Saturday, May 03, 2008

Animal minds: But does the animal think it is art?

In response to a recent post on examples of animal art, a kind reader writes,
My memory of the stories concerning this animal are to the effect that Congo would "finish" his paintings; that is, he would stop at some point, and when his trainer, zoologist and surrealist painter Desmond Morris, tried to coax him to continue, he would instead -- in anger or frustration -- destroy the paintings.

So did Congo consider his paintings "art"? Perhaps not, but to him they were clearly more than just random markings on paper or canvas, made only to please his trainer.

Well, okay, but there is a vast spectrum between Congo considering them more than random markings on paper and Congo considering them art. And what I don’t know is where Congo’s perceptions fit.

Some thoughts:

The fact that an animal doesn’t like to be disturbed while completing a routine can be due to a number of causes - the most common being, in my experience, that the animal feels internal pressure to complete the routine, and treats interruptions as a form of hostility. The animal may or may not have any interest in or awareness of the outcome of the routine. The routine itself must be completed. A number of otherwise friendly cats I have known would attack a human who interrupted a kneading or toileting routine. Some dogs behave similarly.

The fact that Desmond Morris was Congo’s trainer does not fill me with confidence, because he was one of a long line of people are naked apes enthusiasts (or, to turn it around, enthusiasts for the idea that apes are people too).

Many of us doubt that the ape analogy tells us much about humans, and - more topically - have mixed feelings about how much the ape enthusiasts’ well-meaning ideas really help protect apes. Why isn’t it okay for apes just to be apes?

The animal I have lived with for most of my life is the cat, and I am very glad that cats are not close enough to humans in body shape or genetics that very many people have written books that could be titled “Man: The naked cat.” Cats have suffered much at human hands, but not that indignity - not so far. It is still possible for cats to be quite different from humans in their mental states and behaviour without any attempt made to revise the record to suit various agendas.

All that said, recently I got one of Rupert Sheldrake’s books on animal minds from the library, notably Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999). I will either review it here or link here to a review elsewhere.

For what it’s worth, I have no doubt that many animals have specific mental and perceptual skills far superior to those of humans. But the felt need to map those skills onto specifically human tendencies like abstraction and metacognition seems like a byway. It doesn’t advance the understanding of either humans or animals much. For example, cats often have a much better sense of direction than humans, but they do not draw maps. They just go home. In some cases, you would be just as well off to follow the cat as the global positioning satellite.

Other animal minds stories from The Mindful Hack:

Researchers ask: What does it mean to be an animal?

Deception in humans and animals: The differences

Medical journal published article on cat's death predictions

Also, at Design of Life blog: Can animals do math? How much should wwe believe of what we read?

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