Us and them

Do Animals Think?

Clive D L Wynne <em>Princeton University Press, 268pp, £17.95</em>

ISBN 069111

Of these two books, both of which contain many fascinating facts about animals, I found Do Animals Think? much the more puzzling. Clive Wynne writes that what interests him is "the range of attitudes in our society towards animals". But in fact only one such attitude interests him - that of people who think non-humans are more like ourselves than used to be believed. As the dust jacket puts it, Wynne "takes aim at the work of such renowned animal rights activists as Peter Singer and Jane Goodall for falsely humanising animals". His message is that animals are essentially "machines".

Wynne is good on the bats and bees, showing how their difference from us can itself be interesting. On thought and language, however, he is embroiled in a long-standing squabble, the wider background of which he seems not to have fully grasped. He rightly points out that recent attempts to teach animals sign language have been distorted because they grow out of absurdly crude debates between behaviourists and innatists about the sources of human speech. When animal psychologists such as Herbert Terrace and Allen and Beatrice Gardner trained their apes, they were primarily trying to prove the truth of behaviourism - the belief that animals do not act consciously, but merely respond mechanically to outside stimuli. Indeed, this did lead to the kind of exaggerations and mistakes that Wynne points out. But for this very reason, it is surely unhelpful to use their failures to answer the question of whether animals think.

Can behaviourists think? The ques- tion seems particularly relevant here, given that so much residual behaviourist metaphysic colours discussions such as Wynne's. It does not strike him that the ethologists and humanitarians whom he opposes stress our likeness to animals because they are making a necessary revolt against the arbitrary and perverse behaviourist idea that animals are literally unconscious machines. The issue of the effectiveness of consciousness is crucial to discussing his title-question properly, but he does not really deal with it. Sometimes he seems to take Descartes's simple position that animals are just unconscious (he writes, for instance, that their "communicative utterances are ballistic responses to circumstances"), while at other times he merely suggests that they don't understand what they are doing. Thus he asks: "Do primates imitate each other through a simple mindless process of infection (like yawning)?" and replies that they do. With immense ingenuity, he reinterprets past behavioural experiments in ways meant to support this rather implausible theory. Yet he never explains how, for instance, wolves could hunt or baboons could forage safely if they did everything as absent-mindedly as yawning.

The sharp difference between us and them upon which Wynne insists is the one that Descartes established, centring on speech and the grander forms of reasoning. Descartes argued that animals, not having these marks of an immortal soul, were unconscious, and so were beneath moral consideration. It was this moral ruling that caused the sign-language experiments to attract so much interest. The detailed findings of these experiments do not really matter. The mere fact that animals could take part at all - that they responded so well when treated as communicators rather than as tennis balls - was enough to show that Descartes was mistaken. These findings, along with the rich social activity reported by ethologists such as Goodall, contributed to vindicate the everyday, common-sense assump-tion of animal subjectivity against the supposedly scientific dogma of mindlessness. And once subjectivity was acknowledged, people naturally began to question whether it might matter, after all, how we treat animals.

This is Jeffrey Masson's theme. He develops it in particular about farm animals - pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, ducks and chickens - which have, as he rightly notes, been rather neglected by ethologists. Looking at each species in turn, he carefully documents both the lively range of capacities they show when living free-ly and the appalling conditions in which they are commonly kept. He tells many delightful stories showing how pigs, for instance, when given a chance, are excellent company, friendly, sociable and about as intelligent as dogs. As he points out, however, such things can be demonstrated only by giving accounts of particular cases, and scientists can dismiss these as "mere anecdotes".

Readers have to deal with this problem of evidence by somehow judging the particular author. When books contain anecdotes, we must simply decide whether we trust the person writing them. My own impression is that Masson comes out pretty well - unless we count as a fault the way he did not decide to treat his animals behaviouristically, as purely "ballistic" phenomena. He does display normal human sensitivity towards the animals involved, but he carefully researches the background and scrupulously gives the sources of each case. He strikes me as credible, both when he describes a pig singing to the moon and when he records the atrocities going on in factory farms, many of which he has visited.

Here he conveys some surprises. I knew things were bad, but I did not realise, for instance, that the French foie gras industry had doubled in size since 1990, production in the Loire region alone soaring from 121 tonnes in 1990 to 2,032 in 1998, nor that it still uses mechanised forms of the traditional hideous methods, forcibly stuffing the immobilised birds until their diseased livers reach ten times the normal size. Wynne's response to this kind of thing is, first, to say that humans' needs always trump those of animals, and next (if that doesn't work) to ask: "How do we know that animals feel pain?" Yet pretending not to know things is not a reputable scientific move. I think we should listen to Masson.

Mary Midgley's most recent book is The Myths We Live By (Routledge)

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Can Islam change?