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Cognitive Ethology: Slayers, Skeptics and Proponents

Part III

Marc Bekoff and Colin Allen. 1997. In: Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes and Animals: The Emporers New Clothes? RW Mitchessl, N. Thompson and L. Miles, editors. State University Press of New York State, NY. 313-334


It is very useful for cognitive ethologists to engage in some introspection concerning how their fields of interest are viewed. As a result of our inquiry, different views on animal cognition have become clarified. As proponents we argue that there are many reasons for studying cognitive ethology from comparative and evolutionary perspectives.2Many models in ethology and behavioral ecology presuppose cognition, and it is useful to have an informed idea about the types of knowledge nonhumans have about their social and nonsocial environments and how they use this information (Yoerg, 1991; Real, 1992). The assumption of animal minds also leads to testable hypotheses about, and more rigorous empirical analyses of, behavioral flexibility and behavioral adaptation. From the applied (and perhaps political) side of things, views on animal minds are tightly linked to issues that center on animal welfare (Bekoff & Jamieson, 1991; Bekoff et al., 1992) and human dignity (Rachels, 1990; see also references in note 1). Contrary to G. Allen (1987, quotations above) who thinks that closing the gap between human and nonhuman animals will lower the value placed on humans, we think that closing the gap might raise the value placed on nonhumans.

Studying animal cognition is not easy. As Yoerg (1992, p. 831) notes: "It is isn't a project I'd recommend to anyone without tenure." Clearly, proponents do not accept that cognition is a phenomenon associated only with captivity. While proponents are aware of the need to be critical, they also recognize that an extensive data base of cognitive ethological investigations will not be built rapidly, because of the demanding types of research that are required in the study of animal cognition, especially under field conditions. Patience is needed, as Jonathan Bennett (1978, p. 560) noted in his discussion of Griffin's (1978) earlier views.

Just because I find G[riffin]'s campaign so sympathetic, and so many of his details interesting and persuasive, I would like to urge upon him the importance of circumspection--of a patient, continuous attention to conceptual foundations. (Bennett, 1978, p. 560)

Future data from comparative analyses of animal cognition, along with existing information, should help us along in developing what some people think the field of cognitive ethology needs, namely, an integrative model or theory (Whiten 1992) not concentrated solely on primates (Beck, 1982; Bekoff, 1995; Bekoff et al., 1994). Perhaps it is the lack of an integrative theory of cognitive ethology and the presence of one in evolutionary biology that is responsible for many people dismissing tenuous cognitive ethological explanations but accepting often equally tenuous evolutionary tales (Myers, 1990, pp. 211ff; Hurlbert, 1992; Jamieson & Bekoff, 1993).

Our analysis of criticism of cognitive ethology as a scientific discipline has also revealed the large extent to which critics depend on philosophical views about the nature of mind. Considering the open disdain that several of these critics have for philosophers, this is ironic indeed; see, for example, Kennedy's (1991, p. 92)ad hominemagainst "the ethological philosopher Dennett, who seems perhaps to be embracing genuine anthropomorphism like Dunbar, albeit more obscurely and at prodigious length." By exposing the extent to which slayers and skeptics rely on contentious philosophical views uncritically adopted, we hope to warn against facile arguments to the effect that cognitive ethology is unscientific. We believe that this conclusion could only be based on careful analysis of the specific empirical practices of ethologists. We also think it worth pointing out that arguments against cognitive ethology appear to operate at the level of the paradigm (Kuhn, 1970) rather than at the level of the ordinary scientific practices of cognitive ethologists. We suspect that the stands against mentalistic concepts, anthropomorphism, and parsimony which many critics display are likely to be as much the product of socialization (e.g. graduate student training) as rational deliberation. Hence there may be support for Kuhn's views about the importance of sociological factors in the development of a young science.

There are no substitutes for careful and rigorous observational and experimental studies of animal cognition and detailed analyses of subtle behavior patterns that often go unnoticed. Cognitive ethologists are now able to exploit techniques like experimental playbacks of vocalizations to conduct controlled studies under field conditions (e.g., Seyfarth, Cheney, & Marler, 1980; Cheney & Seyfarth, 1990; for other examples see Allen & Hauser, 1991; Ristau, 1991a; Real, 1992); the range of experiments made possible by such techniques means that there can be no easy dismissal of modern cognitive ethology on the grounds that it is anecdotal or lacks empirical rigor. Thus, we do not think that modern cognitive ethology will suffer the same fate as pre-behaviorist cognitivism. People should not come to cognitive ethology with axes to grind. Interdisciplinary input is necessary for us to gain a broad view of animal cognition. Philosophers need to be clear when they tell us about what they think about animal minds and those who carefully study animal behavior need to tell philosophers what we know, what we are able to do, and how we go about doing our research. Cognitive ethologists should put their noses to the grindstone and welcome the fact that they are dealing with difficult, but phenomenally interesting, questions. We hope that all views of cognitive ethology will remain open to change.

Of course, not only slayers have something to say about the relationship of cognitive ethology to animal welfare (e.g. Bekoff & Jamieson, 1991; Bekoff et al., 1992; Jamieson & Bekoff, 1992a; Lehman, 1992; G. W. Levvis, 1992; M. A. Levvis, 1992; Lynch, 1992; Bekoff & Gruen, 1994). Griffin (1992, p. 251), in an uncharacteristically strong comment, notes: "No one seriously advocates harming animals just for the sake of doing so, although thoughtless cruelty is unfortunately prevalent in some circles." Unfortunately, he does not tell us where.

Another issue that bears on studies of both animal cognition and animal welfare concerns the naming of animals, for this practice is often taken to be nonscientific (Bekoff, 1993c). Historically, it is interesting to note the Jane Goodall's first scientific paper dealing with her research on the behavior of chimpanzees was returned by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences because she named, rather than numbered, the chimpanzees who she watched. This journal also wanted her to refer to the chimpanzees using "it" or "which" rather than "he" or "she" (Montgomery, 1991, pp. 104-105; see also Myers, 1990, pp. 199ff; Peters, 1991; Davis & Balfour, 1992; Jamieson & Bekoff, 1993; Phillips, 1993). Goodall refused to make the requested changes but her paper was published anyway. As pointed out elsewhere (Bekoff, 1993b), the words ""it" and "which" are typically used for inanimate objects. Given that the goal of many studies of animal cognition is to come to terms with animals' subjective experiences--the animals' points of view--making animals subjects rather than objects seems a move in the right direction.

Studies where individuals are named typically involve small numbers of animals, thus raising worries about sample size--that what is being presented is anecdotal evidence rather than data. But, some general points can be made concerning sample size--specifically single subject research--in studies of animal cognition. If we want to come to a better understanding of the animals' points of view, then working on a limited number of individuals would facilitate these efforts because research on animal cognition is extremely time consuming and often tedious. Furthermore, providing appropriate care for certain species may be more difficult than for others, and concern for animal welfare might also enter in decisions concerning sample size. Regardless of the reasons, many studies of animal cognition involve very detailed analyses, based on observation and experiment, of the behavior of only one, or of a few, animals. However understanding points of view also entails understanding differences among individuals, and not only the behavior of individuals who are assumed to be representative of their species. Inferences made from averaging the behavior of many organisms can be misleading, especially in species in which individual differences in behavior are the rule rather than the exception.

Questions that need to be considered include: (1) Why does it seem to be permissible--in the sense of being scientifically acceptable--to study a single ape, a lone parrot, a few monkeys, or a few dolphins, whereas studies involving a few dogs, cats, or rodents are generally frowned upon? (2) How does sample size relate to the goals of a given study? For example, if an evolutionary or ecological account of cognition is desired, would we be better off studying more animals in less detail to gain normative information in which would be contained data on species-typical ranges of behavior? If we want to learn more about the potential cognitive skills of a given individual or class of individuals, who might or might not represent her species, would we be better off studying fewer animals in great detail?

Often, one of us (MB) is asked why he concentrates on his companion dog, Jethro, when making general points about social play in canids. The reason is that while MB hasconsiderably more data on other canids, using Jethro's behavior as an instance of some of the general characteristics of social play makes discussion of the phenomenon of social play more accessible to those who are not familiar with other canids or individuals belonging to other species in which play has been described..On one occasion MB asked what people would think if he had data only for Jethro; most people thought that this would make for weak arguments concerning the cognitive aspects of social play behavior.

Then, when MB asked about the use of single subjects in different types of studies of animal cognition, people reconsidered their hasty response to the question of the use of a single (or a few) domestic dogs in studies of animal cognition. Questions concerning sample size are not easy to answer. The goals of a given study, the accessibility of the animals being used, the type of care that captive individuals require, and the nature of the questions being asked are among the variables that need to be considered in answers to the question of what constitutes an adequate sample.2 One goal of these sorts of studies would be to collect data that can be analyzed applying the rigorous methods that have been used in comparative and evolutionary analyses of other phenotypes (e.g. Gittleman & Luh, 1993).

We thank Andrew Whiten, the TAMU Animal Behavior Study Group, Meredith West, and two anonymous reviewers for providing comments on a previous draft of this essay, and also Gordon M. Burghardt, Susan E. Townsend, and Dale Jamieson for discussing many of the issues with which we are concerned.


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Marc Bekoff
Department of Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology
University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0334 USA
Marc Bekoff is Professor of Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology at The University of Colorado, Boulder. In 1981 he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for his work on the social ecology of coyotes, and in 1995 he was elected a fellow of the Animal Behavior Society. . His main research interests center on behavioral ecology, cognitive ethology, and how the behavior of nonhuman animals lends itself to varieties of explanations. Bekoff's interests in cognitive ethology and animal welfare developed early in his career. In the mid 1970s he published papers dealing with philosophical notions such as intentionality without even knowing it. He also published some papers dealing with animal welfare. In the early 1970s he dropped out of a Ph.D.-M.D. program because he did not want to kill cats as part of his dissertation research, and also refused to take part in laboratories in physiology in which dogs were used. He wound up studying the development of behavior in coyotes, wolves, and wolf-dog hybrids for his dissertation. He currently is studying how various canids communicate their intentions to engage in social play and how a cognitive ethological perspective informs analyses of antipredatory vigilance. Bekoff also is very interested in the ways in which research in cognitive ethology informs how humans interact with, and treat, nonhumans.

Colin Allen
Department of Philosophy,
Texas A & M University College Station, Texas 77843-4237 USA
Colin Allen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Texas A & M University. His dissertation (UCLA) was concerned with the appropriateness of intentional language in cognitive ethology. In addition to his collaborative research with M. Bekoff dealing with the application of philosophical ideas about intentionality to the practice and concerns of cognitive ethologists, Allen has worked with Marc Hauser, who originally sparked his interest in cognitive ethology, on theoretical issues involved in attributing mental states to animals. Bekoff and Allen developed their working relationship when the latter bailed out the former as he was trying to apply Ruth Millikan's ideas to the communication of play. This joint effort resulted in the first of a number of co-authored papers.

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