Cross-Species Relationships and the Minds of Animals

Human ideas about animals other than humans have a long history of being very wrong. So I think it’s perhaps an important part of advocating for animals to talk a bit about how they understand ‘what it’s like to be’ various animals. So that’s what this is an attempt to do. Of course ‘animals’ are not at all a homogenous group, so I’m mainly going to focus on the more intelligent social mammals and birds.

The particular phenomenon I want to focus on is cross-species friendships. There are broadly speaking two sorts of cross-species friendship. One is a friendship between an animal and a human – most obviously, the pet-owner relationship. This typically involves some degree of parent-child dynamic: the human keeps the pet in a sort of extended childhood, relating to its owner as a permanent parent. The other is friendships between two non-human animals of different species: a cat and a dog, a tiger and a dog, a cat and a crow, an elephant and a dog, a gorilla and a cat, even a hamster and a snake. All of the preceding can be seen on youtube, and I imagine pretty much any combination is possible. Here there’s likely to be a mixture of parent-child relationships, with a (usually female) animal raising an infant of another species, and peer relationships, analogous to those that would obtain between two animals of the same age.

What does this tell us about the animals in question? Broadly speaking, it tells us that they have the psychological ‘equipment’ to form certain sorts of relationships, but that the objects of those relationships are not specified. At the same time, the fact that such things happen quite rarely, and that in the wild, the great majority of animals form relationships with their own species, tells us that this equipment is primed to look for certain characteristics. A wolf, for example, will be most prone to relate to the scent and appearance of other wolves, but will potentially be able to respond in the same way to a different creature. Presumably the most important feature involved is movement – the main thing that all animals have in common is a shared ability to move in a certain way, with apparent purpose. Bilateral symmetry may well also be an important cue.

Now what jumps out at me is how similar this is to humans. Humans, like animals, are primed to respond to certain features that are distinctive of humans – the best way to see what those features are is probably to look at cartoons and dolls, where the key features are retained and the irrelevant ones not. And those features certainly make it easier for us to empathise with a being. Yet at the same time, the relationship schema itself is ‘open-ended’: it can be applied to any number of objects – the most important thing generally being that they can move in a purposive way.

So this seems inconsistent, to me, with the idea you sometimes see that animals operate ‘entirely by instinct’, in a way that humans don’t. What does that mean? In both cases we are set up to relate to the world in particular ways, and in both cases those ways of relating are open-ended. It might be pointed out that humans, unlike other animals, can understand the issue of whether another creature is really alive and really conscious – we can distinguish an automaton from a real creature. I have no desire to dispute the difference, but I think it’s a difference of degree, not kind. Consider: firstly, we don’t actually know or understand how things are conscious, so our ‘ability’ here is something that has taken long centuries to reach its current partial level. Secondly, a lot of people still believe for religious reasons that trees, mountains, or the whole universe are animated by a conscious mind. Thirdly, we are often taken in by automata, and need to investigate them more fully to discover their limitations. Fourthly, how long does it take a child to properly understand the difference between a living and a non-living thing? Does a young child operate ‘entirely by instinct’?

A related issue is the mutability of relationships. A pet dog, for example, might relate to its owners in a way that carried some of the character of a child-parent relationship, and some of the character of an adult submissive-dominant relationship. So it’s not just the object of the relationship that can change but its nature too. After all, two a hamster and a snake cannot be relating to each other in anything like a ‘normal’ way.

The reason I think we should pay attention to this evidence of flexibility is that it undermines the idea of a qualitative break between human and animal cognition. Animals are clearly not some kind of pure machine, fixed to always respond in the same way. They will usually respond in similar ways, but there is an undeniable open-endedness to them. On the other side, humans are clearly not purley ‘rational’ creatures, responding based on evidence – the history of humanity is the history of our stupidity, and most of our everyday actions rest on a large dose of either instinct or habit. And would a purely rational creature have taken hundreds of thousands of years to invent writing and agriculture?

Rather, the open-ended character of rationality is, I would suggest, inherent in consciousness itself, but only recognisable when highly developed. What observable difference is made by one reflective thought or one moment of self-consciousness in the life of a wildcat? What observable difference, in fact, is made by many, up until the point when they start producing a few crude practical innovations (like the forms of tool-use that chimps and corvid birds have developed)? After all, any well-evolved animal will be much better off if it acts on instinct or habit than if it tries to amass sufficient knowledge to rationally figure out what to do, so the occasional bumping or mixing of ideas (what is rationality save the putting-together and taking-apart of ideas in the proper way?) will be largely inconsequential to its life. Only when millions of years of evolution create a creature with the cortex to bounce ideas efficiently, and then marinates that brain for hundreds of thousands of years, slowly building up small adustments to the environment (that is, culture – innovations that can be passed down), does the idea-bumping pick up speed enough to explode and suddenly turn a certain creature into the most powerful species ever.

One might draw an analogy with fission bombs. There is no intrinsic difference between uranium with different numbers of neutrons shooting around, and different numbers of atoms fissionating to release more neutrons. But at a certain critical mass and energy, suddenly something new happens – a nuclear chain reaction. To a casual observer nothing could be more different and unrelated than a lump of stone and a nuclear explosion – but the difference is merely one of degree. We (individually? collectively?) are the explosion, and we are misled when we look at the lumps of stone and consider them totally unlike ourselves.

One Response to “Cross-Species Relationships and the Minds of Animals”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    Good post! My own thoughts about animal intelligence, and the fuzziness of the human/animal divide, are very similar to this.


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