I've enjoyed Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast so far, but chapter 4 (Animals) is very irritating. Wolpert initially argues (by repeated assertion, not a fantastic method of argument) that animals have no concept of causality. The rest of the chapter is stuffed with illustrations of animals having concepts of causality, which somehow don't count because animals don't have concepts of causality. Animals never make tools, apart from several species including New Caledonian crows which have impressive tool-making skills, but they don't count for some unstated reason. Animals never assemble separate objects into tools, apart from the chimpanzees who levelled an anvil by packing a stone under it (Wolpert admits that this is an example of physical causal understanding, but will only admit that it shows chimpanzees are "at the edge of causal understanding"). Rats and pigeons can watch a trained rat or pigeon moving a lever to get food, and will choose to move the same lever, but because they don't move the lever in the same way, that's evidence against their having concepts of causality (what?). And so on.

I know where Wolpert's heading. He's a "strong humanist" - humans have some sort of vril or soul (although being a scientist he's not going to call it by either of those names), and animals don't. The RCP cult on usenet used to waffle on in nature/nurture debates about humans having some special quality which means they transcend questions of nature or nurture because of their power to act as conscious agents. It's a rejection of materialism, by people who can't bear to think of themselves as not being materialists (which is why they are never clear about what this special pixie-dust is that humans are sprinkled with and animals are not). A shuddering revulsion at the thought that we might actually have more in common with monkeys, pigs, dolphins and crows than we like to think.

No comments: