Do animals think? By taking that question seriously as a subject for scientific research, Donald Griffin has written what may be one of the most significant books issued this year.
It is important not because the question is sensational, but because a highly qualified scientist gives compelling reasons as to why we all should begin to face up to this issue. If the answer were to turn out to be even a qualified "yes," it would have revolutionary implications for humanity's self-image and its view of fellow creatures.
Griffin has made a career of detailed research into various aspects of animal awareness. He is widely known for demonstrating the echo-location capability of bats and showing how it functions. He has gone on from that to ask more basic questions.This major and enlarged edition of his book has sharpened their thrust.
It should be emphasized that this is a scientist's book. It is scholarly, although quite readable. But it definitely is neither mystical nor anthropomorphic.
"The scientific consideration of animal awareness does not require . . . ascribing to other species anything approaching the human level of intellectual capacity-. . . postulating immaterial mental essences . . . or endowing animals with immortal souls," Griffin says. However, he adds, "A confident belief in biological evolution leads me to expect that although mental experiences of other species may differ greatly from ours, they will turn out, when fully understood, to share important properties with the entities we meet through our individual introspection."
Drawing on a wide range of examples -- from sign language experiments with apes to communication among bees -- Griffin shows why the issue of animal thinking, even of some kind of languagelike communication, is worth pursuing. He doesn't pretend yet to have any definitive conclusions. But there are many suggestive examples.
"Since insect brains weighing only a few milligrams can manage flexible two-way communications, the possibility arises that languagelike behavior may occur in other animals as well," Griffin says. And, commenting more broadly, he observes, "The flexibility and appropriateness of animal behavior suggests both that complex processes occur in their brains, and that these events have much in common with our own conscious mental experiences."
As noted, this is potentially sensational stuff. Many other scientists and scholars will quarrel strongly with Griffin. They are uncomfortable with the whole subject and tend to dismiss it as silly romanticism. Some question the scientific usefulness of such concepts as intelligence or thinking as applied to animals when these are so hard to define preciseley for humans. Griffin is careful to call attention to such objections. he answers them by showing, for example, that such terms as awareness, intelligence, or thinking can be given useful meanings that lead to fruitful research.
Such research is new. It is only beginning to reveal a different perspective on the animal world. Readers should take this book with reservations, for it is speculative. But there still is much here to think about. For as Griffin says, the implications "oblige us to reconsider deep-seated assumptions about human nature, and to inquire whether our kinship with other living organisms may be closer than we have been accustomed to recognize."