Thinking about how they think
- Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
Granta, 340 pp, £14.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 78378 304 5
- The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst
Greystone, 272 pp, £16.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 77164 248 4
Why should we try to understand the lives of animals? The English moral philosopher Mary Midgley’s Beast and Man (1978) ended with a succinct answer: humankind ‘can neither be understood nor saved alone’. No philosophy can hope to understand ‘human nature’, Midgley argued, without acknowledging our integration into incomparably larger and older natural systems. Unfortunately, the philosophy and science of animal behaviour, as she found it, was not up to the task: it generally set out to prove the scientists’ preconceptions instead of basing its conclusions on close observation. Midgley called for a new approach that built on the work of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, the mid-20th-century pioneers of animal ethology – the study of animal behaviour as it occurs under natural conditions, or at least under experimental conditions that approximate natural ones. In their view, animal behaviour was determined by real motives and complex drives, not merely mechanical causes and imperatives. Midgley believed this approach could be helpful in rethinking the relationship between human and non-human because it placed all behaviour on the same continuum, rather than treating animals as wholly different phenomena.
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Vol. 39 No. 5 · 2 March 2017
Francis Gooding, in his thoughtful comparison of Frans de Waal’s book on animal cognition with Peter Wohlleben’s account of interactions among trees, omits a definition of communication (LRB, 16 February). Communication takes place when information is passed intentionally from a signaller to a receiver able to intercept the signal and act accordingly. Wohlleben gives the example of umbrella thorn acacias, which release a chemical to deter giraffes from grazing. The chemical is detected by neighbouring trees, which bolster their own defences in anticipation of an attack. This satisfies two out of the three criteria for communication, but not the remaining one. The first tree released the chemical for its own purposes, not for the benefit of others. By contrast, de Waal’s elegant experiments on primates have shown evidence of intentionality in communication.
Gooding also gives the example of trees ‘pumping sugar’ to keep a neighbour alive. Wohlleben talks of a ‘wood wide web’ in which trees are linked to one another through a network of soil-based fungi. The fungi gather up and supply soil nutrients, for which the trees repay them with sugars. By means of radioactive labelling, it has been found that some sugars created by one tree can pass, via fungal partners,to another. But the tree didn’t intend this to happen. If I go to the butcher to buy sausages, and he later goes to the pub for a beer, I haven’t chosen to give my money to the barman. The forest fungi act according to their own needs; struggling trees are not ‘being cared for’ by others out of empathic awareness. No communication has taken place.
There is a long cultural tradition of imagining better from nature, a collaborative sociality in contrast with our own mercenary impulses. The truth is that we do have much in common with trees. We too are often selfish actors looking out for our own interests. To say that other organisms are slaves of their genetic drives does not diminish them, but diminishes us; we are, after all, just organisms too.
University of Nottingham
Vol. 39 No. 6 · 16 March 2017
Markus Eichhorn claims that Frans de Waal’s ‘elegant experiments on primates have shown evidence of intentionality in communication’ (Letters, 2 March). There is other evidence, even more compelling, that dumb animals do not communicate. Presumably what Eichhorn means by ‘intentionality’ is meaningfulness or purposefulness. Music is intensely meaningful to us. To hear a sound as music is to hear it as implicitly calling for (i.e., intending or meaning to elicit) an appropriate response: dancing, singing, clapping, drumming or any other kind of improvised participation that is in some way related to its formal features.
Responses like these are very simple and intuitive, much more so than those demanded by language, and they rely on anatomical equipment no more specialised than a pair of legs or the ability to produce vocal sounds. Even so, dumb animals show not the slightest inclination to enter into musical relations with us. Even lyre-birds, which are capable of precisely mimicking any sound they hear, show no interest in improvising music with humans.
The behaviour of dumb animals can modify our own in ways that seem meaningful to us, but behaviour-modification is not communication. If dumb animals had any inkling of what intentional communication involved, they would want – and they’d be able – to communicate musically with us just as much as we wish we could with them: unfortunately they don’t.
Vol. 39 No. 7 · 30 March 2017
Christopher Eddy thinks that communication isn’t possible for what he likes to call ‘dumb animals’, a circularity by which he means ‘non-human animals’ (Letters, 16 March). Had such animals an ‘inkling of what intentional communication involved’, he writes, they would communicate with us through music, by dancing or singing. This isn’t a good argument: it may be that music is peculiarly human, while other intentional communication is not. And the premise is false: social media are full of videos of animals dancing to or singing along with music. As for animals not communicating in other ways, there’s a glorious cacophony going on. Birdsong and display, most exuberant at this time of year; the waggle-dances by means of which honeybees tell each other the locations of flowers and other resources; dogs’ play-bows, and so on.
It takes some contortion to convince yourself that a dog, overjoyed at seeing its owner again after a long separation, is an automaton who isn’t communicating intentionally. Likewise that a dairy cow’s anguished bellows on being parted from her newborn aren’t saying anything. But allowing that the cow is suffering when this happens, and that she is saying so, does sit uneasily alongside a fondness for cheese.