Animal imagination?

About a month ago, one of my regular respondents asked me to blog about self-awareness in animals. I’m doing so now because it will be useful for an essay I’m planning to write about ethical and legal definitions of humanity.

Let’s start by defining a slightly more abstract category, what science-fiction fans call a ‘sophont’. A being or animal is fully sophont if it:

  • Shows behavioral evidence of self-awareness, e.g knows it has a mind.
  • Shows awareness of the existence of other minds.
  • Communicates abstractions using language.
  • Invents and uses tools.
  • Can reason about counterfactual hypotheticals, e.g. can answer questions of the form “What would things be like if a fact I am now observing to be true were not true?”

(That last one may seem odd to those of you not familiar with primate ethology, but bear with me…)

Normal human beings pass all these tests. Few animals are known to even come close to passing all of them — but the “are known” is necessary, because in some cases animals might pass all of the tests other than tool use without being able to communicate that to humans.

Some people feel quite strongly about animal rights. Their position does not, however, generally spring from an assertion that animals are sophonts; rather, it seems to come down to an unwillingness, or inability, to distinguish between sophont status and sentience — that is, being able to feel. In practice, while theoretically even insects can feel, even PETA members tend to ascribe sentience only to animals that can exchange recognizable emotional signals with us — which is to say, basically, mammals.

The mamalian repertoire of behaviors for communicating states like fear, affection, anger, boredom, and playfulness is remarkably conservative. So much so that humans can have meaningful emotional communication with cats, dogs, and raccoons, a datum that would be astonishing if we weren’t so used to it! Some mammals are so good at this that we routinely keep them around for pleasure.

Even dogs and cats exhibit little evidence of sophont behavior, though. They can learn tricks by reinforcement, but they don’t use tools, they show only very weak problem-solving intelligence and even less evidence that they have a theory of mind or self-awareness. One test animal behaviorists use for self-awareness is whether the animal will try to remove a smudge from its face when it sees itself in the
mirrors; cats and dogs generally fail this. Sentience is less than sophont status.

There are, however, interesting borderline cases among the animals. Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orang-utans, dolphins, whales, seals, otters, elephants, a few species of birds, and even octopi and squid have all displayed not merely sentience but suspiciously sophont-like behaviors. Here are some data:

  • Great apes can learn sign language and use it in original ways, including coining new terms and making puns; they also make and use tools and have complex social patterns recognizably akin to human ones. Some apes can pass the mirror test. Some handle abstractions tolerably well, and there is a famous incident in which a gorilla named Koko speculated to its trainers about an afterlife after its pet kitten died.
  • There is some, disputed, evidence that dolphins can in fact learn to use iconic languages. Nobody who has interacted with dolphins at any length is in any doubt that they have minds, recognize human beings as having minds, and have a lively sense of humor (not infrquently they try to include humans in their play). They can count and have at least a limited ability to handle abstractions. Claims that they are sophont at human level are not established by evidence, but nobody who has studied the evidence would be much surprised if
    they turned out to be.
  • Elephants use tools, engage in complex vocal communication (parts of which are infrasonic, entertainingly enough), have elaborate social behaviors, play jokes on their trainers, and apparently grieve for their dead. They pass the mirror test. And they really do have long memories; they’ve been known to wait years for a chance to take revenge an abusive human. New evidence suggests they may be very close to human in intelligence and self-awareness.
  • Some parrots and crows can count. Some talking birds appear to graduate from mimicry to using learned words to express emotional states, and a few seem to make the jump to talking about the emotional states of humans.
  • Mediterranean squid have a very high brain-mass-to-body-mass ratio (this correlates with various indicators of intelligence in mammals). They been observed to solve mechanical problems (how to extract the tasty food fish from the corked bottle) by examining their environment, thinking for a while, then acting quickly and correctly. Octopi and squid appear to communicate within groups using color flashes made with chromatophores in their skins; nobody know what they’re communicating, exactly, but the potential bandwidth of that channel is extremely high. There is even some evidence of observational learning in octopi.

Significantly, the birds who seem to be using speech, and the apes who handle abstractions best, are animals that have lived with humans for a long time. Even cats and dogs, though not very bright compared to elephants or dolphins or chimps, accasionally show flashes of self-awareness (for example, by recognizing themselves in a mirror).

Given all this animal data, what’s left as a unqiquely human capability? Though interpretation of the experimental results is controversial, one thing even the cleverest nonhuman primates seem to have problems with are counterfactual hypotheticals.

Imagine a table with two red balls, three green balls, and an upright paper screen large enough to hide a sixth ball behind it. To human beings, the following two questions are both easy and nearly indistinguishable:

  • How many green balls would be in the room if there were a green ball behind the screen?
  • How many green balls would you be able to see if the leftmost green ball were red?

But these two questions are subtly different. The first is a what-if that is consistent with all visible facts: the second is a what-if that contradicts a visible fact (thus ‘counterfactual’).

The brightest non-human primates handle questions like the first one pretty well, but questions like the second one rather poorly. They don’t seem to have have the capacity to construct a full-blown hypothetical universe in their heads and reason about it despite what observable reality is telling them.

(This test has only been done with primates. You need to have a language in common with your subject(s) to do it; primates can use sign language or symbol tiles, but communication with other possible quasi-sophonts is far more limited so far.)

If this test is to be believed, what distinguishes humans from other higher primates is not reasoning ability but imagination!

79 thoughts on “Animal imagination?

  1. I wonder if some of the problems with animals not passing some of the tests may be because of a human bias built in to them. For example, a dog might not care about a smudge on its face, because dogs place relatively less importance on sight and much more importance on smell. (That might also be why they don’t often recognize themselves in mirrors.) Maybe a better test would be whether a dog tries to wash itself if the smudge on its body is smelly.

    It’s also unclear to me what kind of behavior should count as self-awareness and other-awareness. Many (maybe most?) mammals are social animals (certainly dogs are), and so for example a contest for dominance within the group social hierarchy would seem to me to imply an awareness of self and of others, but maybe you mean something more than that?

  2. Imagination is also the most damning talent humans have. In some ways it would be great to be an animal and be free from other humans abusing my ability to fear what is unobservable…

  3. Adam Says: …For example, a dog might not care about a smudge on its face, because dogs place relatively less importance on sight and much more importance on smell. (That might also be why they don’t often recognize themselves in mirrors.) Maybe a better test would be whether a dog tries to wash itself if the smudge on its body is smelly.

    Interesting, I’m no biologist, so call me silly, but that makes more sense to me. Dog’s do place more emphasis on smell, and having had a few pet dogs I think I have seen them react to smells on their bodies.

  4. Hmmm. By contrast with dogs, the smudge test seems well-founded for cats; they, like humans, are visual hunters who use scent mostly for social signaling.

  5. I should have added to my sophont-candidate list that otters are pretty bright. They’re dextrous tool users — they’ll use rocks to crack open shellfish. Like dolphins, they have enough of a sense of humor to play pranks and readily form social bonds with humans.

  6. The smudge test isn’t just about hygiene– it’s about mirrors. Making the dog smudge smelly would remove that important element.

  7. My interest is tremendously perked. Perhaps you could write about how we might do the ‘first contact’ thing.

  8. >> * Shows behavioral evidence of self-awareness, e.g knows it has a mind.
    >> * Shows awareness of the existence of other minds.
    >> * Communicates abstractions using language.
    >> * Invents and uses tools.
    >> * Can reason about counterfactual hypotheticals

    >> Normal human beings pass all these tests.

    I’m strictly a layman regarding all of this. At any rate, I can do all of the above… Some normal human beings can’t pass all those tests.

    “Invents and uses tools” is an ability that doesn’t get much use by “normal” folks. Perhaps that one should apply to: “Hackers pass all these tests.”

    Again, I’m no expert, but it seems to me that “Communicates abstractions using language” and “Invents and uses tools” when combined can be a strong indicator of sophont status. Human beings have always done this, from cave drawings to printing presses to blogs, all normal human beings seem to have the ability and desire to do this. Dolphins… not so much.

  9. Have you ever run across the history of Nicaraguan Sign Language?

    http://www.columbia.edu/~as1038/L02-sign-language.html

    Basically, a number of deaf children in Nicaragua, most of whom had never previously met any other deaf people and who had each worked out rudimentary sign systems to communicate with their hearing relatives, were brought together when a school for deaf children opened. The children then created a genuine sign language to communicate with each other — without any prompting from their teachers (who were not deaf) and, in fact, without their teachers’ knowledge. The language is still in use.

    What would happen if a number of great apes, each taught to use a different sign system, were brought together and allowed to form a social unit? I doubt that they’d create a sign language among themselves out of the systems they were taught; but has anyone tried the experiment?

  10. I thought I should clarify still-common myths about chimps using sign language, and especially about any claims made about Koko the gorilla. All these tests were done using markedly unscientific methods and a lot of idealistic wishful thinking on the parts of the animal testers.

    The “signs” used by the chimps were recorded by people who had no knowledge of ASL whatsoever and were using methods such as when a chimp would point to his mouth, the’d say “Oh he’s making the sign for drink!”. A native deaf signer who viewed the videotapes could make out no recognisable signs at all. The chimps were simply responding to the actions and reactions of the testers.

    Likewise, the testers of Koko the gorilla claimed it was fond of puns, jokes, metaphors, and mischievous lies simply as a way to excuse the fact that most of the gorilla’s performances were gibberish. The famous incident in which Koko talks about the afterlife wasn’t around when the testing was taking place, so that sounds like one of those snowball-type myths that has just been constantly re-embellished over the years of being told.

    Apparently bees are the only animal that uses a language that could even be considered close to ours (*compared* to other non-humans). And we’re not likely to be seeing them interviewed on 60 Minutes anytime soon.

  11. About Koko:

    I was very dissapointed when I took a closer look to her supposed communication abilities. Sadly, it is very likely that the researcher is deluding herself. If you read the transcript of the online-chat with Koko you’ll see what I’m talking about.

  12. The case of N’kisi, the African grey parrot, seems to be interesting provided we aren’t seeing some sort of Clever Hans effect. This parrot is capable of feats like observing another bird hanging upside-down from its perch and remarking, “You’ve got to get this bird on the camera”. That’s a nontrivial stringing together of related concepts necessary to make a statement like that.

  13. Nice post!

    Herd animals definitely show an awareness of self and others: and can tell when the leader animal(s) are “losing it”, and start the contest for dominance in the herd among themselves based on these observations.

    One animal I would like to see more scientific studies done with is the goat: they can show a remarkable degree of problem solving intelligence: for example, I’ve seen my goat intentionally use lower branches on a shrub or tree to leverage their access to upper branches, without eating the foliage off them first – doing so would make them virtually useless for this purpose. Once the upper branches brought into reach by using the lower ones are clean off, then they’ll munch down the leaves from the “lever branch”. I’ve also watched them “team graze” with two or more unrelated (i.e. not doe and kid) pulling branches down for the other to munch while snacking on other, higher branches themselves.

    They’re not quite sophont – I don’t think. But they’re certainly close enough IMHO to bear more investigation.

    Be well,
    Dave H.

  14. Minor nitpick:

    But these two questions are subtly different. The second is a what-if that is consistent with all visible facts: the second is a what-if that contradicts a visible fact (thus ‘counterfactual’).

    Shouldn’t that be “The first is a what-if that is consistent” … “the second is a what-if that contradicts…”? ;-)

    All in all, interesting. I’m a bit suspicious of the “will the animal try to remove a smudge if it sees itself in a mirror” test as well, unless “being aware it has a mind” is really just “being able to recognize its own face in a mirror”. Even if the dog knows it has a mind, if it doesn’t realize that what it’s seeing in the mirror is itself (because it doesn’t recognize itself), there’s no reason for it to try to remove the smudge.

  15. About the visual importance of the mirror test… I had neglected to think about how important that is. One thing I do know about humans is that a substantially large amount of the human brain’s processing power resides in visual signal interpretation. It is actually fairly amazing how large that percentage is. I don’t have numbers because it’s been a while since I read those books.

    Now, testing for the presence of self-recognition is a tricky process if you can’t use mirrors. How do you test animals that use sonar, for example, like Dolphins and bats? One could make the argument that dogs still have, or at least potentially have the ability to recognize self. With their much larger sense of smell, it’s entirely likely that a large portion of their brainpower is dedicated to detecting differences in scent. I would guess that the jury on self-recognition is still out with Dogs.

  16. Is it? I know practically nothing about this, but I think that seeing and smelling are quite different. The signal-processing part of vision consists of building a complex model from many, many instances of the same kind of data, provided by the same kind of sensor, the photocell. Having a sharp sense of smell largelyconsists in having sensors for a wide variety of molecules, right? How much processing can there be?

  17. I don’t know. But not knowing means I would rather leave the door open.

  18. Thinking about dogs and mirrors and self-awareness. I have two dogs. One of them, as a puppy, used to react to the mirror. Our dresser has a mirror on it, and sits along side the bed, rather than far across the room. So, it’s only about 4 feet, or so, from the bed. One night, after we’d had him perhaps a month, was on the bed and caught sight of the “other dog” in the mirror. He immediately got upset by this “strange dog” that wasn’t our other dog. Even considering the (relatively) poor sight of dogs, he could tell the difference, since our other dog is a black lab and he is an akita. He immediately got aggressive and tried to jump to the dresser so that he could get at this “strange dog”.

    That behavior continued until we rearranged the bedroom furniture and he wouldn’t see the “other dog” in the mirror. He clearly never recognized that the dog in the mirror was himself. It was always an “other”.

  19. In the case of Eric’s story, smell still comes into play. A dog operating under a primary sense of smell would expect to smell another dog before it saw another dog. Since the dog in the story saw another dog before smelling anything different, its possible the dog was reacting to surprise at being “snuck up on” so-to-speak.

    I’m reaching, I think. Oh well, it’s an interesting subject.

  20. According to Wikipedia, smell is processed in the brain, and that results in the range of smells that can be detected. Considering how well smell is developed in dogs (they recognize individuals by smell, and can track an individual over long distances after having merely smelled a possession of the individual), I would guess that their brain power for processing smell must be proportionately larger.

  21. I seem to recall seeing a documentary about human development that involved a mirror test similar to Eric’s story with his dogs. At some point in a child’s development they gain the ability to recognise that the child in the mirror is in fact themselves – it depends on the child in question, but IIRC it’s typically around 2-3 years old.
    Their test involved putting lipstick on the nose of two identical twins, and putting them in front of a full-size mirror. Only one recognised themself – she started rubbing her own nose clean. The other giggled at the girl in the mirror, and eventually touched ‘her’ nose, but didn’t make the leap to realising it was her own.

  22. I’m with David McCabe: I’m persuaded that there are other sophonts on this planet (and, FWIW, I believe dolphins are in that category: how else would one be able to distinguish between ships in general and one from which a drunken passenger had shot him, and assist all but that one ship?), and that this represents a first contact problem in the truest sense – and that we must learn how to solve it if we ever expect to contact extraterrestrial intelligences.

  23. Jeremy, I’m sure that smell was a huge contributing factor to my akita getting upset with the “other dog”. But, what I was trying to get at is that my dog never recognized the reflection in the mirror as himself. On the other hand, my daughter worked out that the girl in the mirror was her somewhere around 24-25 months old. And I remember from my own early childhood, fairly vaguely, that there was a point in time where I realized what mirrors were for. I have some fairly distinct memories that go back to being a toddler, such as being able to describe the apartment we lived in when I was 3.

    I am not an expert, or even a well read amateur, in this area at all. But, I thought some personal observations might contribute to the discussion.

  24. Eric, I think those stories are definitely adding to the discussion. My point was not to shoot you down, just to offer different perspective. I don’t know the answers to these either.

    Since the dog never recognized itself in the mirror, the dog obviously lacks the ability to recognize itself visually. Visually recognizing yourself actually requires a bit of imagination at first. The mind has to suppose that the image in front of them is not a real person, which as Eric said, is a counterfactual. Only then can the mind resolve/recognize the oddity that the image in the mirror is mimiking the movements/actions of the individual in question, and conclude that it is a reflection of self. Without the ability to imagine that what we see isn’t real, it is impossible to come to the conclusion that the reflection in the mirror is yourself.

    In humans this is easy, the large amount of brain used for visual work also allows for imagination of what does not exist. In other animals, probably not nearly as easy. So it is easy to conclude that most animals, dogs included, cannot visually recognize the self in a mirror.

    What I am suggesting is that there are other senses that animals use to understand the world around them. It is possible these animals may have the brainpower to recognize self through their primary sense, to imagine the information they are getting is false and conclude it is a reflection of themselves. This is assuming it were possible to show them a “reflection” of themselves through that sense. How do you create a smell-o-mirror? I haven’t the foggiest clue.

  25. I suspect you should be able to create a “mirror” that replicates both sight and smell. If I were a chemical or mechanical engineer, I’d probably be able to tell you how to do it right now. Although, I’m sure it would be costly.

    P.S. didn’t think you were trying to shoot me down, just wanted to clarify that I was providing anecdotal evidence to try and further the discussion.

    Besides, it was funny to watch the puppy keep trying to jump on the dresser and confront his evil twin.

  26. The mirror test seems to test two things:

    1) Is a live visual representation of “self” recognized as “self”
    2) Does the observer have a model of “self” to which it will try to correct.

    Interesting test concepts are recogniztion of a representation and a model of “self”. Possible failures in the experiment unrelated to sophont status include reliance on visual recognition and a desire to correct to a preconceived model.

    ESR points out that cats are sight hunters and therefore implies highly developed visual processing (and I agree with this). However, if they use scents socially then perhaps there is no strong *visual* self model to which they try to correct — whereas a scent model might be a different story. Or, of course, they also might not have that counterfactual ability to conceive of themselves without the smudge and try to fix it.

    To an animal that relies even partially on scent a reflection is only a limited representation. Imagine a visual representation of yourself using only color (area, tone and brightness) but not shape. Would you recognize this as a limited representation of yourself?

  27. How important is it to be a sophont? Only really important to other sophonts. Maybe an obsession with self is a weakness that non-sophonts have outgrown.

  28. >How important is it to be a sophont? Only really important to other sophonts. Maybe an obsession with self is a weakness that non-sophonts have outgrown.

    Fine. Get yourself a lobotomy, then. Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to value humanity.

  29. Another difficulty in recognizing yourself in the mirror is that, while you can smell yourself without help, you can’t really see yourself. You have to be able to imagine that your self has an appearance similar to the appearance of others. If you’ve never seen your own face, how would you know that you have one? You’d have to know that before you could pick your own face out of a mirror.

  30. As a guy, I would say that it is actually difficult to smell myself without help.

  31. Actually I think imagination and not reason is the really important difference between less and more intelligent humans as well. Whenever I meet a theory that seems to be too complicated for me, I start to look for a practical example. Having an example on how it works, it is a lot easier to grasp why it works, an good example is like a temporary IQ boost related to the subject. It is a lot easier to go from the specific to general – while both directions need the same amount of reasoning, this way needs lot less imagination.

    (This is why the Prussian-style system of education we have in Hungary and many other European countries is wrong: a lot of theory pressed into people’s heads without ever mentioning common cases, typical uses. You know, if a good fairie offered me to paint a grafitti on every wall in the world, it would “Optimize for the common case!”, quoted from Larry Wall. Which implicitly means “show a road that carries one gently into grasping the general case as well”. )

  32. Using models of psychology created by people who derive the most enjoyment from imaginary worlds, ESR concludes that “intelligent” life is distinguished primarily by its ability to imagine other worlds.

    Who didn’t see that one coming?

  33. Jay Maynard: I am not persuaded that there are other sophonts on this planet. However, I hope that there are. Maybe I’m just in a lonely mood, but I think that figuring out how to commune with another species would be a most wonderful experience.

  34. “I think that figuring out how to commune with another species would be a most wonderful experience”

    All you might probably get is “Food. Great. Now more food. Great. Now, time to sleep.” :)

  35. Craig “Fuzzy” Conner:

    > “Invents and uses tools” is an ability that doesn’t get much use by “normal” folks. Perhaps that one should apply to: “Hackers pass all these tests.”

    I beg to differ. Even most remote Amazonian tribe uses and invents tools in their day to day living. I think you are taking the meaning of invent to mean something along the lines of a new thing that is patentable or innovative to us humans in the present, at least that is the impression I get from your hacker comment.

    The very first time my son realized that by taking a book and standing on it to reach a shelf he “invented and used” a tool to manipulate his environment. He didn’t invent the book, or invent the routine of using it as a platform, but he in his own small world came up with a way to get at something he had no access to previously by using a tool. Using the otter as an example, it invented a way to open up hard shells to get the meat by using a rock to crack it, just like the birds that drop shellfish on rocks and then eat the meat from the shattered shells. A dog would have given up after realizing it could not bite or paw open the shell.

    My examples are probably poor but I am that great at written explanations.

  36. There are two commercials on television that bother me.

    Most recently, there is a commercial for the television program “Banzai!” on G4 which shows a large cockroach exploding in a microwave.

    Some time previously, there was a commercial for some asthma medication or other which showed a goldfish flopping about and gasping on a featureless white counter while a child’s voice haltingly said that when he has an asthma attack he feels like a fish with no water.

    The latter was not unlike the ending of Faith No More’s music video for the song “Epic”, and there remains a billboard on a street near my house with a photograph of the gasping goldfish and the text of the child’s statement.

    What bothers me about these is that you could not explode a kitten in a microwave for entertainment, or force a dog underwater and film its frantic struggles. You would face criminal charges. You would be positively crucified in the media.

    We have a massive “animal rights” movement worldwide, yet we can kill or torture insects and fish for marketing purposes, and nobody cares. Many birds can be treated rather badly, as well. Reptiles are commonly molested and harassed on camera for entertainment.

    So the animal lovers, and vegetarians, and vegans, and whoever the hell is griping at me about animal rights this month, are all in my opinion complete hypocrites. And I refuse to listen to them.

  37. My favorite animal lovers are the ones that Penn & Teller featured on the show that wasn’t about PETA. These were animal lovers who paid someone else to “talk” to their pets and tell them what their pets wanted. This woman was a more amazing than John Edward, as John Edward was just using tried-and-true cold-reading techniques that have probably been around since the ancient Greeks. She literally had this upper-middle-class-to-wealthy lonely women believing that she was conversing with their pets and helping the owners have a conversation with these animals.

    In fact, towards the end of that segment, they showed a clip of the camera crew gently suggesting that perhaps this woman was lying to them, that perhaps there really was no way to talk to animals and that it was all utter hogwash. The women angrily shot back at the mere suggestion that they were not really truly conversing with their pets through this high-priced scam aritsts. In fact, some of the women broke out in tears they were so upset at this suggestion.

    I was awestruck. Einstein was right.

  38. Eric,

    If I may, could I e-mail interview you with say 5 questions? I am a Linux advocate and a technology writer for TheNetworkAdministrator… I value your thoughts and ideas. Linux user since 1996. Please say yes.

  39. I was awestruck. Einstein was right.

    What, about anything above the spinal cord being wasted on some people?

    A lot of people believe what they want to believe and find ways to censor evidence that conflicts with it.

    I wonder if an analysis of borderline sophont status could give us a scientific (or at least evpsych) basis for judging certain groups of people (eg Democrats, vegetarians, beardies etc) as objectively subhuman. That could come in handy at times.

  40. What was Einstein right about?

    Caliban Darklock: There’s a continuum from pebble to human in cognitive capacity. At some point along it, we begin to ascribe ethical value. Insects and fish fall below the line. If an insect can make ethical demands on you, why not a virus? Why not the emacs psychiatrist?

  41. Hey ESR,

    Thyrsus.com expired yesterday. Might want to get ahold of Rich Morin to get it back online. Let me know if you need his contact info. (+1 808 351 1919)

    jim

  42. >Might want to get ahold of Rich Morin to get it back online

    It’s being handled. Why did you suggest Rich Morin in particular?

  43. Rich pointed it out, and seemed to indicate that he was “in the loop” of getting things back on-line. Could be my mis-interpretation. Just trying to help here.

  44. >There’s a continuum from pebble to human in cognitive capacity. At some point along it, we begin to ascribe ethical value.

    You anticipate the topic of my next post with exactitude.

  45. David McCabe: I’m not sure it’s necessarily intellectual capacity that makes the difference to most people. People can and do form emotional bonds with cats and dogs, but mostly not with goldfish or insects. I’m interrested in what Eric has to say about the relevant differences in the essay mentioned in the post.

    Caliban Darklock: I’m not sure if it’s really the animal-rights militants who are the hypocrites here. Plenty of them would defend the rights of the insects and goldfish of the world just as strongly as the rights of other creatures. It’s your everyday, moderate meat-eaters and pet-owners that would object, perhaps hypocritically, to exploding kittens and drowning dogs.

  46. > I wonder if an analysis of borderline sophont status could give us a scientific (or at least evpsych) basis for judging certain groups of people (eg Democrats, vegetarians, beardies etc) as objectively subhuman. That could come in handy at times.

    That is disgusting, not to mention obviously without a basis in facts. I shudder to think what you might have wanted to do with such an analysis.

  47. Adam, he’s kidding.

    But I think it’s an interesting point; we probably do ascribe ethical value partially on the basis of shared emotional signals, at least in everyday life. In most cases this works, because shared emotional signals correlate strongly with high cognitive capacity. Mammels are generally the smart ones. That said, I expect that most would object to exploding cephalopods if they observed them for long enough to realize that they are much more intelligent than fish, even if they still thought they were creepy.

    By the way, isn’t the nautilus a strange and beautiful creature? I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a photograph of the animal before, only of the shells.

  48. % whois thyrsus.com
    [...]
    Registrar of Record: TUCOWS, INC.
    Record last updated on 09-Feb-2006.
    Record expires on 09-May-2006.
    Record created on 08-May-1990.

    Domain servers in listed order:
    NS1.VALINUX.COM 198.186.202.135
    GRELBER.THYRSUS.COM 66.92.53.140

    Domain status: REGISTRAR-HOLD

    […]
    Also, ‘ping 198.186.202.135′ yeilds a TTL exceeded ICMP error, and nothing at that address answers DNS queries. So, fix yer damn NS records when you pay up w/TUCOWS, or we’ll all begin to wonder if you’re not slowly becoming more pebble-like.

    We go beach…

  49. Quoting adrian10:

    I wonder if an analysis of borderline sophont status could give us a scientific (or at least evpsych) basis for judging certain groups of people (eg Democrats, vegetarians, beardies etc) as objectively subhuman. That could come in handy at times.

    The problem with this (aside from that it may not work the way you want it to against Democrats and others) is that sophont status is an not objective basis for testing intelligence. To the contrary, it is biased toward those of us who are most likely to use the phrase “sophont status” in everyday conversation. :-)

  50. “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” – A. Einstein

  51. I am late to the game, but some anecdotal stories…..

    My parents had a golden retriever in the 80s. He communicated quite well, though mostly emotions. He was bright, aware and eager. At the same time, my brother had a friend, who was (and is) human. However, when you looked in ther eyes, there was someone home at the dog’s house, but not at the kid’s.

    As for imagination – the house had the old style cast iron steam radiators. Every now and then, the dogs ball would get under one and he could not get it out. More than once, after I reached under and got it out with my hand, he would lie there, put his paw on the ball, press down and then turn his paw over to see if the ball came with it like it did with my hand. It was sad, watching him apparently wish for a hand.

    On the other hand (no pun), if he had hands – well, he got in enough trouble as it was……

    The point, and I am pretty sure this will be coming in another essay, is this. If it looks like a human and talks and smells, etc, we think of it as human. On the other hand, I know humans who probably could not pass the tests, and probably should not be accorded all ther rights and priviliedges of humans.

    On the other hand, there are probably the occassional animal who could or can pass the test. Can you imagine how lonely they would be?

  52. Eric, the private means you gave me of contacting you is in a similar condition. Can you contact me? My information is all over the Web.

  53. I have an unrelated (to previous comments) concern:

    People are capable of passing all those tests, but not at any arbitrary point in time. A person who is asleep, severely ill, or perhaps more reasonably, heavily intoxicated, could easily fail those tests. Is mere potentiality to pass these tests in the future sufficient, or is there some other resolution to that issue?

  54. I thought this NPR story was interesting because I had not known that ravens can talk… you can hear for yourself at the end. Smart giant squid scare me also, but the little ones are quite tasty.

  55. On the other hand, there are probably the occassional animal who could or can pass the test. Can you imagine how lonely they would be?

    Sounds like a geek in a small town, or a genius among normals.

  56. Dogs definitely know their own scent – that’s why they mark their territory with urine, and go sniffing around for the scent of intruders’ urine. But that does not show they have a sense of “self” as something distinct from their territory and pack or family. Likewise, that a cat will clean off a smudge it sees in a mirror does not prove that the cat has a sense of self. Maybe it proves the opposite, that the cat is unable to tell the difference between itself and the furniture, or other cats it sees.

  57. I remember the first time my baby sister evidently recognized herself in the mirror. She was about 8 months old, and I pointed at the mirror and told her that it was a picture of her. I repeated this several times, touching my own hand to the “hand” in the mirror and then doing the same with her hand, using the words “hand” and “picture” each time. She soon understood and would giggle and for a few days after that the mirror became a favorite toy. Once (a few months later) she pretended to be angry with me and started laughing and punching my reflection. The point is that when taught this she was able to remember, joke about, and generalize the concept. She immediately knew that other things seen in the mirror were also reflections (though of course she didn’t know that word). She didn’t just recognize herself, she recognized the mirror as a function that took a certain set of input data (people in front of it) to a certain set of images. Show me a chimpanzee that can do that, or the one that can endure the gom jabbar, and I’ll show the the chimpanzee that should be afforded natural rights.

  58. syskill writes:

    The problem with this (aside from that it may not work the way you want it to against Democrats and others) is that sophont status is an not objective basis for testing intelligence. To the contrary, it is biased toward those of us who are most likely to use the phrase “sophont status” in everyday conversation. :-)

    I assume you meant to say “intelligence is not an objective basis for testing sophont status.” That of course depends on what you consider “sophont” to mean. But there’s no intrinsic reason intelligence shouldn’t be defined as a component of sophont status. Satisfaction of any definition is tautologically “biased” toward things that tend to satisfy the definition. I would posit that intelligent people are in fact more likely to use the phrase “sophont status” than the unintelligent, since intelligence (at least in the orthodox iteration) correlates well with both large vocabularies and the curiosity about abstractions that makes this phrase interesting. It may be that, as a consequence of the definition, sophonts are also more likely to do so. But why does that invalidate the definition? Surely the definition isn’t invalid just because it means something.

  59. There is the IQ test for the Mensa society, you know, the one where you have 8 drawings and have to find out from another 8 drawings that which one fits to the place of the missing ninth drawing. These tests are proudly presented as culture-neutral, education-neutral, and completely nonverbal. Whenever I took such tests, I always had a subtle feeling that this is not actually true – that such tests only cover a very small range of the capabilities of the human mind. I felt that because these tests are hard and force one to think as hard as one usually never does in everyday life (unless you are a LISP hacker, or something). During such hard thinking, I felt that there is something not quite natural, not quite normal in purely conceptual, intellectual thinking – it’s like standing on tiptoes: forcing a small part of our being to perform huge work. So, these tests gave me the impression that intelligence might not be as important – maybe common sense, right instincts, wisdom, intuition, emotional intelligence or other traits might be generally more important. There is also experimental, well if not evidence, then at least experimental hints to that. One is that there are lot of left-wing intellectuals, who are very, very clever, but generally still miss the point : because thinking should be based on good common sense, right instincts and experience, and that’s generally missing. As for the opposite side, I know some Buddhists who are from the working classes and ain’t quite bright, but years and years of meditation granted them a powerful common sense: if you ask their advice, for example, for partner relathionship problems, they will say something blatantly blunt and simple, and still that thing “just works”, and you can actually feel like they’ve been cutting a Gordian knot in your head – you just suddenly realize that all those complicated thoughts about the problem were nothing else but just a perpetual merry-go-round of unproductive thoughts and solutions can be amazingly simple.

    So, it seems to me conceptual intelligence might be but an ineffective way of getting to the truth, nothing else, kinda thinking in a spiral instead of cutting right to the heart of the problem.

    We should invent something else, I think.

  60. Shenpen Says:

    “I felt that there is something not quite natural, not quite normal in purely conceptual, intellectual thinking – it’s like standing on tiptoes: forcing a small part of our being to perform huge work.”

    A test to find a superior ballet dancer might include the ability to stand on tiptoes for extended lengths of time with ease. Somebody who is not a superior ballet dancer would find this not quite natural, not quite normal. They might be insulted by by the implication that they are not considered a superior ballet dancer, and consider it an ineffective way of getting to the truth, nothing else.

    Likewise, the test to find a superior thinker includes purely conceptual, intellectual thinking. Somebody who is not a superior thinker would find this not quite natural, not quite normal. But that doesn’t make the test anymore relevent.

  61. Quoting Nathan Hall:

    I assume you meant to say “intelligence is not an objective basis for testing sophont status.” That of course depends on what you consider “sophont” to mean. But there’s no intrinsic reason intelligence shouldn’t be defined as a component of sophont status…

    No, I said what I meant to say. I was arguing against adrian10′s idea of using measurements of sophont abilites to objectively classify some people as subhuman. I probably should have kept that clear by not saying “intelligence” when I meant “humanity.” Sorry about that.

  62. While I’ve heard about the Koko fiasco, in which the trainer’s desires clearly affected the results, there are what seem to be real science associated with birds, the frequency of chirps signifying the presence and immediate nature of danger. Note the brain size relationship is enormous between birds and humans.

    I suspect as in most biological systems, every intelligence trait when properly characterized will be found to varying degrees in many animals, not just mammals. When all is done, it will include imagination.

    It’s pretty clear, though, that humans are quite different from other animals. I suspect the vast majority of differences are of the “faster, more, longer” variety. Evolution enhances hese traits, ironically, by because we lack physical prowess, unlike in animals in which these traits are secondary to their physical prowess.

  63. Interestingly, most of these “intelligence” tests rely mostly on what humans consider to be intelligence. A dog might find us woefully inadequate because we cannot distinguish between the scent of a cockroach and the scent of a lemon. Unless and until we have a common frame of reference between species, the existence or lack thereof of “intelligence” is rather a moot point. Whales have 60 times the gray matter of humans. Gray matter is considered to be the realm of the “higher” brain functions such as intelligence. What are they saying in their year-long songs? And what are humans to whales?

  64. I have often wondered what were to happen if morse code were used to take with dolphins and other similar creatures. This is a form of communication that would be fairly natural to them (lots of clicks), and where there are humans who can receive at a fairly high rate of speed. This could also be done using computers to generate and recognize the patterns.

    Of course, the dolphins would have to be trained, but this could be promising.

  65. (Late to the party, as usual)

    Language is what makes us human. Or maybe, is what lets us be human. And certainly separates us from the rest. That’s why there are humans like Plato and Aristotle, but no similar dolphins. (How do we know!?!? Because there’s no evidence to support it.)

    It’s hard – but not impossible – to conceive of a non-verbal intelligence. What makes it hard is that the border between instinctual behavior and intended behavior isn’t all that well-defined. There’s an Australian bird (I forget the name) that has an elaborate mating ritual, one that involves collecting lots of brightly-colored objects). And even with birds, there are so many decision-tree moments they have to go through every day, that it’s hard to believe that there isn’t intelligence – as we humans define it – at work. And there’s no dount that some animals are smarter than others. Sheep dogs at one end, the proverbial hound-dog at the other.

    I wonder, also about the “if the green balls” question – how do they pose “if-then-else’ questions? That simple trio is the one that grounds almost all philosophy, and certainly grounds all of computer science. I’d think that a proper ape response to “how many … if I took one away” would be, “Well, take one away and I’ll tell you.”

    Stan mentions whale brains, saying that brain size is th realm of intelligence. This may not be so. Einstein’s brain was in a pickle-jar for a long time (and his eyes, too – but that’s another story). What they found was that his brain wasn’t much larger than anyone else’s (certainly not as large as Andre the Giant’s), but that it was connected in a certain way, one they think made its connections quicker and more efficient. Even tiny-brained creatures – insects and so on – can work out which way to run and what to hide under very quickly when you’re trying to stomp them.

    You started out with “Animal Imagination” and “self-awareness”, but I think you got sidetracked after the first paragraph – I don’t see much about either. Self-awareness is one of the grand goals of computer science. When a computer becomes self-aware, we can all retire to the country and write sad songs about the death of kings. Imagination seems to be the contemplation of that which is not (but could be). How could you ask of an ape (or a dolphin) what it would be like if the world were different – if the ape or the dolphin could fly?

    I think we’ve all just barely scratched the surface.

  66. > I have often wondered what were to happen if morse code were used to take with dolphins and other similar
    > creatures.

    Something like :-

    Dolphin : “You mean talk I suspect? What are you a prawn?”

  67. This is a good read, however I belive that the sophont test is flawed. Why? Because most (even all?) animals show up as semi-sophonts. I hear you say ‘get a life, don’t be stupid’ etc. But, well, just read this….

    Firstly, lets look at the source of this intelligence: the brain. The human brain is very, very complex. Some classify it as the most complex structure in the universe. But look at its structure: its just a lot of nuerons connected in a fancy way. Now look at tapeworms: under there skin they have; a lot of nuerons connected in a fancy way. Are they sophonts? No. Are they consciese? I am guessing they are. Thus they probably pass part one of the sophont test: they are semi-sophont.

    OK, so could my pet dog, Hazel, pass the sophont test? She’s not abnormally smart or anything, but lets see.
    She obiously passes part 1 (see above) and 2. Part 3 she semi-passes. She communicates by emotion and a small vocablary like barking (hardly language). Same with part 4. She cannot use tools (altogh I’m sure some dogs can), but she reasons to ‘invent’ or find ways out of situations. For example, I have observed her figuring out how to escape from confined spaces, or, if she annoys people by squeaking her toy too much, and it’s taken off her, she reasons how to take it back. She even appears to understand how to open door handles! The last one, however would be impossible to test: shes a dog, and cannot understand the way humans comunicate well enough to fully understand human speech. The same applies to us: we can never fully understand dog communication.

    Now, lets award points out of 5 with 1 point awarded when a living thing passes one part of the test. Half a point will be awarded when it semi-passes one part of the test. The tapeworm gets 1/5 (20%). I get 5/5 (100%). Hazel gets 3/5 (60%) + perhaps 1 (part 5 is inconclusive). Chimpanzees get 4/5 (80%) + perhaps 1 (part 5 is inconclusive). We really are not so ‘great’ or ‘smart’, and so we should even respect insects, fish, reptiles, perhaps even tapeworms!!!

    — /usr/bin/byte

  68. >People are capable of passing all those tests, but not at any arbitrary point in > time. A person who is asleep, severely ill, or perhaps more reasonably,
    > heavily intoxicated, could easily fail those tests. Is mere potentiality to pass
    > these tests in the future sufficient, or is there some other resolution to that
    > issue?

    This is a very interesting point, and one that relates to a lot of ethical problems, not merely with animal rights, but with the rights of embryos and the brain dead.

    To my mind, something with Sophont status, which has a mind in a state which can pass the tests for being a sophont is analogous to a machine, say a television, which is currently working properly, and is displaying a sound, picture, and everything else a properly working television set should do.

    Now, many have tried to compare a weeks old embryo to a patient in a coma, who will wake up in a few weeks, because neither is thinking and capable of passing the sophont tests NOW, but will potentially pass it in the future. But this is mistaken. Someone who is in a coma, or asleep, or drunk, who cannot pass a Sophont test for that reason, still has all the necessary equipment with which to pass a Sophont test. The equipment (the brain) is simply not doing so at the current moment. Someone asleep, in a coma, or drugged, is like a television which is switched off, or perhaps being interfered with by someone welding nearby. The television is, however, still there, and still capable of working.

    This is not the case with an embryo. An embryo simply does not have the brain development to be a sophont. An embryo is not the equivalent of a television that is switched off, it is the equivelant of a pile of metal and glass slag and other raw materials which may become a television in the future, if processed through the TV factory. To equate such a pile of raw materials with an actual television that is merely switched off is absurd, just as it is absurd to equate an embryo with a coma patient.

    The same applies to those who are not merely in a coma, but are brain dead, or brain damaged, beyond hope of recovery. They are not the equivalent of those who are asleep or even in a coma, either. To use my analogy again, the brain damaged are the equivalent not of a television that has been switched off, but of a television that has been smashed to bits with a sledgehammer. Once more, the equipment necessary for it to work properly as a TV is simply not there, it has been destroyed.

  69. Sentience in cats. I was certain that cats lacked intelligence and problem solving skills but having now lived with them for 3 years i am reminded daily of their ability to learn, to rationalize and to use simple tools. Humans who were raised without being tought lack many things modern tests equate to intelligence, i have found that in spending close to 4 hours a day in direct association with cats they are self aware and are adept in learning. This first began when i began walking my cats in the middle of the night, i would bell and collar them. One day i felt something drop on my shoulder in the afternoon and heard a meow when i turned the collar with bell was there and the cat in question wanted to go outside. Soon after i cat proofed my yard and they could not get out. However after a neighborhood cat got in my cats were getting out. i reinforced mt yard and the male spent sometime analyzing the weak points and then out again. Recently he has defeated the whole system. In so far as tool useboth cats have moved cardboard boxes to acheve access to upper shelving. This was discovred by accident and repeated for access to hidden treats.
    Other instances include turning on a pressure tap to get water “a pedal depress of sorts”
    As far as a smudge test, this has been run on ahlzheimerts patience and mild dimentia with the patients not cleaning themselves. Less than 100 years ago the negroid people were considered less intelligent. Give it another 100 for scientists to discover what the general pet owner knows already.Very similar to slave owners who knew that many of theur slaves were better people than they. I remember scientists saying there is only 97 elements in the periodic table and that the earth is flat\:)

  70. this is fascinating!

    I read the other day about chimps mourning the death of a family member, as do elephants, surely this shows some awareness of themselves and others of their species.

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