About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

One more non-difference between humans and animals

Humanity has a long history of narcissism, characterized by an endless quest for what makes us “unique,” different from “mere” animals, and – by implication – more likely to be the gods' favorite creatures. Aristotle thought that reasoning was the key to humanity, which led him to suggest that the most perfect life is, of course, that of the contemplative philosopher (hey, at least he didn't go as far as his mentor, Plato, who actually advocated that philosophers should be kings!).

Of course, the perennial hostility generated by the scientific view of humans as animals sharing a common descent with other primates also falls along the same lines: some of us just won't admit that we are animals. Sophisticated, yes, capable of appreciating fine art and killing millions at the push of a button, yes, but animals nonetheless.

A recent study published in Science (17 February 2006) by Aaron Blaisdell, Kosuke Sawa, Kenneth Leising and Michael Waldmann chips away one more brick in the defense wall allegedly separating us from the rest of nature. They studied reasoning abilities in rats, and came to rather startling conclusions. First of all, it has been well known that rats (and other rodents) can “reason” in the sense that they can make associations between phenomena that guides their behavior. For example, they can note a correlation between event A (say, the appearance of a light) and event C (food will be dispensed), and rapidly come to expect C whenever they see A (such expectation can be measured, for example, by the fact that after seeing the light the rats immediately start poking their nose in the directions where the food is supposed to come from).

This may not sound very impressive, but it is in fact the same sort of inductive reasoning that most of us, scientists included, use every day: one observes a few instances of a phenomenon and generalizes to a broader set of events. Of course, inductive reasoning of this sort is rather unreliable, as summarized in the mantra that “causation is not correlation” (though the quip often associated with it is that “the two are nonetheless highly correlated”).

Humans, it was thought until Blaisdell and coworkers' paper was published, are still the only animals capable of causal inferences, i.e. of a more sophisticated mixture of inductive and deductive approaches that allows us to go beyond simple correlations and actually construct a mental model of the causal connections behind events. For example, we realize that weather conditions, air pressure and barometer readings are all correlated, but we also understand that manipulating a barometer will do precisely nothing to change the weather.

Well, apparently, so do rats. Blaisdell's group carried out a series of elegant experiments in which rats were trained under two situations: first they were exposed to a flash of light (event A), followed by both a noise (event B) and eventually food (event C). This generated the classical type of correlational expectation, so that rats would increase their nose poking in response to either the light or the noise, “thinking” that both events were predictive of the good stuff soon coming their way.

The second situation was more interesting: rats were allowed to press a lever that would cause the noise (event B). Since the food (event C) wasn't coming after they pressed the lever – but was still being delivered after the light flash (event A) -- the rats had the opportunity of “deducing” a more sophisticated causal model, in which A and B were in fact decoupled, and only A would count as a reliable predictor of C. And they did! Once they got used to generating the noise by pressing the lever, they stopped expecting the food in response to it. It was like realizing that changing the barometer's setting isn't going to get you a sunny day after all.

Now, nobody is suggesting that all of this happens consciously, of course, and Blaisdell et al. do not expect rats to start publishing papers on the philosophical nature of causality. But by the same token, most of us don't reach similar conclusions consciously either. We are capable of articulating a reason for why we behave in a certain way, but much of our thinking is in fact unconscious. We ain't that different from rats, as it turns out, yet another little blow to our innate narcissism. Hey, perhaps it is the latter that is a truly unique human character? I wonder what sort of experiment we could carry out to test that hypothesis...


  1. Reminds me of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur Dent finds out that all those lab mice were actually experimenting on us.

  2. And speaking of experimenting...and since we're not special or anything, don't you think that the gathering of the "Texas Academy of Science" would be the best possible place to release the first round of Ebola? (I mean, if it's such a good idea and all)

    "Scientists cheer
    holocaust wish
    Texas academy honors professor who wants
    90% of human race exterminated by Ebola"


    I have always felt that knowledge turns ON ITSELF when it doesn't have a complete understanding of humanity and the human condition.

    Now I know it's true.



  3. I deplore this unethical behavior.

    Doesn't Mims (the reporter in question) realize that what happens at the Texas Acadeny of Science STAYS at the Texas Academy od Science?

  4. polli:
    It is hard to tell if you're being sarcastic or serious. Unless you are implying that the absence of moral accountability, that is often synonymous with LAS VEGAS Nv., is similar to what's happening here?


  5. Cal,

    you got it entirely wrong, as usual, and as expected when one relies on conservative sources of "free" information. Pianka is most definitely NOT calling for the extermination of 90% of the human race through a viral attack. This is a complete fabrication by Mims. What Pianka is saying (and has been saying for some time), is that -- based on our knowledge of ecology -- such large-scale disaster is only a matter of time. I'm not sure I agree with him, but the science has nothing to do with the ethics in this case. Please, get your facts straight, and read the New York Times, once in a while.

  6. Well, one can't expect much from a "news" site that advertises "3 conservative books for $1 each" or offers a book that explains "how 'experts' sell us corruption disguised as freedom", let alone a site whose founder, editor and CEO defecates a text like this.

    Anyway, back to the much more pleasant rats. Indeed, I always think that the only differences between us and other animals (some mammals, more specifically) are quantitative, not qualitative. But then again, sometimes I seriously consider what Massimo did at the end. Sure we are "special" in some way, we do have things that no other species have, sure. As all other species are "special" and have their own amazing things. Maybe we're the only ones to be "narcisist", or to have an "aesthetic sense", or to be worried about our death (I also have no clue how that could even begin to be tested).

    But don't think too much of yourself until you can lift and carry 15 times your weight repeatedly, all day long, like an ant. Or fly hundreds of times your own length in a second, like a "mere" fly. Or navigate your way around in the dark, at high speed, using your throat and ears, like a bat. Then we can start to talk about being more "special" than everybody else.


  7. For anyone who has the 20 minutes to spare, you can see and hear Pianka defend himself
    here .

    I got the link from Panda's Thumb, in case it doesn't load, and you want to just read about it.

  8. Drat! The link doesn't load for me. What's worse, I don't see the raw feed anymore, just a 2:31 segment, probably the newscast based on the 20-minute interview.

    But you can follow the Panda's Thumb links yourselves.

  9. "Pianka is most definitely NOT calling for the extermination of 90% of the human race through a viral attack."

    Neither one of us was there, but I'll bet these quotes and others can be checked out.

    "Smarter people have fewer kids," Mims quoted Pianka as saying. “

    “We're no better than bacteria," Mims quoted Pianka as saying in his condemnation of the human race, which, he claimed, is overpopulating the Earth.”

    “During a question-and-answer sessions, the audience laughed approvingly when Pianka offered the bird flu as another vehicle toward achieving his goal. They also chuckled when he suggested it was time to sterilize everyone on Earth.”

    The following comments of Pianka's are a rather common mindset, (whether you believe he drew the inference from them that he supposedly did) among a variety of academics, especially in fields related to biology. I often remind my nephew, who I care for very deeply,(he is in a bio/eco field) that it is not the religious conservatives who are using up all the natural resources and advocating the ruining the earth's ecology. And that, of course, is mostly all because they are advocates of having too many offspring.

    In reality, it is my experience that people with no children or many children can be poor managers of resources, or wonderful ones.

    The gentleman who just purchased a house we remodeled over the last few years, and is running for a congressional seat for a party most people that frequent this site would appreciate, he has repeatedly told me how dishonest, unethical, wasteful and ruining the environment conservatives are in one breath, and in the next, has his heaters in the house cranked up to ninety,(I am NOT exaggerating) and insisted on having the water heater working better then it had when we left the house, because he likes to take "long hot showers". We , otoh,"like" to have our kids to take three to five minutes showers, so we foolishly left the water heater the way it was. He has no children. But I'm almost sure, by observing his lifestyle, that he uses more water and electricity than the five of us used altogether.

    If we truly are no better than bacteria, the conclusions drawn by Pianka almost would make perfect sense. But facts be known, evolution doesn’t make sense on a variety of levels. For instance, interpreting the importance of each species on the food chain often becomes a highly selective/subjective endeavor for biologists trying to take their best guess on what matters most and why. Mere humans trying to determine what is really important and which species needs to be saved from extinction and which ones ought to be wiped out, is often terribly short sighted.

    The microbiologist that I mentioned to this group a month or two ago, who came from atheism to faith in Christ, mentioned to me that the field he works in explains why the drug resistant pneumonia that my dad contracted in the ICU two weeks ago gained a foothold THERE of all places! It is clear now that we (even the BEST biologists) don’t understand evolution fully. So spare me the oft repeated rhetoric that it is religious conservatives somehow keeping evolutionary advances suppressed. It's clearly the blaming, finger pointing, complaining attitude that keeps advances suppressed.


  10. the field he works in explains why the drug resistant pneumonia that my dad contracted in the ICU two weeks ago gained a foothold THERE of all places

    And his explanation would be...?

    Just checking, since I've noticed microbiologists quite frequently don't know much about evolution (is it mandatory in their formation?). Worse than them are the biochemists, but I digress.


  11. With regard to Pianka, it does seem that he was mixing positive and normative statements in a way that could be confusing to a casual observer.

    At the same time, the fact that he received a standing O makes me skeptical of any assertion that he actually advocated extermination of any number of human beings.

    Of course I am aware, too, that Mims was probably not a casual observer.

  12. A fabulous book I just read: Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees

    It's a great read, and it illustrates how closely linked we are to our primate friends.

  13. "At the same time, the fact that he received a standing O makes me skeptical of any assertion that he actually advocated extermination of any number of human beings."

    Not necessarily true. There is a philosophical / deep ecology movement that has asserted for some time that we (humans) are not worthy or responsible enough to inherit the earth. I'm sure most everyone knows what this is.

    I think that

    those who believe that they are the engineers of such an outrageous idea will naturally feel as if they will find a way to be saved from its consequences. And that, of course would not be plausible either, because in that same group there are no less than 30, 40, 50 ways to view evolution. That lack of agreement alone will likely, and has already, cost a multitude of lives and suffering in the world.

    AIDs/HIV is blossoming because we have misunderstood the genetic relationships between humans and primates, and the difference between what genetic relatedness is and is not, is absolutely fatal. Who would have thought that one could create species jumping diseases that might never be resolved?

    There is a ligit. barrier between “kinds”, and it is referred to as “the immune system".


  14. Of course it's not necessarily true. But it should give pause, especially if this was just a regular meeting of the "Texas Academy of Science". People don't normally applaud genocide, but reporters with an axe to grind do often misrepresent events. Neither statement is necessarily true. But as Hemingway said, Your "automatic bulls**t detector" has to be working. (his words, not mine).

  15. "People don't normally applaud genocide, but reporters with an axe to grind do often misrepresent events."

    I doubt that such individuals rarely ever entertain the idea that one thing has anything to do with the other (that being, genocide).


    They, instead, have rationalized the matter as one having to do with achieving the greater good, as racists always do. But in this case, some people's chosen world-view will determine that they instead become racist against the whole human race!

    If a reporter was coming from a different pov, let's say from one like leaning to the left, what would his opinion look like and how would it be received by someone like yourself opposed to what you think happened here?

    What does objectivity really look like when one sincerely trys to speak non-politically to the matter of what a human life is worth? And how did we ever get to the point where the matter was so wide open for question anyway?

    these things trouble me.

    I am also saddened deeply that we live in a world where(as the news story above explained) some people feel it is their right to repeatedly stab and kill innocent little children, because they are not of the preferred race!


  16. Never said anything was wide open to question.

    All I said was I doubted the report.


  17. You know, Cal, the more I read about this Pianka fellow, the less I trust him.

    I certainly wouldn't want to play a real game of lifeboat with him, especially if there was a lizaard on board.

  18. "I certainly wouldn't want to play a real game of lifeboat with him, especially if there was a lizaard on board."

    Correction: Salmonella on the lizard AND the lizard.

    Did you know that it is suggested to “.. not attempt to treat your reptiles for salmonella. The salmonella may become immune to the treatment and will be harder to combat if it infects a human.” http://www.calzoo.com/html/salmonella.html

    Now it seems that “smart” bacteria have single-handedly devised for us a whole different manner of evolutionary hierarchy to pay heed to. Did ANY fossil record that anyone has ever heard of predict anything like this?

    I don’t believe it has. And that’s a better reason to not trust that "Pianka fellow".

  19. Lily,

    re: erosion vs the effects of uplift, volcanoes.

    An interesting place to begin one's quest on these matters is at the Dead Sea, believe it or not. A little over a year ago, I spent time in Israel and at the Dead Sea. There are so many things about that area that turn out to be terribly fascinating. But until one has been there, you have no idea the number of them.

    For instance, under the DS, there are two strata's of rock that have come together that represent two entirely different climate zones, i.e. desert and tropics. And that seems improbable, given the fact that virtually nothing is growing (13 hundred ft below sea level) immediately around the DS. Plus the fact that the tectonic activity is such that the sea is sinking and average of 13 inches a year! What does that have to do with erosion and the ten mil it might take the rest of the earth to reach sea level? Several things. Erosion and plate movement can go in different directions, as we see here. And plate movement, of course, does not necessarily mean uplift. One has to wonder why it is that while the Dead Sea is sinking, where would the material underneath it be going anyway? Is it sliding on over to Africa, or turning into molten rock? Most importantly, how many years does it take for 13 inches year to add up to 13 hundred feet BSL ? (12000 is what I estimated on my own, and the website below eventually confirmed my own conclusions.) But certainly not the two million that some have suggested which is supposed to represent the age of the Dead Sea region!

    So there are many variables to take into consideration when we propose to understand where fossils may wind up on the fossil record and why.




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