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Animal minds: What you already knew but weren’t supposed to …

A curious feature of science literature in a materialist age is the frequent appearance of stories about things everyone knows are true that we are now assured are “proven by research.” Take the fact that animals have personalities: This ScienceDaily story (April 28,) and this related one (May 30, 2007) both announce that research shows that animals have personalities.

From the first,

An individual’s personality can have a big effect on their life. Some people are outgoing and gregarious while others find novel situations stressful which can be detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Increasingly, scientists are discovering that animals are no different.

and from the second, 

Animals differ strikingly in character and temperament. Yet only recently has it become evident that personalities are a widespread phenomenon in the animal kingdom. Animals as diverse as spiders, mice and squids appear to have personalities. Personality differences have been described in more than 60 species, including primates, rodents, birds, fish, insects and mollusks.

But who, exactly, didn’t know that already? Can one live, let alone work safely, with animals and not realize it? Put another way, why are there therapy dogs vs. attack dogs? Could they easily switch roles?

If research does not turn this up, so much the worse for research. The key question around animal personalities is not that they exist but their origin and extent – the fascinating question of  animal minds.

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11 Responses to Animal minds: What you already knew but weren’t supposed to …

  1. In defense of the original article, it wasn’t about the fact that cats and dogs or even birds have personalities, but that spiders, mice, fish, insects and mollusks appear to have them as well.

    If that’s common knowledge, I didn’t know it. So the “extent” is exactly what was being addressed.

  2. spiders… appear to have them as well…

    Gregarious spiders. Introverted spiders. “Therapy” and “attack” spiders. ISTJ spiders… LOL.

  3. I’m not sure I agree with the criticism in the original post. Quantitatively gathering data to support or refute hypotheses (and to extend them) seems like exactly what science is about. Quite a few things that were common knowledge to some have turned out not to be true.

    One might even say the entire goal of ID is to gather data regarding a hypothesis a large number of scientists act as though they know is true.

    As for the topic of the post, I’d say even bacteria have these differences in behaviors. Some call it “hedge betting.” Cells of a species that swim far might be favored in one environment, while stationary ones are favored in another. Some bacteria have mechanisms that ensure the population is always split between the two types.

    Spiders that stay stationary might do fine and avoid being eaten when prey is abundant, but when prey is scarce. might do worse than active hunters that risk being eaten.

  4. Strictly speaking, only “persons” have “personalities”. Science is not very well equipped to determine what a person is, in the first place. Claiming that spiders have “personality” is a part of the absurdity that the original post is criticizing. Moving from that to the “hypothesis” that “various organisms display different behaviors” is yet another illustration of the absurdity and bankruptcy of the Darwinian enterprise. It’s about as trivial a claim as one could make.

  5. Spiders that stay stationary might do fine and avoid being eaten when prey is abundant, but when prey is scarce. might do worse than active hunters that risk being eaten.

    Of course. But do relative amounts of movement constitute “personality?” Is the former depressed, or perhaps fearful, while the latter is extroverted or gregarious? Really?

  6. Great thoughts above!: Here’s mine: Science news often presents as a “big discovery from research” information that is common knowledge to people who live or work with animals (or maybe bacteria).

    When I was young, I knew which garter snakes in the ravine were aggressive and which would let you just pick them up and make them a (very brief) bracelet. You could call it disposition, temperament, or personality, but I would be surprised if a research study were required to validate it. If it were, I hope that the researchers will not announce their findings as if they are telling the world something we couldn’t otherwise have known.

    My view is that life forms have personality in proportion to their intellect, which means that most life forms have them on only a small number of scales (aggressive vs. passive; sneaky vs. confrontational, etc.). Human personalities, by comparison, can be graded on a wealth of scales.

    A personality simply means that one’s life circumstances, taken globally, result in a different sort of disposition from what one’s neighbour might have. It’s one consequence of having an individual history. So I would take for granted that animals, having individual histories, would have different personalities, without having great intellects.

  7. For better or worse, the first line of the paper is: “Where behavioural responses differ consistently between individuals, this is termed ‘personality’. ” So at least the authors define their terms, and are not trying to address personhood or emotions.

    “It’s about as trivial a claim as one could make.”

    I’d actually say that the claim that organisms, in many cases genetically clones (or nearly so) would exhibit opposite behaviors within the species is anything but trivial. Indeed, it challenges a 1:1 connection between genetics and behavior, and implies something in the non-’classic darwinian’ sense must be going on. Epigenetics definitely has been shown to play a role.

  8. “A personality simply means that one’s life circumstances, taken globally, result in a different sort of disposition from what one’s neighbour might have”

    Of course, genetics have a lot (most?) to do with personality. All three of my sons have extremely different personalities despite environment. And it was evident with each of them right from the start.

  9. I’d actually say that the claim that organisms, in many cases genetically clones (or nearly so) would exhibit opposite behaviors within the species is anything but trivial. Indeed, it challenges a 1:1 connection between genetics and behavior, and implies something in the non-’classic darwinian’ sense must be going on.

    Ok, but if we framed this in terms of hypothesis-testing, we’d have the Darwinian claim (1:1 correlation) and then the observed evidence (opposite behaviors), which as you correctly note, would be more than something trivial.

    However, we do not see anything saying that classic Darwinism has been falsifed here. It doesn’t appear that they were testing an hypothesis, but rather, just making observations and then patching together explanations after the fact.

    Isn’t that the way evolutionary thinking usually works? No matter what is observed, we can always find a way to explain how evolution caused it to happen.

  10. “However, we do not see anything saying that classic Darwinism has been falsifed here. It doesn’t appear that they were testing an hypothesis, but rather, just making observations and then patching together explanations after the fact.”

    If every author studying epigenetics, upon who found something beyond a simple gene-trait relationship bothered to mention it, we’d never get past that point. It is simply trite to even point it out. It would be like saying a chemistry experiment was inconsistant with ether theory.

    “but rather, just making observations and then patching together explanations after the fact.”

    I think the authors had a quite specific hypothesis and tested it. It may not have been the one you wanted tested, but…..

  11. 11

    If every author studying epigenetics, upon who found something beyond a simple gene-trait relationship bothered to mention it, we’d never get past that point.

    If every researcher had to stop and mention the fact that the biological observations conflict with the proposed evolutionary theory, then it would slow things down considerably.

    But I think you might be underestimating the importance of drawing summary conclusions and working from (and towards) general principles.

    What currently happens is that researchers do find these “little falsifications” of Darwinian claims. But instead of mentioning this, or more importantly, drawing the larger conclusion that the theory itself is inadequate — they just proceed as if the contradictory finding is an anomoly that can be ignored.

    This is driven by ideology. For the past 100 years or so, every bit of evolutionary research was directed at proving that Darwinian theory was correct. The idea that there is a unified, coherent and settled “evolutionary theory” is still, by far, the most dominant conclusion found in biology today.

    But now that it’s obvious that neo-Darwinian theory is false in its broadest claim, we find only a few voices willing to point that out, and even fewer who direct their efforts at undoing the damage that the errors of Darwinism have caused to science and elsewhere.

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