IU Research and Creative Activity Magazine
Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

On the Human Condition

Volume XXVIII Number 2
Spring 2006

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Colin Allen
Colin Allen
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Species of Minds

by Lauren J. Bryant

If you saw the 2005 film March of the Penguins, you likely marveled at the penguins' courage, ached for the bird left behind on the tundra, gasped in grief as the bungled penguin egg instantly froze and the bereft mother began stalking other penguin babies.

But what were the penguins thinking?

Colin Allen would like to know. As a philosopher of biology and cognitive science, Allen studies the mental worlds of animals, exploring what cognitive capacities they may possess.

"We tend to measure animals on just one scale," says Allen, a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University Bloomington. "Part of my mission is to move the debate [about what animals think] beyond a simple connection between behavior and mental state. My question is, what is the right story to tell about the set of capacities an animal actually has? What are the right questions to be asking?"

Asking the right questions--or at least a different set of questions--can yield remarkable revelations about the animal mind, according to Allen. He describes a favorite example, a study he was involved with before coming to IUB in 2004. That experiment, carried out by biologist Dorothy Cheney and psychologist Robert Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania, explored the vocalizations of vervet monkeys from East Africa.

When Cheney and Seyfarth were looking for ways to explore what the monkeys' sounds meant, Allen described to them how scholars study the significance of words in the philosophy of language and the theory of semantics. His observations prompted the scientists to conduct a field experiment in which a vervet monkey alarm-call recording was played over and over again to a group of vervet monkeys until the monkeys ignored it. Then the scientists played a second type of alarm call from the same monkey. When the second alarm call came, the other monkeys paid attention. But when a social call was played until the monkeys were accustomed to it, then was followed by a second type of social call from the same monkey, the second social call was ignored.

The animals' responses demonstrated that vervet monkeys do distinguish meaning among different calls, Allen says. "The experiment showed that the monkeys are not just stimulus-response machines habituated to the particular physical properties of a sound pattern or signal," he explains. "They track actual meaning; they have categories that are semantic and meaning-based."

Philosophy, down and dirty

In Allen's view, finding answers to questions about animal minds necessitates scientists and philosophers working together, and he interacts frequently with IUB biologists and psychologists, especially fellow members in the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior and his cognitive science colleagues. Philosophers of science, he says, need "to get down and dirty with the details" in the laboratory and the field to better understand "what the science is telling us."

Allen acknowledges his empirical emphasis is a bit unusual among his philosopher peers. "A lot of philosophers think that as soon as questions have gone into the empirical realm, they are not philosophy questions any more," he says. But going back to Descartes and Aristotle, he notes, philosophy and science have long been connected. "Philosophers ask more theoretical and conceptual questions than the average scientist may be thinking about, but the questions we have are just a different level of abstraction from the same basic set of information."

A biologist may study how a species forms, for example, while the philosopher of sciences asks, what is a species? "How do terms like ‘species' function in a scientific theory? What gives terms in a theory their meaning? Where there is a theoretical puzzle in science, philosophers are likely to get involved," Allen says.

He uses an episode with his puppy to illustrate a philosopher's approach. When the dog got its tail caught in the door, the pup let out a big yelp. Most of us immediately assume the animal was in pain.

"But in fact," Allen says, "the connection from tail to yelp is a lot more complicated than we think. And that raises questions about what you can actually say about the dog's pain: Is there conscious pain at all? What's the meaning of the yelp? Maybe the yelp is there to alert the human to stop it [the door closing on the tail]. To dismiss questions about the ordinary assumption that a yelping dog is in pain is to ignore legitimate questions."

Animal morality?

Allen's questions about animal mental states join him in a debate that reaches back to Darwin and forward to current controversies about animal rights--what is the extent of the mental continuity between nonhuman and human animals?

In other words, how similar are we to the furry or feathered or four-legged?

Allen jokes that he doesn't "do" ethics--"I can't tell you whether you should eat chicken!"--but he is serious about the need for ethicist colleagues to pay more attention to science. While he considers himself a proponent of animal consciousness (yes, he talks to his pets), Allen insists on critical and careful approaches to evaluating animal behavior.

"The way ethicists have relied on science has typically not been adequate," he says. "It hasn't shown sufficient sensitivity to good scientific questions about what can be inferred from behavior and physiology and so on."

Recently, Allen and Marc Bekoff, a scientist at the University of Colorado, evaluated the "social play" behavior of animals and its connection to "the evolution of morality." Animals obviously play, signaling each other in various ways to communicate their willingness to play (a dog uses a "play bow," for example, lowering his or her front paws and raising the hindquarters). Allen and Bekoff conclude that most animals tend to play cooperatively and fairly, too--they play by the rules. Why? Much more research is needed to truly answer that question, the co-authors say, but they offer this hypothesis: "Morality, in this case behaving fairly, is an adaptation that is shared by many mammals, not only by non-human and human primates. Behaving fairly evolved because it helps young animals acquire social skills needed as they mature into adults."

The study of morality in animals, say Allen and Bekoff, counterbalances "a doomsday view of where we are headed ‘because it's in our nature.'" In fact, "nature may not always be red in tooth and claw," they write. "Cooperation and fairness can also be driving forces of sociality."

Machine ethics

Allen's investigation of morality in non-humans ranges from the animal kingdom to the world of artificial humans--in other words, robots. "The basic question is, how can we make complicated machines behave ethically?" he says.

Robots with ethics. It's not just the stuff of sci-fi. Allen points to current automated systems that approve credit card transactions, for instance. "Do we make a system that is sensitive only to the bank's bottom line, or also to the effects on a person whose credit transaction is denied? A human bank officer exercises some judgment about consequences; automated systems are oblivious," he says.

Ethical robots may be in the future, but the social, political, and philosophical issues raised by the spread of artificial intelligence must be addressed now, Allen says, so we can "see our way forward more clearly."

And, philosopher that he is, he poses a question to make his point: Imagine you're walking into a grocery store of the future, Allen says, with your personal robot following behind. An elderly person passes you on the way out.

"Should your robot hold the door?"

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.