What is it like to be a bat? Ask David Kish!

The philosopher Thomas Nagel posed, and prematurely answered, a question that has vexed philosophers and animal scientists ever since: what is it like to be a bat? A mammal not so very distantly related to us (our nearest living non-primate relatives, in fact), yet inhabiting a perceptual world so alien that, Nagel suggests,  we cannot possibly conceive it.

Nagel’s bat example exerted a powerful grip on the imaginations of those thinkers who came after him, and the questions it threw up risked opening up a gulf of uncertainty about our capacity not only to understand bats, but any other animal, including other humans. The trouble is Thomas Nagel was wrong from the outset, and we can thank David Kish for proving it.

Seeing with your ears.

David Kish is one of the pioneers of human echolocation. Blind from the age of two, David learnt to spatially orient himself not only by using sounds from animate objects, but by interpreting how his own tongue clicks reverberated off the inanimate objects around him  –  a human approximation of the echolocation used by bats, dolphins and whales.

David went on to formally study the neurology and physiology of human echolocation, and now teaches echolocation to other blind people. He is also seeking to develop prosthetic devices which will augment his and other blind people’s echolocating abilities.

One of the most gifted practitioners of human echolocation was Ben Underwood, a gifted natural athlete who also spontaneously developed an echolocating tongue-click technique as a young child. Ben got around without a cane his whole life, and unlike David Kish and his other students, who maintain the cautious upright carriage we normally associate with the blind, Ben maintained the loose-limbed confidence of an agile fully-sighted youth. Of all the best known exponents of echolocation, Ben was closest to fulfilling the profile of the blind acrobat, Daredevil, of Marvel Comics, fame. Tragically, by the time Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee came do explore human echolocation in his TV show on real life superhumans, Ben had already passed away. He succumbed at age 16 to the same cancer which originally took his eyes.

While it seems that the rudiments of echolocation can even be taught to sighted people, a refined echolocation ability is unlikely to be teachable to people with adult onset blindness. David and Ben were probably young enough to recruit much of the visual parts of their brain (e.g. the occipital lobe) to spatially interpret auditory information.

Seeing with your skin!

But sound is not the only sense that has been recruited to conquer  human blindness. Prostheses have been developed which translate images from a head mounted video camera into tactile signals which can be received by the skin on your back, stomach or even tongue! Essentially these signals are interpreted in the same way we recognize letters or numbers traced with a finger on our back in a child’s game.

In short, it does not take an impossible leap of imagination to wonder what it is like to be a bat, or a dolphin, or some creature which navigate the physical world using some totally alien sense like the electroception of sharks or the magnetoception of certain birds.

The blindspots of echolocation

There are however some limits to the insight we can gain into the experience of how it feels to be a bat – and to this more limited degree Nagel was on to something.

Male subjects with adult-onset blindness who were shown pornographic images through sensory substitution devices were totally unmoved by them, and we might expect the same to be true of human echolocators encountering encountering a three-dimensional pornographic images like, say, the statues in South Korea’s Loveland themepark.

The intrinsic aesthetic appeal that evolution has bequeathed us when seeing certain curves, certain hues, certain wavelengths of light is no longer available when we interpret these phenomena through unconventional senses. In this important sense, the medium really is the message. The raw emotion of some visual experiences is bound up with the physiology of the eyes, and our longstanding evolutionary dependence on them.

Indeed, all the aesthetics of human pleasure and displeasure are ultimately derived from emotional signals evolution developed as a shorthand to optimize the survival and reproduction of humans and our ancestors over millions of years.

As humans have increasingly freed ourselves from the relentless quest for pure survival, we have made the world in the image of that evolutionary design. We devote much of our time and energy to creating and experiencing supernormal stimuli – human artefacts which exaggerate, caricature, combine and refine the natural stimuli which nature designed us to enjoy.

It is no surprise that as human prosperity has grown, we have increasingly cultivated our appetites for art, entertainment, cuisine, nor is it surprising that we have created new dangers for ourselves in terms of super-calorific foods, intoxicants, narcotics and to supernormal sexual stimuli. What is more surprising, perhaps, is the extent to which we ignore our most basic needs as a species which evolved to thrive on the warm open savannah of Pleistocene Africa and Europe, i.e. our appetite for open, uncluttered space;  for warm, salubrious air; for sunlight; for greenery; for rivers and streams; for the soothing sounds of birdsong and the wind in the trees. All the things, in short, which give us peace.

All too often our ongoing pursuit of prosperity places us in noisy, open-plan offices, with windows looking out onto brick walls, and relentlessly grey urban environments of unpunctuated concrete and bitumen bound to make us restless and discomfitted. Strangely, despite the increasing material prosperity of the middle classes, it remains the rich who seem to maintain a monopoly on beautiful outdoor spaces, be they natural or cultivated.

To the extent to which we remain unattuned to our own evolved needs, we are very unlikely to appropriately consider those of non-human animals with evolutionary histories or ecological niches very different to our own. As for bats, we may never know the specific emotional qualities the frequency of certain sounds will have to them, such as the echo of their own ultrasonic squeak off a nearby tasty insect. But we have a lot of common emotional hardware, and visual analogues aplenty which might guide us in knowing roughly how this feels. In one of his last interviews Ben, described a new echolocating insight he’d only recently acquired in his pioneering mastery of the technique: that the reverberation of sound off humans was exactly the same at the sound of water. Perhaps that is how we appear to bats as well.

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Apes on Film | Project Nim vs Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This week saw the back-to-back UK release of two films about signing apes raised in human families: Project Nim and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nim is a documentary aimed at the arthouse audience (very Erroll Morris style with talking heads interviews interspersed with re-enactments and archival footage); Rise is an expensive blockbuster aimed at the summer sci-fi crowd (and is more in the King-Kong and Jurassic park mould).

A tale of two apes

Both films document a similar story of extraordinary humanization and then extraordinary dehumanization of their ape subjects.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes this humanization is biological as well as social – the chimpanzee protagonist, Caesar, has been genetically engineered for accelerated brain development, and is also raised and educated in a human household. But after violently intervening to defend a member of his adoptive human family, Caesar is remanded to a dismal primate facility where he must negotiate both his brute ape inmates and endure the persecutions of the abusive human keepers, before mounting his escape.

While the captive conditions of all of the apes in Rise are shown to be abysmal, Caesar’s fall is more acute because of his human intelligence and human attachments.

But while the fictional Caesar might fall from a loftier height, real ape Nim Chimsky falls far further: Nim was adopted out to a human family and taught American Sign Language in an effort to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that the language instinct was uniquely human. But as Nim enters adolescence and becomes stronger, more assertive and more dangerous the project is abruptly terminated and Nim is abandoned to the primate facility from which he was first taken as an infant. Unlike Caesar, his fall does not stop there. After adjusting to this relative deprivation, Nim is sold on to a medical centre for animal-testing human vaccines.

But more than Nim himself, the real subject of Project Nim seems to be the heady cocktail of naivety, arrogance and narcissism which characterised the 70s: throughout the film, Nim is essentially a pawn in the self-centred dramas of his human guardians: for Professor Terrace,  Nim is a vehicle to advance his media profile and academic career; for adoptive mother Stephanie LaFarge, Nim is an exotic pet who undermines the male authorities in her life; for undergraduate student Laura Ann-Petito,  Nim is a route to Professor Terrace’s affections; and for a sign-teacher Renne Falitz, Nim is just a ticket to some fancy accommodation. Nim’s nadir as a vaccine subject is almost the logical extension of his serial objectification by the human beings in his life.

A failure of empathy

But not all of the characters in Nim’s story are unsympathetic, a few humans are sufficiently compassionate to see past their own dramas and projects and encounter Nim as an ape on his own terms. They include project staff Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan; Bob Ingersoll, an attendant at the primate centre and Nim’s most perseverant advocate, and even the research veterinarian James Mahone from the animal testing laboratory.

In fact it is only through the strength of their compassion, remorse and regret that we have any sense of the personhood of Nim, a personhood of which the film affords us scant direct glimpse.

Bill and Joyce reveal that it wasn’t a lack of primatology so much as a lack of empathy which was to blame for Nim’s insensitive treatment. The happy resolution to the story of Christian the Lion makes a telling contrast. In a similar fit of naivety and hubris, gay London couple John Rendall and Anthony Burke purchased a lion-cub from Harrod’s (it seems that dangerous exotic pets were the height of fashion in the 70s) but as Christian reached adolescence and became more dangerous and more difficult to care for, the couple took great pains and expense to arrange for his reintroduction to the African wild by conservationist George Adamson. A flim-clip of their reunion with the wild Lion has become a Youtube sensation:

I have written earlier about the knots that people tie themselves in attempting to sidestep accusations of anthropomorphism  despite the strong physiological foundations for the behavioural and emotional overlap we experience with mammals in general and apes in particular (see earlier blog Mammalomorphism). But Bill and Joyce needed no special training to recognize Nim’s needs as an ape any more than John and Anthony needed no special training to recognize Christian’s special needs as a lion. Neither do good dog owners need special training to recognize the responsibilities owed to their animal companions.

The uncanny valley

But despite their remarkable closeness to us, we seem to find it more problematic to emotionally identify our common ground with apes than we do with more distantly related mammals like dogs. I have often felt this is an artefact of a psychological effect that animators call “the uncanny valley”.

As CGI animations and robots come to more successfully approximate human appearance and movement, they risk crossing a threshold where their increasing appeal suddenly gives way to revulsion, where we stop finding its humanness charming to finding its subtle inhumanness disturbing.

Apes are a freely-occurring example of this effect insofar as their expressions, gestures and behaviours closely resemble, but are not quite, our own. Apes “ape” mankind, and the tendency to frame them in terms of their difference to us rather than their similarities with us was one of the great emotional obstacles to the recognition that we had evolved from a recent common ancestor, a barrier which is truly remarkable given that chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than they are to Gorillas.

This observation is made very eloquently by the father of ethology Konrad Lorenz back in 1963 – note how closely this anticipates the notion of the uncanny valley (which did not emerge in the robotics community until 1970):

“An inexorable law of perception prevents us from seeing in the ape, particularly the chimpanzee, an animal like other animals, and makes us see in its face the human physiognomy. From this point of view, measured by human standards, the chimpanzee of course appears as something horrible, a diabolical caricature of ourselves…he is irresistibly funny and at the same time as common, as vulgar, as no other animal but a debased human being can ever be…just because he is so similar to us.”] [1]

Curiously, the animators of Rise have largely managed to bypass the uncanny valley effect by combining both ingredients: they have managed to disguise the imperfections of their art by animating apes instead of humans, and have circumvented the inhumanness of apes by artificially granting them human capacities and expressions. By cancelling these two effects out in this way, the filmmakers are able to harness the uncanny valley to powerful effect when Caesar crosses some new unexpected threshold into humanity.

But despite its clever negotiations of the uncanny valley, Rise is no masterpiece, and doesn’t really pretend to be more than the summer sci-fi blockbuster that it is. Some ape welfare advocates have been overly enthusiastic in welcoming this film,  as when primatologist Sue Savage-Rimbaugh gushes it “will radically change the current mythology of how we view the human/ape divide”, because it makes audiences “willing and almost eager to look through the eyes and feelings of an ape, therefore it begins to humanize apes”.[2]

To cross the human/ape divide, more humans need to observe, interact and even bond with real apes, not to identify with CGI-animated super-apes. Unfortunately, while Project Nim provides hints, mediated through its more compassionate human subjects, audiences might find it difficult to disaggregate their legitimate opinions from the confused sentiment and cod psychology of the 70s. It will still be the David Attenboroughs of this world, who will best help us to bridge that divide, supported by an army of primatologists, comparative psychologists and the rest. Along the way, though, a few precocious signing apes like Kanzi the bonobo might accelerate the process by acting as ambassadors for their kind:

[1] Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (University Paperback, 1967) p.190

[2] http://www.greatapetrust.org/media-center/news-releases/great-ape-trust-scientist-rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-will-change-perceptions

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The ancient intelligence of dinosaur-birds

In the last couple of decades increasing numbers of articles have made it to the popular press about the intelligence of birds, be it tool-making in Caledonian crows or the obituary for the talking, counting, African Grey Parrot, Alex, in The Economist magazine. This has helped to break a longstanding public conception that birds are stupid, based on their small “bird brains”.

What’s your EQ?

Animal scientists have since come to recognize that it is relative rather than absolute brain size which is a better arbiter of intelligence. Brain-to-body mass ratios, or “encephalization quotients”, reveal a startlingly different story about bird brains, as the following diagram shows:

Comparison of Encephalization Quotients from Marzluff and Angell (2005)

The brain-to-body ratio of crows and parrots is more like primates than birds, leading corvid ethologists John Marzluff and Tony Angell to describe them as “flying monkeys”.

The ancient basis of bird and mammal intelligence

More recently it has been found that a huge proportion of songbird (passeriform) brains are taken up by a neocortex like structure called the neopallium. Now the independent evolution of neocortical intelligence in birds and mammals is about as improbable as the independent evolution of the eye in vertebrates, molluscs and arthropods, but the story is actually much more interesting than that: just as the different eyes of humans, octopuses and insects are now understood to have evolved from photo-receptive cells in a common ancestor 600 million years ago, the column-structure of the mammalian neocortex and the avian neopallium is likely to have been around some some 290 million years ago in a shared amniote ancestor that would have looked like a small newt or lizard. This proto-cortical brain structure provided an evolutionary platform waiting to be built upon by any reptile, dinosaur or mammalian descendent which found a need to do so, and it certainly did so in some of the avian dinosaurs we call birds.

We were fortunate, that any remnants of dinosaur sociality and intelligence survived in birds, but who knows what may have been lost? Other carnivorous bipedal dinosaurs may have also pair-bonded, shared incubation and feeding responsibilities while incubating eggs, raised their young for protracted periods, and even co-operatively hunted to bring down prey. There is some suggestive fossil evidence to suggest these possibilities. Who knows, some dinosaurs may have even enjoyed play?

The profligacy and wastefulness of evolution

When I was a child, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. The idea that for hundreds of millions of years the world was once populated by a totally different cast of creatures even more diverse and exotic than those alive today – millions of years before humans, primates or even mammals walked the earth.

The dazzling idea that had me in its spell (but I was too unsophisticated to grasp) was the profligacy and wastefulness of evolution. Naïve and especially theological readings of evolutionary history describe it is a relentless and inexorable ascent of complexity and diversity from simple single-celled organisms to self-aware human beings.

It is true that various accidents about Earth’s history and location make it one of those small pockets of the universe which swims against the general tide of entropy: life managed to take root here and convert the heat of the Earth’s magma or the light of the sun into chemical energy from which more and more elaborate organisms have successively been built.

But the march of evolution has not been one of inexorable progress. Earth’s history is littered with the countless corpses of creatures with startlingly adaptive mutations which came to an unlucky end before they could reproduce, and the great extinction events which ultimately paved the way for the success of mammals and the evolution of human beings often did so by setting back the diversity and sophistication of life on Earth by hundreds of millions of years.

Intellectually outclassed

There are corvid fossils 17 million years old and parrot fossils roughly 50 million years old. The true age of these birds might be even older, with many scientists arguing that the diversification of bird species chiefly took place before the great Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction 65 million years ago. With these birds rivalling apes in cognitive tests, it looks likely that birds and their dinosaur relatives have been outwitting our hominid and mammalian ancestors until extremely recently.

We will probably never know first hand what the extinct dinosaur relatives of modern birds were capable of. Fans of Jurassic park hoping to one-day encounter a live velociraptor or tyrannosaurus will be disappointed to hear that efforts to recover dinosaur DNA has met with repeated failure.

The paleontologist Jack Horner drily recounts his frustrated endeavours to build a dinosaur in the following TED talk, but while he may not be able to reconstruct a T-rex, he may be able to provide us with an interesting compromise: a reverse-engineered dinosaur from the modern chicken, or as he likes to call it, a “chickensaurus”:

[A version of this blog has been republished in the Benevolent Birds subtab of this site]

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Mammals are excellent initial candidates for us to start looking for moral neighbours, as human moral capacities are built on mammalian physiological foundations, especially the close, oxytocin-fuelled, emotional and empathic ties between mammalian mothers and their breast-fed offspring.

Mammalomorphism vs Anthropomorphism

It is no surprise that animal documentaries which focus on mammals are appealing to human audiences. We can immediately and instinctively identify with these warm-blooded, fuzzy animals, and their valiant attempts to nurture and protect their young. We find baby mammals, such as those pictured above, cute in a way we do not for baby fish, reptiles and amphibians. This wide appeal is often dismissed as anthropomorphic sentimentalism, but at its root the popularity of this television programming is based on mammalomorphism, i.e. our innate recognition of the emotional states of fellow mammals based on shared postures, movements and facial expressions, and on shared biochemistry and neuroanatomy. We require no training in ethology to interpret a wide array of behaviours in these creatures.

But is only the social mammals where we see the possibility of moral behaviour. While solitary mammals might display affection and concern for their parents, siblings or offspring, they tend to shed much or all of this once they reach adolescence and strike out on their own. Play behaviour seems to disappear at the same point as well.

Conscientious Carnivores

A remarkable proportion of the more socially complex mammals are carnivores (or at least omnivores), and indeed, co-operating in bringing down large or difficult game is wideley believed to be one of the evolutionary drivers of sociality and intelligence.

From the order Carnivora we find:

  • Caniforms (dog-like animals) have maintained complex sociality across all canines (dogs,wolves, jackals, coyotes), and also to some degree in the pinipeds (seals, walruses).
  • Of the feliforms (cat-like animals) only lions and hyenas have complex social lives.

Ouside of Carnivora we find several families and genera of carnivorous or omnivorous social mammals:

  • Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are all carnivorous despite descending from largely herbivore anscestors (their closest land-dwelling relatives are hippopotamuses.)
  • Most species of bat are insectivores.
  • While human beings owe our colour vision to our fruit foraging primate anscestors, apes and monkeys are omnivorous, supplementing their diet with animal protein.

Of all of the socially complex mammals, only elephants seem to have remained resolutely herbivorous throughout their evoltionary lineage.

As non-human mammals belong to the same animal class as us, there is less distance for evolutionary convergence to travel to reach the same destination as it did in humans. This is most obvious in the great apes in which our own moral capacities have not evolved separately but are almost historically continuous with theirs. When we observe humanlike expressions and behaviour in chimpanzees and bonobos, we are, more often than not, being hominoidomorphic rather than anthropomorphic. This is nicely illustrated by the photographic comparison of facial expressions put together by Paul Ekman, the psychologist behind the Facial Action Coding System, whose work on microexpressions and lie-detection have been made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink and the TV show Lie To Me.

Prototypical chimpanzee expressions and homologous human expressions (Ekman et al.2002)

[A version of this blog will appear under the Moral Mammals sub-tab]

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Who’s in the menagerie? | The convergent evolution of moral intelligence

A harmony photo from the T.I.G.E.R.S. institute

This site investigates the evolutionary structures which make human morality, intelligence and sentience possible, and also explores those evolutionary convergences which have brought other animals to share similar structures and attributes with us.

Much human energy and ingenuity has been spent seeking sentient life on other planets. We suggest that planet Earth might be a better starting point! Following Darwin, we believe that sentient, moral organisms will exist wherever a complex social animal develops a level of intelligence that begins to approach human levels. Providentially, the complexity of social life itself appears to be one of the main evolutionary drivers of increased intelligence.

But a behaviour is not truly moral until it becomes an “ought”, an expected behaviour which can be violated by antisocial individuals within a species, for that reason our “moral menagerie” does not include organisms displaying biologically automated altruism or mutualism. In our Other Critters section we will devote some time to investigating creatures which display altruism without intelligence (such as slime moulds and social insects), or which are intelligent but fundamentally asocial (like octopuses and cuttlefish).

We can expect moral capacities to arise in animals like mammals and birds which:

  • Rear their young for protracted periods (i.e. are altricial and/or nidicolous)
  • Demonstrate play behaviour as adults
  • Are long-lived with long memories
  • Live in groups
  • Differentially treat individuals within those groups
  • Form longstanding attachments to specific individuals
  • Experience empathy for other individuals

Furthermore, the most intellectually sophisticated mammals and birds begin to show some truly remarkable behaviours hitherto thought unique to humans. Cultural transmission of information and behaviour has been observed in non-human primates (apes and monkeys), cetaceans (dolphins and whales), pachiderms (elephants), corvids (crows and ravens) and psittacines (parrots).

Many species within these categories have also spontaneously demonstrated Mirror Self Recognition under controlled conditions. A video playlist of MSR in a range of animals can be found here. An introductury clip is provided below:

In these sophisticated abilities we begin to see something which possibly surpasses moral capacities and begins to approximate non-human sentience and personhood. We dedicate specific pages to exploring the remarkable animals which display these advanced capacities.

[A version of this blog entry will appear in The Menagerie page of the site]

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Terminating the Terminator: why intelligent machines won’t be good or evil (and why some animals might be)

To help clarify what intelligence and morality mean, and whether animals qualify as possessing them, I’m going to take an unusual, but I hope illuminating, detour through some of the setbacks and advances in building intelligent machines.

In his award-winning book On Intelligence , the computing pioneer Jeff Hawkins explains his quest to build ‘real’ as opposed to ‘artificial’ intelligence in computers by mechanically replicating the structure of the mammalian neocortex. Hawkins gives an excellent 20 minute summary of his book in the TED talk below:

According to Hawkins, the quest for intelligent computers got off on the wrong foot from the start when it set out to satisfy the Turing test. Kicking off the quest for intelligent machines in 1950, the British mathematician Alan Turing defined an intelligent computer as one that can fool a human into thinking it is dealing with another human. For Hawkins, Turing’s concept has misled three generations into thinking that intelligent machines are machines which act like people, and that human brains are like computers.

This conception has led artificial intelligence to some hollow victories and some dismal failures. The hollow victories have involved computers beating humans at highly specialised and abstract computational activities, where they are effectively just very high-powered calculators: Deep Blue defeating chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov is the pinnacle example. The dismal failures have been in getting machines to do everyday things that ordinary humans find elementary, like recognizing speech or faces, or in catching a tennis ball.

To explain what makes a Golden Retriever able to do all this where our most advanced computers fail, Hawkins proposes a new theory for intelligence based on how he understands the neocortex to function in humans and other mammals. For Hawkins intelligence is the power to make successful predictions about the world based on memories. The role of the neocortex is to store sensorimotor information in memory, and to continually cross-reference these memories against new experiences to create expectations.

By simulating the hierarchical feedback structures in the mammalian brain, Hawkins believes we can build intelligent machines which make creative predictions and which learn. These mechanical brains will be much more powerful than the human neocortex, both because they can be much larger (as they are not be limited by the size of the human skull) but also because the basic operation of a computer, being purely electrical, is 5 million times faster than electro-chemical transmission of signals through synapses. Hawkins is already making breakthroughs applying this work through his company Numenta.

But what is particularly interesting to us is what these intelligent machines won’t be able to do: they will not have the emotions, desires or motives of humans, because as Hawkins explains, “the human mind is created not only by the neocortex but also by the emotional systems of the old brain and by the complexity of the human body. To be human you need all of your biological machinery, not just a cortex.”

For this reason, neither moral nor immoral robots will be arriving on the scene anytime soon, which should reassure anyone fearing a Terminator or Matrix style machine-uprising! On the contrary, lacking the emotional structures for shame or boredom will enable machines to overtake many of the tasks we find unbearably humiliating or insufferably tedious, as well as undertaking complex tasks in alien sensory environments and abstract mathematical realms.

On the down side, this means digital immortality is an equally distant prospect, as we won’t be able to ‘upload’ our personalities to a computer until we can completely reverse engineer the human body, a technological feat which will not be realised anytime soon.

Unlike machines, however, many animals share “the emotional systems of the old brain” with humans, and an important subset of these have also developed neorcortical intelligence. Until very recently, it was believed only mammals had evolved this brain structure, but latest research has found that a huge proportion of the brains of songbirds is taken up by a cortex like structure.

The hypothesis we explore in Moral Menagerie is that the most intelligent social animals will have something approaching morality and sentience. Far from being a novel hypothesis, it is one we share with the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin himself, who, in The Descent of Man wrote:

“The following proposition seems to me highly probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers become … nearly as well developed, as in man”

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Evolving empathy

The following post is reproduced from a response to Professor Raymond Tallis’s column in the Jan/Feb edition of Philosophy Now Magazine

Dear Editor:

I was dismayed, reading Raymond Tallis’s column last week, to see him misrepresent the state of the science on animal empathy. Tallis inaccurately states “the nearest that animals come to experiencing empathy is better described as emotional contagion, and is typified by terror spreading through a herd like fire.” His Wellcome Trust debate opponent, Frans de Waal has spent many years and many books demonstrating how several sophisticated layers of empathy have evolved on top of the “global empathy” of which panic is one example:

  • The first and most important development are the close affective ties that bond mammalian mothers and their kin, enabling nuture for protracted periods.
  • The second is the consolation behavior that has evolved in dogs and other social mammals, where stereoptyped comforting behavior is offered to distressed conspecifics.
  • The third is the truly proto-moral capacity for “targeted helping” demonstrated by the most cognitively complex social mammals, in which individual animals offer tailored assistance to conspecifics in need of help. This last capacity arrives in constellation with a wide array of proto-sentient capacities such as Theory of Mind, Mirror Self Recognition, and tool-use.

One wonders how Tallis can believe human beings ever developed complex cognition, empathy and ethics without these intervening evolutionary stages! Professor Tallis is right to protect ethics from simplistic readings across from biology, but is perhaps too enthusiastic to demarcate human beings from our hominoid and mammalian cousins. Homo sapiens have certainly gained a lot of mileage out of our capacities for language and for forward planning, but if these recent evolutionary adaptations have allowed us to see further than other species, it is because – biologically speaking – we were standing on the shoulders of giants.

Modern moral philosophy, evolutionary psychology and moral neuroscience should form a natural trinity – especially for the humanist – that philosophers ignore at their own and society’s peril: their own inasmuch as they risk making their discipline anachronistic and redundant, and society’s inasfar as they fail to inform and interpret the politically and socially influential discoveries in these sibling sciences.


Damien Morris of www.moralmenagerie.com

London, UK

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