Darwin’s Last Laugh

One of my strangest writing experiences was this essay for Nature (July 9, 2009). The opinions are mine, but the text and style are not. This is because first one editor went over it multiple times (communicating with me almost every day while I was in Italy), then another, then another, even after I had already signed off on the end product. These editors must believe that I am barely literate, so that my text needed all this work to make sense.

The essay reacts to an essay by Bolhuis and Wynne, who make fun of anyone so naive as to believe that animals have emotions, an inner life, and mental complexity. They’re convinced that animal behavior is purely based on stimulus-response conditioning, so why make a fuss about their accomplishments?

Several of my more provocative statements were removed (e.g. originally, I wrote that in relation to our closest relatives anthropomorphism is a “non-issue,” and that B&W had been “mocking” Darwin and anyone else who proposed continuity between humans and other animals, but both of these statements were considered too strong). So, what you have here is a watered down version of my essay.

The B&W essay uses the old trick of throwing bird examples at those who claim complex primate behavior. This has been going on since Skinner’s students “demonstrated” mirror self-recognition in pigeons. The argument was that if you can train a pigeon to peck at itself in front of a mirror, the chimpanzee who rubs a painted spot above its eye while looking into a mirror must be doing exactly the same. In other words, the chimp is not especially smart, because a pigeon can do the same. This is obviously untrue, because a chimp needs no training at all to react in this way to a mirror, whereas a pigeon does. No pigeon has ever been seen spontaneously adjusting its feathers in front of a mirror.

But this explains why B&W’s essay is full of bird examples: the goal is to bring down primate complexity. In contrast, my conclusion from Caledonian crows using tools or scrub jays planning ahead is that some birds just have astonishing intelligence. This is of course also the conclusion drawn by Nathan Emery and Nicola Clayton in their wonderful work. It doesn’t bring down the apes, but lifts up certain large-brained birds.

My essay just serves to put a few more nails in the coffin of Behaviorism, which ruled for nearly a century. It lumped all animals together since they all rely on the same simple learning process, and told us that “Pigeon, rat, monkey, which is which? It doesn’t matter” (BF Skinner). Most scientists, especially in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, have long since moved on. They are interested in adaptation and accept continuity, but we still have to occasionally deal with rearguard actions of the once dominant school of thought, which never fully accepted Darwin’s message.

— Frans de Waal


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