no more anthropodenial

One week from today will be my self-proclaimed holiday “Mammalian Heritage Day” that I started last year. I will re-post from those posts next week but today I want to refer you to 2 news reports that illustrate the remarkable path the earliest mammals started us down on some 300 million years ago.


In this new tree of life mammals would be found in the green projections in lower right corner.

The first report is about the empirical support now in for the ‘cultural’ brain hypothesis’, i.e., essentially that our brains, especially as primates and before that as mammals, enlarged with our increasing sociability, meaning the rich domain of information our empathic and signal communication contributes to our lives and experience. Over the past several years researchers have documented deep similarities between human society and cetacean society. Check out this story from This list covers some remarkable evolutionary developments that have culminated with primate and cetacean species. Consider that we all are

– Working together for mutual benefit
– Teaching others how to hunt and cooperative hunting
– Using tools
– Complex vocalizations -‘talking’ to each other – including regional group dialects
– Signature whistles that are unique to individuals
– Name recognition
– Interspecific cooperation (working with humans and other species)
– Adult animals looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
– Social play

The second story comes from researchers who have documented that chimpanzees, both in human captivity and in the wild, show stable personality traits quite similar to ours, to which we now say, “of course”. Consider this NYT story: This report accompanies the release of a new documentary about Jane Goodall’s early research. What a brilliant human she is, first as a scientist with immense vision and courage developed through the most rigorous fieldwork imaginable and now as a wise and astute advocate for Gaia and especially its creatures under duress of extinction. When she began her studies back in 1960, her findings were belittled as anthropomorphic projection. Now we have Frans de Waal cautioning us against anthropodenial by which we deny and ignore the evolutionary continuities between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom (especially mammals like primates and cetaceans). Our similarities run deep from our shared genetic heritage up to, as research continues to demonstrate, our social selves and groups. Makes me glad to be alive, so I think I will travel on with a little swing to my step.


A good study so why quibble?

Because it is fun and improves my mind.  Here is an excellent example of social praxis demonstrated in simians:  PLOSone has a report of another experimental studies designed to investigate whether great apes, e.g., chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, can distinguish another’s ‘false beliefs’ and act upon that discernment to help them. The researchers used procedures adapted from human studies that demonstrated some understanding of another’s false beliefs at 18 months of age and good understanding by age 3 or 4 years old. The researchers were very diligent in their design and implementation in order to ensure validity and reliability; I will give only a bare outline before going on to deeper issues. You can read for yourself at:

The basic set-up is this: Actor A comes into the room and puts an object in box 1 and then leaves the room. Actor B comes into the room and switches the object to box 2 and then leaves. Actor A returns. Which box does he go to? The subject has watched this whole scenario knows the object is in box 2 but also, if socially cognizant, knows that actor A believes the object to be box 1. In some protocols the visual gaze preference is measured, i.e., how long the subject looks at agent 1, box 1 and box 2, the assumption of this measure of passive action being that gazing more at box 2 shows awareness of the false belief. A more robust protocol is for the subject to move and help actor A open the correct box. And indeed the results show that young humans and the great apes move to show actor A the true location of the object, trying to help by correcting the false belief. More on this in a bit.

The basic set-up is also modified so that after placing the object in box 1, actor A stays in the room and watches actor B come in and move the object to box 2. I really like this variant; it shows the ingeniousness of scientists in clarifying the data’s interpretation.. When actor A goes to box 1 and tries to open it, little humans and great apes try to help him open box 1, seeming then to understand that actor A knows where the object is but wants to open box 1 for some other purpose. In another variation, if actor A opens box 1 and looks puzzled at not finding what was desired, subjects helped focus on box 2 and so retrieve the object.


Now when was the last time you had your keys?

I think this is a great study along the lines Frans de Waal calls for to help us understand how smart other animals are, and I have some quibbles and want to think about further examples of distinguishing false beliefs from human cultural and symbolic behavior. My first quibble is that in the abstract the researchers state that their results demonstrate that this type of social cognition and understanding, which had been thought to be exclusively human, might now be found in other animals. “Great apes thus may possess at least some basic understanding that an agent’s actions are based on her beliefs about reality. Hence, such understanding might not be the exclusive province of the human species.” If you have followed this blog at all, you know what my challenge will be. What anthropodenialist (see 4/8/16 post on de Waal) and all too precious human assumed (do I detect a false belief there?) this was to be found in humans only? Not good, especially in this day and age when we understand that human evolution includes no discontinuities with our ancestors. Research like this is not really changing our view of who we are (or at least it shouldn’t be) but rather reveals how the biological roots of our humanity grew our species.

Secondly, here is perhaps an obviously semantic quibble: Why call this false ‘belief’ when a much better word would be ‘assumption’, thereby reserving the word ‘belief’ for some thought formed with less ties to sensory data? Consider two known features here, mirroring and the kinesic communication of intent (a basic form of empathy). Mirroring cells in at least the primate cortex are motor cells that fire when the animal sees another perform an action (see many posts here about this, especially my most popular post of all time on the arcuate fasciculus, mirror cells, and memes). In the experiments described above, the subject animal, be it human or great ape, would respond through mirroring to the reappearance of actor A when approaching a box. Further, some studies have suggested that mirror cells are sensitive to the other’s intention, e.g., seeing the other pick up a cup, different cells fire when the other is going to drink from it as opposed to doing some other unrelated task. So the subject animal needs only mirroring and basic empathy coupled with environmental object mapping (quite evident in the rat brain) to identify the false assumption; the impulse to help would be again a basic empathic action that forms the incipient base of social praxis. (Remember watching somebody struggle to do something and your impulse to grab the object and do it for them?) The mirroring system may go a long way in offering some understanding of this social cognition, and the assumption of continuity in the perceptual world along with communicated intent is a basic, so that belief is not really a construct needed to understand this.


I always thought god was a bonobo, and now you tell me . . .

What about the broader, deeper phenomena of detecting (and responding to) another’s perceived false beliefs, real beliefs about abstract matters rather than perceptual data? We humans, at least, seem to have a talent for apprising others of their false beliefs. You know, like someone just knows I am going to hell because of my false beliefs? Or an example of more consequence, people who deny scientific findings because why? The false beliefs of scientists, of course, thereby exposing their own false beliefs, also called ignorance, about the nature and process of science. So much of our world, the human Umvelt, is dominated by symbolic information displaced in time and space, abstracted from experience and formulated with, at times, great creative license, that finding agreement rather than parsing others’ mistakes might seem the challenge. That, of course, is a function of culture, however, and oh, wait, is that part and parcel of the scientific method, and I hasten to add, the basis of democracy? Now, about the emperor’s new clothes . . .

Conscious or not?

For some reason several news stories have popped up questioning whether other animals are conscious. Try these links:


I like these stories because they bring up the issue of what kind of minds our fellow beasts have. Of course some scientists and philosophers reserve consciousness for animals with symbolic capabilities, which restricts it to humans, but I think other factors are involved here. The earthsky article says that animals, like Inky the octopus who smartly escaped his aquarium, are intelligent enough to be conscious, but if intelligence were key, that would rule out some people I know and some politicians I read about.

Long ago I posted about the difference between sentience and consciousness. Let me review: They are not synonyms. Sentience is the alert perceptual awareness of your environment, internal as well as external. When you sleep, then you are insentient. Sentience would seem to me an inherent property of all life because all life must sense and find resources. Sure sentience comes about in many ways, from the amoeba’s sensitive membrane, the lobster’s vision and chemical senses, or mammalian perception along with the sleep-wake cycle. So all life is sentient (yes, even trees in this view—don’t their leaves follow the sun? don’t  they communicate with chemicals?); one facet of their intelligence is how sophisticated their sentience is .

Now consciousness is a different matter. We can be sentient but unconscious as when we are hypnotized or drive too long fatigued and experience what is called highway hypnosis. We can be insentient but conscious as when we dream. We can be both sentient and conscious as I hope we all are as of this writing and reading or we can be neither as when we fall into deep, non-REM sleep. (It has occurred to me that dissociative processes can involve being both sentient and conscious in a disconnected way, e.g., PTSD flashback). Consciousness, then, is a quality dependent upon our internal subjective awareness. I have posted before about the claustrum that Crick and Koch think is the conductor organizing mental or conscious processes. When the claustrum is momentarily ‘turned off’, the person remains awake but unconscious and remembers nothing of the experience; our subjectivity is disrupted.

We humans are able to monitor and control (to a lesser degree than some might think) our thoughts because of our symbolic capacity, so it does seem that symbols are important to our consciousness. While other animals may not communicate symbolically, some must have some proto-symbolic processes that facilitate mental control. (So as not to ignore what ‘proto-symbolic’ entails, please consider how animals control information displaced in time and space mnemonic or imaginative but beyond the current situation). I think that something else is important to whether or not an animal’s sentience also develops into consciousness (hint: the title of this blog).

Consciousness arises in animals who are social and have an empathic awareness of another’s mind and so an increased awareness of their own. (This is close to the basis of object relations theory in psychodynamic psychology.) In this view consciousness is a matter of degrees, not all or none. How empathically tuned is the animal and how robust are its symbolic or protosymbolic capabilities? Our human consciousness is a paragon here because our roots of empathy and symbolization have joined mightily in the evolution of our lineage.

Yes, some old fogeys want to keep consciousness as one of humanity’s special traits, but don’t you buy it. That is, in de Waal’s terminology, anthropodenial. On the other hand, yes, your dog is conscious to some degree, but a different one than ours or simians or cetaceans. In one of his books, Frans de Waal utters a challenge for anyone to interact with a bonobo or chimpanzee, look into their eyes and then deny they are conscious. Can’t be done if you yourself are conscious.

Which brings me to consider whether or not some politicians who utter repeatedly an ill-considered script and show an utter disregard for the empathy required for normal interactions are conscious. Could NIMH study them? Maybe better to follow the path set by Inky. Travel on.


So you think you are conscious and that it somehow matters, eh?

cephalopod freedom & simian captivity

I am guessing that one our traits with early roots is to capture and own and study and have different plants and animals.  Let’s call it the trait of domestication.  Long years ago I took a class in comparative neuropsychology in which we all had to do a  paper on one researcher’s efforts to study a particular species.  Somehow or another, I am not sure how but do believe it affected me for the rest of my life, better and worse, I was assigned a researcher (can’t remember the name now 38 years later) who spent a career trying to train, i.e., behaviorally condition, an octopus.  And he did, getting the beast to move to one side of the aquarium or the other after a stimulus.  To do so he persisted over some years in exploring what the octopus could and would perceive as a salient stimulus and what condition would cause it to move and how to get the beast to ‘associate’ those two.  I guess he proved Pavlov could have used an octopus or Skinner a squid; I am not sure of much else.  In the intervening time biologists have considered the large eyes of the octopus, its 8 legs and suction cups, its ink and mobility by jet wash, and its beak in a much more ecologically minded way and so we understand better now the intelligence of the octopus.

But wait, what is this news story?  An octopus we named Inky busted out (literally) from an aquarium in New Zealand, crawled down or through a drain pipe, and escaped to the sea.  I gotta admire Inky’s spirit and have to wonder about his kin–would they all take advantage of the opportunity for freedom if presented?  Or was he particularly bright or rambunctious to break out of his enclosure?  If you see him, ask.

And then we have an escaped chimpanzee in Japan, I think, who did all he could to evade recapture.  Of course, a dangerous animal like that had to be shot with a sedative dart and re-interred in the zoo.  Google this story (the one about Inky too) and see a picture of the chimp atop power lines (yes, power lines) struggling to escape his keepers and look at his expression.  I think he and Inky shared the same opinion about captivity.

Yes, I do anthropomorphize here but only to emphasize what is obviously the natural inclination of these animals and then to say that we humans share it.  If you disagree, I guess you are, in Frans de Waal’s term, in anthropodenial.  Travel on.


de Waal admits tickling chimpanzees

Please read Frans de Waal’s op-ed in the recent NYT entitled, “What I learned from tickling chimpanzees.” Link:

It is a brilliant and clear statement of how many scientists and others think wrongly about our own species and how we can go about understanding our place in the biological world more fully. Ah, this is a subject dear to my heart, not just that humans are animals but our thinking, religion, culture, art, science, etc. are all products of our biology.   Two of his points are most memorable at the first read (but read all of it, not that long and full of insight). One is that we continue to follow Aristotle’s classification of higher and lower animals and of course you can guess which animal is on top. Western religion adopted this wholesale in the great chain of being, if you took and remember some English literature classes, where God appoints the pope, king and nobles and then each class in its turn. Anyone who rebels against his ‘place’ is guilty of breaking the great chain. Learning from Darwin and evolutionary genetics we understand that there is no chain but rather many streams of genetic speciation, some similar, some related, some both, and some quite divergent. He says it better.

The other memorable point is his explanation of the proper place of anthropomorphic thinking.  Many scientists are phobic of using words normally used for humans to label the behaviors of other animals, thus the ‘tickling’ chimpanzees which results in laughter (you know, the positive affectively charged hooting with lips retracted but not showing teeth). Of course folk wisdom and culture attributes many human attributes to animals, e.g., cats are aloof, dogs feel guilt, horses paint artistic pictures, etc. but the misuse of such attributions is no reason to deny the continuity of abilities and functions across species, including us. Yes, birds and humans do sing, their songs differ in many regards yet are similar in others and we can learn about music from understanding these biological roots. De Waal offers another term ‘anthropodenial’ to denote the refusal of some to recognize our commonalities—read what he has to say.

I have written several times about what I have read in 2 of de Waal’s books, The Bonobo and the Atheist and The Age of Empathy. One story from my post on March 9, 2015 “Memory and regret”, de Waal tells of a bonobo that accidentally bit off the finger of scientist-caretaker and immediately showed all the signs of realizing his transgression.   When that worker returned for a visit some years later after taking another job, the bonobo ran to the window in greeting and recognition and kept trying to gain a view of the hand he had bitten. To deny he remembered his action and felt bad about it would violate empirical observation. My question back then, unanswerable without engaging in symbolic communication with the bonobo, was if the bonobo over the years had recalled, not just recognized, his misdeed, say in a reflective moment or falling asleep or waking with insomnia, the memory held invariantly through guilt as we humans are wont to do, or only remembered in recognition of the worker and the associated memory based upon the mechanisms of recognition. A big difference.


Well, that is certainly a mystery to me too.

I will say more about this in a few days as I begin my discussion of Ellen Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus, which opens making just the point de Waals makes, that humans are distinct and have special abilities, as do every other species, and that these have common biological roots in our evolutionary past. Our notion of human exceptionalism misleads us from a better understanding, in her instance of art.  For now though, read Dr. de Waal’s piece. He is one of my champions and I say once again, “Thank you.”