What's that squirrel thinking as it runs across the street? Behavioral neuroscientist Marc D. Hauser asks big questions about little brains in Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think
. While his subjects aren't accessible for interviews, he believes that we can gain insight into their interior lives by examining their behavior in the context of their social and physical environments. Thus, while comparing the actions of chimps, rats, honeybees, and human infants, he is careful to keep in mind that each of them has different needs that require different kinds of intelligence and emotion and ought not be judged by the same criteria. Looking at counting, mapmaking, self-understanding, deception, and other intelligent activities, Hauser shows that the birds and the bees have more on their minds than we've come to believe. Acknowledging the vast gulf of language that separates our species from all others, he still maintains that this tool is but one of many and is no better an indication of "superior" intelligence than is the bat's fantastically well-developed echolocation system. In the last chapter, Hauser looks at moral behavior and decides that animals can be "moral patients but not moral agents"--that is, their inability to attribute mental states to others keeps them blameless for their actions but their sensitivity to suffering earns them fair treatment from the rest of us. Whether or not you agree with that, you're sure to find Wild Minds
a refreshing look at the thoughts of our mute cousins. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Deeply skeptical of popular tales of altruistic dolphins, psychic dogs and cats, empathetic elephants and moralistic apes, Harvard animal scientist Hauser believes that such stories are fraught with assumptions and misleading comparisons between animal and human minds. Aiming to strike a balance between those scientists who view animals as mindless, instinct-driven automata and laypersons who assume animals are just like us, Hauser, a professor of psychology, draws heavily on animal cognition studies, neuroscience and evolutionary theory to delve into animals' "wild minds," shaped by environmental pressures and specific social contexts. This "admittedly reductionistic approach" sheds new light on social learning in octopuses, baboons, birds, guppies and rats; on the imitative behavior of songbirds, dolphins and chimpanzees; on rhesus monkeys' reconciliation habits; and on communication in echolocating bats and dancing honeybees. Although Hauser believes that emotions play a central role in animals' decision making, his views are sometimes hard to distinguish from those of behaviorists: he insists that animals lack moral senses, a deep understanding of death or the capacity for empathy, sympathy, shame, guilt and loyalty, because they lack self-awareness--a conclusion with which many pet owners will sharply disagree. Though Hauser disdains anthropomorphizing and takes pains to avoid it, we learn that "the animal kingdom is filled with honest Joes and poker-faced cheaters," the latter including "extremely cagey" chickens and great apes with "unscrupulous, Machiavellian intelligence." An intriguing compendium of little-known animal research, this unconvincing inquiry raises more questions than it answers. Hauser's belief that animals are "Kafka-creatures, organisms with rich thoughts and emotions, but no system for translating what they think into something that they can express to others" ultimately serves to narrow his field of vision. B&w drawings. Agent, John Brockman. (Mar.)
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