Chad Perrin: SOB

18 September 2009

Animal Metacognition

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 10:46

The Wall Street Journal featured the article, Among Dolphins, Tool-Using Handymen Are Women. Its subheadline reads:

In a Sign of Animal Ingenuity, the Marine Mammals — and One Cross-Dresser — Are Seen Making Hunting Implements

The facts presented in the article seemed to strongly imply that we should rethink the notion that dolphins are "mere" animals. They certainly seem to address the question of whether dolphins are capable of abstract reasoning, which is a characteristic of humans in the general case that helps to distinguish us from most of the rest of the animal kingdom at least. My criteria for whether we should treat some creature (humanoid or otherwise) as having ethical significance, of being considered to have rights per se, are somewhat different from the usual "Is it intelligent?" question that probably comes to most people's minds, however.

I would limit such consideration to those beings capable not just of abstract reasoning, but of ethical reasoning. If they cannot reason about right and wrong, they have no more ethical significance than a pet. Surely, we should not be cruel to our pets, but that doesn't mean that killing one is worthy of the appellation "murder". A fair number of humans don't even meet such criteria for ethical significance, though, as an accident of birth or later acquired defect, thus making mine an unpopular set of criteria.

A while back, I remember an occasion where a friend and I debated the matter of whether any animals might meet the criteria of ethical significance. Considering I have a stricter set of criteria for ethical significance than most, it might seem surprising that in this discussion I was the one suggesting that a nonhuman species has shown strong evidence of such ethical significance. In particular, I argued that while dogs (for instance) have only shown, first, signs of evolutionary development of pack behaviors, and second, that they are trainable, dolphins have exhibited behaviors that seem strongly indicative of making decisions on ethical grounds.

The friend — I'll call him "Justin" for purposes of this discussion, since he isn't online often enough for me to ask his permission to "out" him as the other party in the discussion — disagreed that any observed dolphin behavior really provided a convincing case for ethical reasoning. It was a long time ago, so I don't really recall for sure, but I think Justin may have disagreed with me on the subject of what constitutes ethical significance, too; I think he found it strange that I'd exempt a sufficiently mentally limited (but still nominally functional) human from ethical significance.

The kinds of behaviors to which I referred in my arguments included acts of obvious, wanton cruelty, and apparent vindictiveness, neither of which really seemed to derive from any evolutionary benefit other than perhaps intelligence. That alone is not enough, however. Coupled with that was the fact that many cases of dolphins choosing to risk themselves to preserve the life of a human, particularly a child, have been documented. They have also been known to disagree on such matters, just as humans do on whether dolphins should be preserved from the dangers of tuna nets. Alas, I don't have any links for such instances right now, in part because I haven't found the earlier online discussions I've had on this subject.

All of this came to mind today when I stumbled across an article in Science Daily, Evidence Points To Conscious 'Metacognition' In Some Nonhuman Animals. The term "metacognition" refers to not just abstract reasoning, but reasoning so abstract that it encompasses reasoning about the act of reasoning. From the article:

[J. David] Smith recounts the original animal-metacognition experiment with Natua the dolphin. "When uncertain, the dolphin clearly hesitated and wavered between his two possible responses," he says, "but when certain, he swam toward his chosen response so fast that his bow wave would soak the researchers' electronic switches.

This description of a dolphin's behavior shows some sign that it was considering the relevance and trustworthiness of its own thoughts in determining a correct answer. I recognize that behavior in myself from time to time, such as when I'm driving and pull up to a stoplight, considering whether I should get in the turn lane at this intersection or go straight and turn at the next intersection when my destination is further down a parallel street. As long as I don't have another car behind me that I would hold up unnecessarily, I might let off the accelerator and coast forward, giving me more time to decide on a course of action, and find myself questioning my own reasoning.

Smith explains that metacognition is a sophisticated human capacity linked to hierarchical structure in the mind (because the metacognitive executive control processes oversee lower-level cognition), to self-awareness (because uncertainty and doubt feel so personal and subjective) and to declarative consciousness (because humans are conscious of their states of knowing and can declare them to others).

Doctor Smith understates the importance of this kind of research:

In fact, he concludes, "Metacognition rivals language and tool use in its potential to establish important continuities or discontinuities between human and animal minds."

It is much more important than that, at least for me, because it draws much closer to definitively proving a case for calling the unnecessary killing of a dolphin "murder", rather than simply an unjustified act of callousness.

In somewhat unrelated news, it seems that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor may be showing evidence of ethical reasoning, too! I find this even more surprising. I had initially thought her merely well-trained by societal pressures. Of course, it's still possible this is just a particularly extreme form of far-leftist trained behavior, but it's still encouraging.

(Thanks to medullaoblongata for pointing out the Sotomayor article, and to a long-ago Chipping the Web for the tool-using dolphins article.)

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License