Next in this week’s all-star lineup of experts on animal cognition and consciousness is Dr. Colin Allen. Dr. Allen is a prolific writer on a variety of topics related to cognitive science and philosophy, and associate editor of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (where he’s authored, notably, the entry “Animal Consciousness“.) You can find check out his home page for more info and links to his publications. As usual, my questions are in plain text, and Dr. Allen’s responses are in boxes.
Just to get readers oriented, what’s your background and what do you do (professionally and/or otherwise)?
My academic training is in philosophy, and I was initially attracted to philosophy because of its breadth. For example, if you like art you can pursue aesthetics, and if you like science you can pursue the philosophy of science, and if you want you can even combine these in the philosophy of cognitive science by reflecting on what (or whether) the neuroscience of aesthetic judgments can tell us about concepts of art. As an undergraduate I got interested in brains and language, so philosophy of language and philosophy of mind but also logic and philosophy of science were among my favorite topics. And when I got to graduate school in philosophy at UCLA, I also took classes in linguistics, anthropology, biology, and computer science — really designing my own course of study in cognitive science before there even was such a thing available there.
I’m currently a professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. I have a split appointment between the Department of History & Philosophy of Science (HPS) and the Program in Cognitive Science, and I’ll be the director of the latter when I come off a sabbatical leave in the summer of 2011. IU provides a lot of possibilities for being interdisciplinary. As well as HPS Department and Cognitive Science Program, which are inherently interdisciplinary, I belong to IU’s Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior which brings together biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the occasional philosopher such as myself.
Generally, I’m interested in almost any topic related to the scientific explanation of behavior and cognition, but I’ve specialized in animal behavior and cognition partly because of being in the right place at the right time at UCLA, and also because I think these areas present very interesting challenges to traditional philosophical approaches to mind and knowledge. The Darwinian perspective from biology is of course important, but it’s one thing to affirm “evolutionary continuity” and quite another to work out what that really means for the evolution of cognition. And I’ve been lucky enough to keep my interest in computers and artificial intelligence going in various ways, including working on interactive websites for teaching logic, becoming associate editor for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, finishing a book a couple of years ago titled “Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong”, and currently directing a project we call the Indiana Philosophy Ontology which aims to provide a gateway for people and machines into the entire discipline of philosophy.
You’ve published on (what looks like to me, at least) a huge variety of topics. Where does the study of consciousness in animals fit into your work, and why?
At UCLA I wrote my doctoral dissertation about intentionality and communicative meaning in the vocalizations of monkeys, and for the first few years after that, I rather avoided the topic of consciousness because I thought it was (a) very hard to say anything new and (b) too much of a distraction from other areas concerning the scientific study of animal minds that deserved more attention from philosophers. I still think that these are both true. But when I wrote “Species of Mind: the Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology” with the ethologist Marc Bekoff I knew that we had no choice but to write a chapter on consciousness or risk being accused as too timid — something that Marc would never be accused of on this subject! Donald Griffin, who invented the term ‘cognitive ethology’ had insisted on putting animal consciousness front and center, and while he did much to advance the field there were also many reasons to be dissatisfied with his specific ideas about consciousness which did not necessarily withstand philosophical scrutiny. As a result, criticism of Griffin’s ideas was often used to attack cognitive ethology as a whole, so Bekoff and I wanted to steer the conversation about cognitive ethology towards more tractable topics such as the cognitive aspects of topics like animal communication, social play, and anti-predatory vigilance, and away from the easy dismissals of cognitive ethology as romantic anthropomorphizing. Nevertheless, we included a chapter making some tentative suggestions about animal consciousness and placed it (some might say buried it) as chapter 8 (of 9) in the book. Subsequent to writing “Species of Mind” I got interested in pain research and have written about what it might tell us about consciousness in animals, and I have written and maintained the entry on animal consciousness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has required me to keep abreast of the relevant scientific and philosophical literatures. So, animal cognition generally is my original line of academic work, and animal consciousness is an unavoidable subtopic within that. But it also connects to my interests in machine intelligence since there are many similar questions.
Why should people (scientists or non-scientists) care about research into animal consciousness?
Lots of reasons, not all of which will appeal to everyone. But the primary one, for me, is the intellectual challenge it poses — understanding for the sake of understanding. Secondly, of course, many people are motivated by the ethical implications of such work. Third, there’s a human-centered motivation of studying animals in order to develop insight into the mechanisms underlying human consciousness. I realize that some people think that scientific or philosophical skepticism about animal consciousness is a kind of ostrich-like refusal to see what’s obvious. But I think that scientific and philosophical challenges to common sense represent a long and distinguished tradition that can sometimes produce completely new ways of seeing the world, but even when reaffirming common sense leads to a better understanding of these “obvious” truths. Some people want all research to have immediate practical applications, but I think such an attitude is always short-sighted. Who would have predicted that the research of logicians into the foundations of mathematics over a hundred years ago would eventually lead to digital computers and the Internet?
A lot of people claim that consciousness is impossible to study, presumably because it doesn’t seem to be easily pinned down to specific physical phenomena. How do you respond to people who say that consciousness is not something that can be empirically investigated?
One thing to say is that consciousness is being studied empirically, so the question has a false premise. There are lots of empirical studies of human consciousness, and for animals one can point to such things as the study of sleep in a variety of animal species, or of blindsight in monkeys. These people you refer to may respond that they meant some other sense of consciousness that is untouched by those studies. Of course, someone might define consciousness in such a way that makes it impossible to study empirically, but why should we accept such a definition? I also ask them what do they know that I don’t know? I don’t think we know enough to say that it is impossible to study consciousness empirically. One of my undergraduate teachers was Colin McGinn, a philosopher of mind who has claimed that for us to understand consciousness (human or animal) is probably like asking a dog to understand calculus. We are too stupid to figure it out. But I think we are perhaps too stupid to know whether or not we are too stupid to figure it out. I don’t see how any a priori argument could establish the claim, since it would depend on knowing already exactly what it is that we are unable to grasp. There’s another kind of challenge which simply says that people been trying for ages with little progress, but even if it’s true that there has been little progress (which I would dispute), for similar reasons I think it’s prematurely defeatist to say that progress is impossible. The only way to find out is to keep trying.
What is the most convincing piece of evidence you’ve encountered either for or against the idea that or non-human animals have consciousness?
More than any one thing, I think it’s an accumulation of multiple lines of evidence. Neuroanatomy, physiology, and behavior all reveal similarities that are relevant to consciousness, and scientists are also learning more about different kinds of learning. Some take place implicitly and without conscious effort (although perhaps requiring much repetitive training), while more flexible kinds of learning seem to depend on explicit awareness of the relevant stimuli. Simply piling up a list of similarities between animals and humans can, however, seem weak — arguments from analogy are never conclusive — so that’s where more theoretical ideas about the role of consciousness in decision making and learning can help make the specific case for animal consciousness. It is necessary, also, to distinguish different ideas about consciousness — some people want to equate that term with a fully reflective self-consciousness, which as adult humans permits us to think of ourselves as beings in time with determinate births and deaths and a range of projects to carry out in between (when we are not otherwise occupied with simply getting through the day, that is.) I doubt that any non-humans have such a beginning-to-end self-conception. But more basic forms of sensory experience, memory, and anticipation, involve various degrees of integration of information over time and space that allow animals to flexibly adapt their own behavior to novel information and new goals. Nicky Clayton’s work at Cambridge University springs to mind here, with her experiments on the ability of scrub jays to remember where, when, and what kind of food they hid, and also to decide what to hide for tomorrow based on what they were deprived of today.
What sorts of projects would you most like to see done (or feel most need to be done) in the field of animal cognition and consciousness?
Although the situation in animal cognition studies is much richer than it was just 15 years ago, it still seems to me that too much current work focuses on what I call “trophy hunting” — the attempt to show that one’s favorite species can do something regarded as clever when humans do it: recognizing themselves in mirrors, using human language, predicting how others will behave given only information about what they have seen, and so on. Instead of taking a few studies and over-generalizing them to entire species, we need to be much more careful to find out what it is in the individual lives of animals entering these experiments that supports their success or leads to their failure. For instance, it is practically dogma that apes can recognize themselves in mirrors and monkeys “never get it” to quote one widely replayed public television documentary. But an article published in the journal PLoS ONE in June 2010 reports on rhesus monkeys using mirrors to inspect themselves. Now, let me hasten to add that this research, which was a side project involving monkeys who had received surgical implants in their heads, may offend some readers because of the surgeries involved, and I don’t want to deny that concern. We also should always be cautious of any new scientific result that has not been replicated by another lab (which is not a demand for more surgery to be done on monkeys either). But what it indicates to me is that we shouldn’t assume that the failure to get monkeys in previous studies to show self-directed behavior in mirrors may have as much to do with the prior experiences of the monkeys as to do with a perhaps mythical ape/monkey discontinuity. All in all we need a more developmental approach to animal cognition, one which investigates the way in cognitive development is cumulative, [the way] earlier experiences affect later cognitive outcomes. For example, another 2010 study, this one in PLoS Biology showed that cichlid fish who experienced a change in food levels during early development were better learners later in life. It didn’t matter whether the food supply went from low to high, or high to low — simply that there was a change. We have only begun to think about how early life experiences affect later cognitive abilities.
On the consciousness front, I think that’s a harder question. I’ve had a few ideas aimed at trying to get at whether animals can switch flexibly between how things appear to them and how they really are. The basic idea can be explained using the example of visual illusions, which come along with a certain conscious experience but also the knowledge that the experience is inaccurate. We know that many animals are subject to the same illusions as humans, but what we don’t know is whether they are capable of recognizing that their experience is illusory. However, experiments to test this would be tricky to set up, and very time consuming. It’s a big risk for scientists who face constant pressure to produce publishable and fundable research to invest a lot of effort into an experiment that might not work. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, there’s a lot of work going on in the neural and behavioral sciences that helps support the idea that the basic brain architecture that supports human consciousness is present in other mammalian species too. And we are finding out more about the interesting brain structures that have evolved in non-mammalian species, for instance the mushroom bodies of honey bees and the area VL of octopus brains, that seem to have similar structural organization and play a similar role in cognitive flexibility as the mammalian and avian hippocampus systems. This kind of comparative work will continue and become more detailed. And there are even people currently working on techniques for measuring the brain activity of rats and birds using non-invasive functional MRI, although I don’t think anyone has a plan to try it on an octopus … yet!
Are there any popular misconceptions about consciousness or cognition in non-human animals that you’ve encountered? What are they, and what would you prefer the public thought?
It seems to me that there are misconceptions in all directions here, ranging from the fabulous — psychic pets, or scheming, vengeful predators — to the willingly ignorant — painless castrations of bullocks, or emotionless reptiles. But I think that the one idea I hear most often that I would like to change is that there is a simple linear scale of consciousness or intelligence with humans at one end (or the top) and worms, or perhaps sponges, at the bottom. Going along with that is the comparison of various animals to human children at a certain age. A chimpanzee is not a furry four year-old, and there is not a simple scale according to which dolphins fall between (say) dogs and chimpanzees. Evolutionary adaptation and the processes of individual development conspire to produce sets of capacities that may be variously enhanced or lowered in different individuals and different species. Gaining an appreciation for this complexity and a fascination for the sheer variety of life and cognition strikes me as one of the best things we could convey to the public, with the hope of fostering the desire to know more instead of being satisfied with simplistic “pigeon-holing” of species according to their perceived intelligence.
Do you have any comments or advice for people who might want to pursue scientific or philosophical research in the area of animal cognition and/or consciousness?
Despite the explosion of interest in scientific studies of animal cognition, there are still considerable pockets of skepticism out there. Rightly so, in my opinion, since science generally thrives on skepticism: trust but verify! To be able to convince skeptics from whatever direction, you need to know where they are coming from, and to speak the languages of these different disciplines. For this it is necessary to obtain a broad background in neuroscience, biology, psychology, and philosophy — the cognitive sciences more generally. If your initial motivation is a desire to work with one of the “glamour species” — dolphins or the great apes — realize that there’s an extreme competition for that kind of work, so you may want to broaden your horizons and think about what could be accomplished with different and more accessible species. A lot of great work has been done in recent years studying crows, ravens, and jays, and there is an explosion of work currently using pet dogs as subjects. Even rats and pigeons have a lot to offer. After years of taking goldfish as the representatives of fish in general, scientists are starting to look at other species and finding some surprisingly sophisticated abilities. To be sure, we must not forget the cephalopods either! But no matter how many species have been studied or will be in the next few years, we will only have scratched at the diversity of cognitive abilities that biology has to offer.
The studies that Dr. Allen referred to are:
“Planning for the future by western scrub-jays” (2007) by Raby, Alexis, Dickinson, and Clayton (and similar works,) “Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Do Recognize Themselves in the Mirror: Implications for the Evolution of Self-Recognition” (2010) by Rajala et al., and “Environmental Change Enhances Cognitive Abilities in Fish” (2010) by Kotrschal and Taborsky.
Thanks for reading!