Research What Are You Reading...On Ethology

What Are You Reading…On Ethology

This summer I had the pleasure of reading a book by Frans De Waal entitled Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? The book takes issue with the way animals have in the past been tested for intelligence. Specifically, it criticizes how, in our attempt to create ‘neutral’ spaces for experiments, we require animals to perform actions outside the contexts in which they perform them naturally. These experiments put animals in unfamiliar rooms, surround them with a different species (humans), and ask them to perform tasks in a way they do not perform them usually. De Waal contrasts this with how these experiments treat the children these animals are often measured against, as they have their parents present and are reassured verbally. It should not be a surprise, De Waal insists, when animals perform poorly in relation to humans, but neither should this be indicative of what animals are capable of.

De Waal says that to understand animal intelligence it is important to understand the context within which their behavior developed. If actions come about as a response to certain circumstances, it is necessary to see how the behavior operates within those circumstances. This, De Waal says, is the approach of ethology. While the book goes on to question some of our culture’s conventional ideas about animals, I got to wondering about how philosophy and ethology relate. While ethology clearly has roots in the theory of evolution, it is also associated with the question of what it means to be human that underlies all of the human sciences and much of the history of philosophy. After doing some investigating, I found that there are several philosophers doing valuable work looking at the interconnections between ethology and philosophy. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend the following papers.


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  1. Sorry that I am unable to access these writings, but I do appreciate there being recognition of the important area where these two disciplines intersect. Not only do we humans need to expand the scope of our empathic awareness to accommodate the umwelten of other living beings, we need to work at seeing ourselves in ethological perspective. How do our social-ecological systems currently operate, and how might we shift them out of our present ecocidal trajectory?


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