Do animals have the concept of death and mortality?

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Do animals wrestle with the concepts of death and mortality?

This writer claims there is a lot of evidence that at least some predator animals have a concept of death and mortality, something long assumed to be peculiar to human beings in the concept of human exceptionalism. The behavior of elephants has seemed to be one of the few examples of death awareness in the animal kingdom. Now this article makes another interesting argument, based on the phenomenon of thanatosis, or "playing possum" among various prey animals. These prey animals don't need to have developed any such concept, but their predators evidently have.


Quote:"....opossums themselves don't necessarily have a concept of death, or behave this way (thanatosis) with the (mental) intention of being mistaken for a corpse. On the contrary, it appears to be a genetically inherited behaviour that does not require any learning and that is triggered automatically upon the detection of certain stimuli. What this does mean, however, is that the predators’ concept of death was the likely selection pressure that shaped these displays. Maybe opossums lack a concept of death, but we can be pretty sure that the animals who intended to feed on them throughout their evolutionary history did tend to have one."
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(2021-09-15, 11:07 PM)nbtruthman Wrote: Do animals wrestle with the concepts of death and mortality?

This writer claims there is a lot of evidence that at least some predator animals have a concept of death and mortality, something long assumed to be peculiar to human beings in the concept of human exceptionalism. The behavior of elephants has seemed to be one of the few examples of death awareness in the animal kingdom. Now this article makes another interesting argument, based on the phenomenon of thanatosis, or "playing possum" among various prey animals. These prey animals don't need to have developed any such concept, but their predators evidently have.

I guess I wonder why the predator must have a concept of death capability in order to pass by a, seemingly, dead prey in favor of a live one whereby the prey's instinct to play dead is just a result of programmed behavior (i.e., fitness).

Couldn't the selection pressure have simply been dying from eating infected carrion?
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It seems fairly certain that elephants have a pretty clear concept of death based on their behaviors.
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The authors speculate a lot on the evolution of thanatosis, and seem to infer (or imply - one of those rare occasions on which both words are applicable) that in this respect thanatosis is nothing more than an insentient instinct. This seems to me to be an uncharitable and unlikely interpretation (of prey animals' awareness). Even when we humans act instinctively, we are able to reflect on why we acted in that way: what purpose the instinct served, and whether it was justified. I don't see why we should deny animals this level of self-reflectivity too, albeit that it probably doesn't occur in words.

That said, the article's conclusion was satisfying.
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(2021-09-16, 12:43 AM)chuck Wrote: It seems fairly certain that elephants have a pretty clear concept of death based on their behaviors.

It does to me too.  For clarity's sake, my initial post was only questioning the logic and underlying scientific validity of this specific study.
(2021-09-16, 12:15 AM)Silence Wrote: I guess I wonder why the predator must have a concept of death capability in order to pass by a, seemingly, dead prey in favor of a live one whereby the prey's instinct to play dead is just a result of programmed behavior (i.e., fitness).

Couldn't the selection pressure have simply been dying from eating infected carrion?

This seems to be a valid question. Why couldn't the mechanism in the predator be simply the development in evolution of automatic programmed behaviors to avoid prey animals that exhibit certain characteristics including immobility, tongue out, defecation, smell, etc. These programmed instinctual behaviors on the part of the predators would not involve any formation of concepts of death or mortality. Of course, this sort of approach would be harking back to the now abandoned Skinnerian behaviorism, which looks at animals as non-sentient bundles of operant conditioned and instinctual behaviors, no mind required. Anybody with a pet dog who closely observes the animal will quickly discover how ridiculous behaviorism really is.
(This post was last modified: 2021-09-16, 11:53 PM by nbtruthman.)
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(2021-09-16, 11:51 PM)nbtruthman Wrote: This seems to be a valid question. Why couldn't the mechanism in the predator be simply the development in evolution of automatic programmed behaviors to avoid prey animals that exhibit certain characteristics including immobility, tongue out, defecation, smell, etc. These programmed instinctual behaviors on the part of the predators would not involve any formation of concepts of death or mortality. Of course, this sort of approach would be harking back to the now abandoned Skinnerian behaviorism, which looks at animals as non-sentient bundles of operant conditioned and instinctual behaviors, no mind required. Anybody with a pet dog who closely observes the animal will quickly discover how ridiculous behaviorism really is.

I think this whole idea of animals as machines who don't reflect seems wrong-headed - perhaps in the case of viruses or even some insects it could arguably suffice though it seems forced after a certain level of evolution b/c it suggests all these creatures could just be p-zombies lacking in any consciousness.

This doesn't even get into the spiritual/paranormal cases involving animals, whether whole species are represented by a single soul, reincarnation from human to animal, etc.
'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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Predators are generally more intelligent animals than prey. This has other consequences, for example, I would say that cats, make better pets than rabbits! They interact more with their humans and seem to know a lot of what is going on in the house. For example, my cat was sitting on my knee while I read, and then he heard the scrape of my partners key in the lock, and dashed off to greet her.

The awareness of death may be due to the extra intelligence.
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A relevant new article on this subject indicates that there are fewer than expected even relatively intelligent animals that are really able to understand the essence of death. Primates in particular, even though some of them are amongst the most intelligent animals. This can also be extrapolated to dogs.

A recent meta-analysis reported at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/20...192804.htm indicates that there is no question that sometimes chimpanzees and other primate mothers carry around the corpse of their dead infant for an extended period. 

It turns out that this still is no indication that the chimps and other primates understand death with all its finality.

Quote:In the largest study of its kind, researchers undertook the most extensive and rigorous quantitative analysis to date of observations of a behavior known as “infant corpse carrying” in primate mothers, looking at 409 cases across 50 species (the behavior is real).

This behavior, however, does not suggest that the primates truly understand death. Just the opposite.

Humans understand death as an abstraction that comprises a number of separate facts, including that it is not merely a “long-lasting ‘cessation of function.’” That would be coma or paralysis.

The point about death — as a human understands it — is that the deceased loved one is never coming back. That is why human mothers do not carry a dead baby around for months. The primates’ behavior definitely demonstrates grief in the sense of attachment but also makes clear that they don’t understand what death means.

This is also the case with dogs. An iconic example of this dilemma is the faithful Japanese dog Hachikō. For many years after his master had died, he went down to the train station every evening to await his return. The story is touching in part because Hachikō’s could not know that his human friend had actually died. Faithfulness is inspiring but it is not evidence that the life form understands what death is. In these examples, it implies the opposite.
(This post was last modified: 2021-10-09, 10:18 PM by nbtruthman.)
(2021-10-09, 10:12 PM)nbtruthman Wrote: A relevant new article on this subject indicates that there are fewer than expected even relatively intelligent animals that are really able to understand the essence of death.

This looks to me to be just an opinion piece. Does the author have any particular expertise that would make the article any more relevant than any other person's opinion on this topic?

(2021-10-09, 10:12 PM)nbtruthman Wrote: It turns out that

...an internet blogger had an opinion that differed from that of the researchers of the paper under discussion.
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