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Can a Chimp Outwit a Scientist?

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Don't get me wrong -- I am a firm believer in science. I fully subscribe to evolutionary theory, and I think climate-change deniers are a menace to mankind. But let's face it -- science is not infallible. And nothing demonstrates the fallibility of science more than its stubborn, persistent refusal to acknowledge the intelligence of animals.

Science has had to be dragged feet-first, kicking and screaming, into any recognition of animal awareness or capacity to experience pain. In this, science has been aided and abetted by philosophers, whose academic qualifications are no guarantee against blind adherence to dogma.

This particular scientific prejudice has a long and illustrious history, going all the way back to Descartes, who flatly declared that animals were automatons, incapable of any awareness or sensitivity. But its most recent manifestation involves a chimpanzee named Santino, who lives in a zoo in Sweden.

Santino evidently resents being the object of attention of the many human onlookers who visit his enclosure each day. He expresses his displeasure by hurling rocks at those who come to stare at him. Can there be any doubt about the meaning of this action?

What made the case of Santino notable was when he gathered and arranged his rocks in neat piles each morning in anticipation of the arrival of the daily tourists. The anthropologists who discovered this reported it as evidence of Santino's ability to plan ahead. Their conclusion, however, was roundly disparaged by other scientists.

Who is to say this was genuine evidence of planning? the skeptics asked. Maybe Santino just happened to be gathering and arranging the rocks out of habit.

But then Santino went another step. He noticed that once he started hurling rocks, the visitors quickly retreated beyond his throwing range. So he started concealing the rocks behind logs or under piles of hay that he had arranged. This gave him a big advantage in casually approaching the onlookers and suddenly surprising them with a rock ready to throw.

But even this did not convince the scientific skeptics. Oh, they said, we need to see an experiment, with piles of hay in more remote places, to see if Santino would hide rocks there as well.

Santino has made the meaning of his actions so conspicuous that only fools could doubt it. But sometimes even scientists line up on the side of fools.

In his book Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness, the eminent academic philosopher Daniel Dennett goes to considerable lengths to defend this attitude. He even invokes the legal standard "innocent until proven guilty" -- meaning it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that animals have any kind of intelligence, awareness, or sensitivity before it can be accepted by science.

According to Dennett, this represents the "null hypothesis," standard procedure in the scientific method. He doesn't seem to realize that the null hypothesis is merely an experimental convenience, and could just as easily be construed the other way around: Our null hypothesis could be that animals are sensitive, aware, and intelligent -- unless and until proven otherwise.

Dennett hides his prejudice behind the seemingly innocuous "innocent until proven guilty" standard -- without realizing he has actually declared animals guilty until proven innocent. We cannot believe they have minds, he says, until someone can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they do.

Scientists are deeply mistrustful of anything that might be interpreted as anthropomorphism, the tendency to attribute human qualities to rocks, trees, animals, and other non-human entities. But what about the equal danger of anthropocentrism, the insistence that certain abilities are unique to humans? For some reason that intellectual prejudice is not so worrisome within the scientific community.

Science does exceedingly well at understanding issues remote from the scientist -- stars and galaxies, atoms and electrons. But the capacities of animals happen to throw an oblique light on the scientist himself, and so introduce an element of self-interest and distortion.

Fortunately, the scientific method is designed to correct for that kind of imbalance, given sufficient time and opportunity. Let's hope the behavior of Santino helps hasten the arrival of that day.

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