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Evidence of Consciousness in Other Animals

Posted: Wed Feb 21, 2007 11:42 am
by Zoroaster
I feel this topic may warrant it's own section but we'll see if anyone else has a comment. I have been reading a lot about chimpanzee behavior and the results of teaching apes sign language. I realize there is a lot of debate about whether chimps are actually communicating or just learning complex systems of obtaining rewards for certain behavior. But just as Jaynes theories should not be readily dismissed, neither should the work of these researchers. I was particularly interested on the impact of the following assertions on Jaynes' hypotheses:

"Under double-blind conditions, we have found that the chimpanzees communicate information in American Sign Language (ASL) to human observers. They use signs to refer to natural language categories: e.g. DOG for any dog, FLOWER for any flower, SHOE for any shoe, etc. The chimpanzees acquire and spontaneously use their signs to communicate with humans and each other about the normal course of surrounding events. They have demonstrated an ability to invent new signs or combine signs to metaphorically label a novel item, for example: calling a radish CRY HURT FOOD or referring to a watermelon as a DRINK FRUIT. In a double-blind condition, the chimpanzees can comprehend and produce novel prepositional phrases, understand vocal English words, translate words into their ASL glosses and even transmit their signing skills to the next generation without human intervention. Their play behavior has demonstrated that they use the same types of imaginary play as humans. It has also been demonstrated that they carry on chimpanzee-to-chimpanzee conversation and sign to themselves when alone. Conversational research shows the chimpanzees initiate and maintain conversations in ways that are like humans. The chimpanzees can repair a conversation if there is misunderstanding. They will also sign to themselves when alone and we have even observed them to sign in their sleep."

I was particularly interested that the Chimps sign to themselves. Perhaps this is just repetition of the behavior that brings rewards, but could it be they are employing language as a cognitive tool? Or could they have their own version of sign language bicamerality going on? If consciousness can be learned, then can it be taught to nonhumans?

Here is another relevant excerpt from the same website:

"Fall 2005 - Tennyson Egan
Friends of Washoe, Fall 2005, Number 1

It has been said that imaginary play is unique and limited to humans. However, it has been found in previous research that nonhuman species demonstrate imaginary play. In this study, the researcher investigated imaginary play in a group of five signing chimpanzees. The researcher viewed and analyzed over 67 hours of videotaped chimpanzee behavior, recorded over an 18-year period, for imaginary play. A total of 21 instances of imaginary play were found and classified in four of six categories of imagination. The important conclusion in this study is that imaginary play is demonstrated by species other than humans. This study provides evidence that imaginary play represents a phylogenetic continuity rather than a discontinuity."

Unfortunately, from this abstract it is impossible to tell if this "imaginative play" would require self-reflective consciousness but it is another clue.

There is also the case of Humpback Whales whose 1/2 hour songs change bit by bit over time unlike bird songs. It is a leap to infer that this means they have a linear memory of their songs or that they plan them out but it is once again a clue.

Then there are the elephants and their graveyards. Why would elephants display what appears to be mourning behavior? Does it indicate that they have a concept of mortality? Does this require consciousness?

I'd like to know what others think.

Posted: Wed Feb 21, 2007 7:34 pm
by Hannibal
Parrots do similar things, and can talk about it as well. The best example would probably be Alex, the African Grey Parrot:

Alex can count, knows colors, numbers, can do alike and different, and even understands the concept of "none," which I find to be his most amazing talent. He also makes up words, like "banerry" for apple, apparently because it is red on the outside like a cherry, and white on the inside like a banana.

Posted: Wed Feb 21, 2007 8:44 pm
by Zoroaster
Thanks for the Alex link. I skimmed the articles and didn't find anything immediately that hints that Alex is conscious in Jaynes' terms. What was of interest was the section speculating on the effects of learning language on Alex's cognitive abilities. (page 205 or 9 Adobe reader pages into Number Comprehension by a Grey Parrot.)

Posted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 8:28 pm
by Hannibal
Z, by your very nature you would be looking for a black/white answer to the question of consciousness.

I don't think Alex is conscious or self-aware. But I think he is an amazingly intelligent bird. I have never met him, but I have met his trainer Dr. Irene Pepperberg several times. Considering that there are human cultures that never invented the wheel, I am pretty impressed that Alex can be asked to pick something out of a group, and if that item is not there, he will say "none." This is tantamount to an understanding of zero, and personally I am astounded by it. And my own cockatoo will practice a form of deception; if I find him wandering around the kitchen and I approach to order him to get back on his cage, he will start yelling at the other birds in the room to get on their cages, even though no one else is misbehaving.


PS, yes, my comment about wanting a black/white answer was a joke.

I'm not trying to put Alex down

Posted: Fri Feb 23, 2007 9:52 pm
by Zoroaster
I'm sure he's a very smart bird. I'm just thinking that if Jaynes' theory that consciousness is based on language and therefore only humans can possess it then what are the implications of the new evidence of language ability in nonhumans? Alex may have the capacity to become conscious, who are we to say? I'm wondering what behaviors one could observe or what questions one could ask a chimp or Alex to determine if they use an analog 'I' in their thought process. Do they lie? Do they have a concept of past and future? Do they experience guilt and anxiety? I wonder if the chimps employ their signs to command each other and manage their heirarchies. When Alex told the other birds to get back on top of their cages, was that an attempt to deceive the trainer?

Posted: Mon Mar 05, 2007 12:05 pm
by godmemes
I think that animal intelligence is a quite interesting subject.

Chimps have previously been described as trimming twigs so that they could dip them into ant holes and eat the ants that cling to it: tool making. Recently, they have been observed to fashion "spears" (in a similar way) that they can jab into holes to pierce small mammals that they want to eat: making a hunting tool.

I don't have trouble considering that animals may have a rudimentary consciousness, as I don't think that consciousness is an all or nothing sort of thing, nor do I think it is dependent on language. Even at my time of greatest enthusiasm for Jaynes's work, I had serious doubts about his notion that consciousness is based on language. My current hypothesis is that consciousness is related to, and perhaps "constructed of" attention, i.e. consciousness is a higher order attention that can focus even on attention itself: that is, one can consciously assess if one has been paying attention, or if attention has been wandering or fluctuating, etc. I suspect that consciousness has evolved as part of a feedback loop monitoring performance, monitoring information and, intimately associated with the capacity to make to make choices based on this monitoring. Consciousness, in this light, need not always be "self" consciousness. One can be conscious of other besides self, as well as of self. But language definitely can be a tremendous aid in helping to direct and maintain attention and consciousness more skillfully.

About animal inteligence, I am cautious about believing reports too readily, however, because I am familiar with the case of "Clever Hans." Clever Hans was, if I remember the story correctly, a horse that was believed to be able to do complex mathematical calculations. Many people studied Clever Hans and were convinced, but in fact Clever Hans could not do mathematical calculations at all. It wasn't that there was any fraud, but rather that people didn't understand how Clever Hans was getting his results. The horse would tap out his answers, tap, tap, tap, tap.... and when he came to the correct answer, he could read a change of expression of his owner/trainer (apparently not an intentionally given cue) and would stop tapping. Clever Hans couldn't solve any problem that the owner/trainer didn't already know the answer to. I think that this story indicates how people can unwittingly deceive themselves into thinking that one thing is going on when in fact something else is going on. And while I don't have any desire to see animal language achievements (involved with signing, for instance) be false, I do worry that there is a lot of room for trainers to deceive themselves as to what the animal has really done.

On animal mourning, I have seen a documentary that does indeed seem to show elephants mourning. And I think it is likely that animals can indeed mourn (or at least get depressed over the death of an animal or person), but this is not quite the same thing as what I brought up on another thread: the realization that one is going to inevitably age and die one day. I suspect that only humans have this fearful understanding.

Posted: Mon Jul 23, 2007 8:47 am
by Evyllity
I wonder if language is necessarily verbal. Most animals (all?) communicate in some way... body language, vocalizations, chemically. Doesn't this denote some internal description of the world which can be, and probably is radically different from ours? For example, a dog's primary sense is smell (according to percentage of brain mass dedicated to the function), and at any given moment, since smell is persistent, unlike light, the smell data they receive gives as much information about what has been going on recently as what is going on now. Therefore, a dog's "concept" of "now" would not only be based on sensory data entirely alien and mostly unavailable to a human, but would encompass what we would perceive as a large and variable amount of time.

What I'm saying is, can we really assume that consciousness can only exist and be described in terms available to a human?