College of Arts and Sciences | Science of Animal Minds: Smart Animals, Dumb Humans?
E105 | 7811 | Allen


9:05 AM - 9:55 AM MW
See the Schedule of Classes for discussion section times.
Part of Themester 2009 "Evolution, Diversity and Change"

Viewers of Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and PBS frequently
encounter shows with titles like "Animal Einsteins" and "Inside the
Animal Mind." But how solid is the science behind these shows? And
what do we really know about the evolution of cognition? In this
course, we develop a historical and philosophical perspective on the
science of animal minds that will allow students to critically
examine media reports and presentations of animal cognition. The
central task is to understand arguments among experimental
psychologists (who tend to be skeptical of interpretations based on
observing the natural behavior of animals), behavioral biologists
(who tend to be skeptical that experiments on captive animals in
artificial environments help us to understand the evolution of
animal cognition), and philosophers (who tend to be skeptical of
everything).

Ancient views of humans and animals assumed a big gap between humans
(the "rational animal") and others. This view was challenged by
Darwin, but his and other overly zealous attempts to close the gap
by showing how clever nonhuman animals are led to the charge that
the science of animal minds is "anthropomorphic" and "soft."
Dissatisfaction with the approach contributed to the Behaviorist
revolution in psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century
which took a hard-nosed position against discussions of "hidden"
mental states. But in the past few decades, and especially since the
founding of the journal Animal Cognition in 1999, there has been an
acceleration in the number of studies of the cognitive capacities of
animals and a corresponding breakdown of the Behaviorists' taboos.
New comparative studies on crows and other corvids, dolphins and
other cetaceans, chimpanzees and other apes, and dogs and other
canids have expanded scientific understanding of tool use,
reasoning, planning, memory, and social cognition in these species,
and led many scientists to the view that animals are smarter than we
thought. At the same time, new studies of human cognition suggest
that maybe we aren't quite as rational, or clever, as we think we
are.