Animal magic: why intelligence isn’t just for humans

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Animal magic: why intelligence isn’t just for humans

Phillip Ball

Quote:Some caution was warranted. If other animals behave like us, that’s no basis to assume that they do so for the same reasons and with the same experiences and mental representations of the world. But as countless careful experiments like this study of pigs reveal ever more about the inner world of animals, there comes a point where it looks far more contrived to suppose that their behaviour just happens to look like ours in all kinds of ways while differing utterly in its explanation. Maybe, instead, they have minds that are not really so different after all. Primatologist Frans de Waal warns that, while we must avoid anthropomorphising other animals such as great apes, sometimes their actions “make little sense if we refuse to assume intentions and feelings”.

After all, as Charles Darwin pointed out, we all share an evolutionary heritage – and there is nothing in the evolutionary record to suggest that minds were a sudden innovation, let alone that such a thing occurred with the advent of humans. “There is,” Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties”.

The challenge, then, becomes finding a way of thinking about animal minds that doesn’t simply view them as like the human mind with the dials turned down: less intelligent, less conscious, more or less distant from the pinnacle of mentation we represent. We must recognise that mind is not a single thing that beings have more or less of. There are many dimensions of mind: the “space of possible minds” (a concept first proposed in 1984 by computer scientist Aaron Sloman) has multiple coordinates, and we exist in some part of it, a cluster of data points that reflects our neurodiversity. We are no more at the centre of this mind-space than we are at the centre of the cosmos. So what else is out there?
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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