[The following is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the views of Pumpkin Person]
Humans can be narcissistic; I don’t need a degree to tell you that. That’s something that most people figure out just from interacting with members of their species. Unfortunately, this narcissism has seeped into our research of life sciences and has had profound effects on the way we conduct said research, and I believe these effects are the most apparent within the current debate on animal consciousness and intelligence.
Humans have two bad habits, prescribing anthropomorphic traits to animals and things. The other is hyper skepticism to the idea that anything that isn’t human could be conscious and feel something the same way humans do. Unfortunately, the former has resulted in incidents like at the Berlin Zoo, where a gorilla named Bokito broke out of his enclosure and beat the shit out of some dumbass who thought the aggressive behaviors the gorilla was displaying towards her were friendly (“Gorilla Goes on Dutch Zoo Rampage,” 2007). The latter has led to enormous animal abuse, like whaling practices and dog fighting.
There is massive debate and research on whether animals are conscious or intelligent in the way that we are. I’m not going to regurgitate the entirety of this debate; if you’re interested in going further than what I have presented here, I suggest the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on animal consciousness as a start. In this post, I will give an example that I believe characterizes this debate the best! And nothing, I think, does this more than the ongoing feud between Dr. Marino and Professor Paul Manger (“We discovered that whale and dolphin brains produce lots of heat. Why it matters,” 2021).
Note** I wrote this almost a year ago, and some of the citations that were originally here were no longer in existence. One was a podcast that interviewed Marino and Manger about this topic and their papers. If you want to see the whole debate, just take Dr. Marino’s or Manger’s paper and put it in google scholar, and you can see who else has cited their papers. From there, just look for Marino/Manger in the list that pops up.
So, to put things simply, Manger believes that many of the supposed complex behaviors Dolphins and other Cetaceans exhibit have been overstated by the researchers documenting them and are not actually that special or impressive compared to other species. Moreover, he believes his hypothesis proves that Cetacean brains are built for thermogenesis, not intelligence. He also maintains that this caused increased encephalization during the Archaeocete-Neocete transition (Manger, 2006), (Manger, 2013). While Marino believes she is not overstating any perceived intelligence of cetaceans and that Manger is simply ignorant of the literature (Marino et al., 2007).
Now, I know a little about Neuroscience, but I won’t pretend that I am as competent as these two are in comparative Neurobiology. Admittedly I can’t tell which one of them is bullshitting because they both accuse the other of being dishonest or ignorant of the Neurobiological data on Cetaceans. But, as the smug fence sitter, I am, I have found some problems with both of their approaches to this kind of research.
If you read Manger’s 2013 paper I cited previously; you’ll quickly notice a pattern when he starts going down the list, “debunking” each example of supposedly complex cognition. His criticisms can be summed up as “Other, less encephalized animals do it too, so it can’t be that complex or special at all.”. And when he can’t just handwave it away with that argument, he instead will claim that it doesn’t align with the Archeocete-Neocete transition.
I can’t fault him for not seeing the irony in his criticism because he’s just trying to defend his hypothesis and is not an “anthropocentric individual .” At least, as far as I know. But what’s hilarious about all this is that he undermines his entire point in his hyper-skeptic frenzy. Because if none of those behaviors like tool use, the ability to count, or cooperative hunting are particularly impressive or cognitively demanding, what the hell makes Primates unique? I mean, all of the abilities mentioned above can be done by multiple species of invertebrates, and they all have “primitive” neurological systems (Carazo et al., 2012), (Gross et al., 2009), (Pierce, 1986), (Alloway, 1979), (Vail et al., 2013), (Mikhalevich & Powell, 2020).
Meaning it can’t be due to the structure of the Nervous System because the behavior that makes said neural architecture important is present across virtually all orders of life! This problem leads to my other issues with his critique. One is his claim that the absence of a prefrontal cortex means Cetaceans are dumber or lack abilities associated with the said region. This is puzzling because areas of the cerebral cortex are not demarcated by morphological differences but by function, and said functional localizations vary significantly between individuals, minute by minute (Sporns et al., 2005), (Uttal, 2014). So to suggest that the absence of a prefrontal cortex means Cetaceans are incapable of higher-order thought is complete asinine bullshit, and I’m pretty shocked someone of Manger’s caliber would make such a mistake.
Furthermore, his critique of their “language” capabilities seems wanting. The idea that it takes a long time for these dolphins to learn the language doesn’t really help his case because it takes a long time for humans too, and if you’ve ever been on the internet, like ever, some adults still haven’t mastered their language even after decades of using it. He goes as far as saying that dolphins don’t even understand when objects disappear, but this was later refuted after adjusting the settings of the experiments to match more closely with their natural marine environments (Johnson et al., 2014).
I’m not here to shit on Manger, I may cover his paper in more depth in the future, but I simply want to draw the relation between anthropocentrism and his thesis mentioned earlier. His skepticism is so exaggerated that you almost have to wonder if Manger even believes other humans are conscious. After all, that is the burden this side of the aisle must be ready to take on if you think it is impossible to understand the mental states of other organisms. I mean, everyone interacts daily with members of their species and never really questions whether that person genuinely has consciousness or not. We just assume this is the case, and we base our interactions, which are sometimes Machiavellian, upon the perceptions of other people’s mental states. Maybe it is better to go with this intuition and not be afraid of anthropomorphizing “lower” species.
However, the problem with that and Marino’s side is that, as scientists, we have to base our beliefs on empirically reasonable grounds. Unfortunately, she has not provided ample evidence suggesting that cetaceans are as conscious or intelligent as they appear. Moreover, just as I wouldn’t say that Manger believes we can’t ever know if animals are conscious, I also wouldn’t say that Marino has entirely made up her assertions that Dolphins have human-like cognition. But sometimes, she can go a little far, like in her interview on the All things wild podcast, where she suggests a group of orcas is “culturally conservative” when you could equally assert that they are too dumb to adapt to a changing environment.
But no one wants to say that because humans are not rational creatures. We all enjoy going by just our common sense and intuitions, and even our coldest logic is still directed by emotion. To me and many others, it’s as obvious that animals, like cetaceans, have minds as it is that my neighbor has one, but that’s not empirically provable (yet). And, of course, this is in direct conflict with how we ought to operate in science which we often like to see as an objective lens through which we use to decipher the world around us. At the same time, this conflict poses a severe problem for people who want to toss intuition aside because you end up arriving at ridiculous conclusions. Ultimately, we may never know “what it’s like to be a bat,” but maybe in the future, when cognitive science becomes more developed, we will (Nagel, 1974). But for now, we must sit back and wonder whether animals have consciousness.