangs per piece. They note the frequency with which the banging is rewarded by the discovery of a meal. But they never ever suggest that the woodpecker had an idea, that it was thinking of food when it started banging.

Donald R. Griffin, a professor at the Rockefeller University and a man with a long and distinguished career in biology, has challenged this orthodoxy in a book called Animal Thinking published by Harvard University Press in 1984.

Griffin calls for the development of a new kind of science that he calls cognitive ethology, a science that would "venture across the species boundary and try to gather satisfactory information about what other species may think or feel. This . . . science . . . should not be constrained by the computer-envy that characterizes most of contemporary cognitive psychology. We must take into account subjective experience, along with information processing, problem solving, and the survival value of evolutionary adaptiveness."

Creating such a science is a formidable undertaking. We cannot be logically certain that other people have a consciousness like the one we experience in our own heads, so how can we hope to get inside the minds of other species, especially species like goldfish that are quite remote relatives? Griffin is well aware of the difficulties, but his arguments and his evidence make a convincing case for the need to take on the job.

Griffin begins with the structure of the central nervous system. Human brains look quite different from the brains of woodpeckers and even less like the ganglia of ants, and spiders. But at the cellular level, all these systems are built of neurons and synapses that work in essentially the same ways. If consciousness is created by the neurons and synapses in our heads, why not by similar structures in the heads of woodpeckers or in the bellies of ants?

The orthodox answer to this is that it takes a very big brain like ours to produce consciousness. Griffin suggests that this idea is just dogmatism and offers intriguing evidence in support of his view.

Among his examples are the distraction displays of killdeers and other small plovers. These ground-nesting birds draw potential predators away from their eggs and young by feigning injury in a loud and conspicuous way. They lurch through the grass, dragging an apparently broken and useless wing behind them, crying loudly and piteously. If the ruse works, the predator is suckered into following the "injured" bird, rather than searching for the nest. The bird leads it on for a while and then flies away, its injuries miraculously healed.

Orthodox ethologists have claimed that this display is produced by a conflict between the desire to attack the dangerous intruder and the desire to get away from it. Virtually paralyzed by these opposing drives. the bird is supposed to go into a sort of convulsion, a series of random actions that are completely out of its control. As Griffin points out, this tortured explanation is very difficult to accept if you have ever gotten close enough to a killdeer's nest to inspire such a display. A displaying killdeer seems to be quite in control of the situation. It watches its pursuer closely throughout its performance, and if its actions don't inspire its enemy to follow it, it will fly back, land right in front of the intruder, and start the whole show over.

The broken-wing display is only a part of this complex piece of behavior. The sequence usually begins when the bird first sights an approaching threat. It will rise from its nest, quietly move some distance off, quickly scrape a small depression in the ground, and then sit in it just as if it were incubating eggs. In other words, the display is a double ruse; not only is the bird faking injury, but the nest it is leading its enemy away from is not even a real nest.

The birds carry out this display to distract approaching humans, and various observers have been fortunate enough to see them use it on foxes, weasels, skunks, and other predators. But if a herd of cattle approaches, a killdeer reacts quite differently. Instead of fleeing, it stays on its nest until the cows are quite close. Then it stands up, extends both wings wide, and flaps them while calling loudly. Whatever is going on in its head, the killdeer acts as if it knew that cows do not eat eggs, but that they might step on them. Adjusting its strategy to the situation, the bird makes its nest as conspicuous as possible so that the animals will go around it.

If we think of killdeers as robots, creatures with brains as mindless as a computer, then we must account for all these complex actions by saying that they are a string of automatic actions produced by a particular chain of stimuli. The bird has no idea what it is doing or why.

But Griffin suggests that consciousness is a far more economical explanation for the killdeer's actions. If the bird could formulate a simple thought like "I can make that intruder go away from my young," or "Perhaps that beast will follow me," then the whole complex series of actions could be directed by a very simple guiding idea.

Without that idea, every move of wing or leg would have to be programmed, and all these instructions, all this software, would have to be stored somewhere in the animal's brain--where there is really not very much space.

The ultimate objection of the behaviorists to the idea that animals think, that their actions are directed to ends that they are capable of foreseeing, is that we can't see the animal think and therefore can't assume that it is thinking. Of course, these same behaviorists would be quite comfortable with an explanation that relied on natural selection as the source of this behavior. Sometime in the distant past, according to this story, a proto-killdeer, quite by accident, carried in its genes the rudiments of a distraction display. The display helped make the killdeer a big success. It left many descendants, and further selection pressure favored the birds with the most highly elaborated versions of the display. This may well be what happened, but nobody saw it either. It is at least as invisible as animal thought.

A further objection is that animals often behave in inappropriate ways when nature, or an experimenter, alters their situation in some dramatic way. Many birds, for example, feed the young they find in their nests. If the baby has the misfortune to fall out of the nest, its parents will ignore it, even if it is only a foot or two from the nest rim and calling loudly for something to eat. The youngster starves, the orthodox view says, because the parents are playing out an unconscious program that allows only certain stereotyped responses to the world around them. "Feed babies in nest" is one of these responses; "feed babies outside of nest" is not.

Griffin's response to this objection is that maybe the birds are just not bright enough to catch on to a radical alteration in their situation. Maybe, like Darden's fish, they think, but not fast enough. After all, most of us believe that people think, that we are conscious and self-aware and able to change our behavior to adjust to a new situation. But then consider the arms race or the actions of a long string of general managers of the Chicago Cubs. Perhaps we need to grant to animals the same freedom to be stupid that we allow ourselves.

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