Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sagan And Bronowski On Animal Intelligence

In the Norton Reader, 5th edition, shorter, Carl Sagan's piece "The Abstractions of Beasts" is separated by only a single page containing some insignificant scribbles by Henry David Thoreau from "The Reach of Imagination" by Jacob Bronowski. The title of Sagan's piece is explained in its first sentence:

"Beasts abstract not,” announced John Locke, expressing mankind’s prevailing opinion throughout recorded history.

(It may have prevailed somewhat less in some other cultures than in Western Civilization but anyway) Sagan then goes on to convincingly disagree with this prevailing opinion. Perhaps not quite as uniformly prevailing now as when Sagan's book The Dragons of Eden, containing this piece, was published in 1977. The studies of Jane Goodall and the sign language skills of several apes which Sagan describes in the piece have in the meantime become extremely famous.

To my surprise, Brownowski's piece, published in American Scholar in 1967, does not deviate at all from the prevailing opinion that human imagination is special and different from anything possessed by any other species. Sagan describes the shortcomings in studies which had agreed with the prevailing opinion, concluding that human brains contain something unique, such as when researchers raised a human and a chimpanzee infant together, and actually thought that if the chimp were as smart as the humans, it would speak at around the same age as the human. Sagan gives due credit to Beatrice and Robert Gardner for pointing out that these studies ignored the differences between human and chimpanzee pharynxes and larynxes. As well as mentioning that the chimp, overcoming enormous physical difficulty, actually could say "Mama," "Papa" and "cup," which was news to me and which I find amazing.

Perhaps if Bronowski had lived long enough to read Sagan's piece he would have changed his mind about a few things. As it is, his piece records the failure of some experiments to demonstrate animal intelligence, and he asks, "Where is it that the animal falls short?" Unlike Sagan, he appears to have given no consideration to the possibility that it was the experiments which fell short in finding what intelligence was there in the beasts. In a piece entitled "The Reach of Imagination," his own imagination ironically does not reach far enough to question whether the experiments were sufficiently well conceived and performed to do justice to whatever intelligence the tested animals might have had.

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