Assessing the Beliefs of Animals

Candice Gaukel Andrews June 22, 2021 0
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Chimpanzees are adept learners and flexible in their behaviors, critical abilities that allow the animals to respond to changes in their environments. Flexible behavior can be interpreted as caused by beliefs.

If you asked any wildlife fan or pet owner if animals have beliefs, I’m guessing their answers would almost all fall within the “yes” category, based on observations and anecdotal evidence. Science, however, is always held to a higher standard: proof is required.

One of the reasons that such verification has been lacking is that there is first and foremost a problem with the question itself. Among animal researchers and cognitive science theorists there is scant agreement on even the meaning of the term belief as it’s stated in the query.

But now, researchers from the Institute of Philosophy II at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum, located in Bochum, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, think they may have a workable structure for understanding, empirically investigating and documenting animal beliefs. They have proposed four criteria.

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Crows are now ranked near primates in terms of cognitive abilities. Of course, this comes as no surprise to many cultural groups around the world that have long recognized them as among the most intelligent of animal species.

And that’s exciting news for wildlife advocates who’d like to see scientific confirmation of what they’ve felt all along.

What is “belief”?

For some scientists, belief has come to mean the “generic, least-marked term for a cognitive state.” This definition holds that if you look out the window and see that a cow is in the garden, you inescapably have a belief that a cow is in the garden. If you are aware of arithmetic, you believe the proposition that two plus two equals four. If you expect (on whatever grounds) that the door you are about to open will yield easily to your tug, then you have a belief to that effect, and so on.

Usually, however, the term belief is reserved for more higher-level thoughts, such as political beliefs, religious beliefs, or specific conjectures or hypotheses. For philosophers and other theoreticians in cognitive science, however, the noun belief and the verb believe have been adopted to cover both cases; whatever information guides the actions of an individual—human or nonhuman—is counted under the classification of belief.

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Scrub jays have the ability to remember the who, what, where and when of specific past events. They can recall where they cached a food item and who was watching them do it. In scientific terminology, this is called “episodic memory.”

Criterion 1: An animal possesses information about the world

In a paper published in the peer-reviewed, academic journal Mind and Language on June 16, 2020, philosophers and researchers at the university in Germany stated that the first criterion for the existence of beliefs is that an animal must have information about the world. However, this data must not simply lead to an automatic reaction, such as a frog instinctively snapping at a passing insect.

Criterion 2: An animal can make flexible use of that information

Instead, the animal must be able to use the information to behave in a flexible manner. This is the case when one and the same piece of information can be combined with different motivations to produce different behaviors. For example, an animal might use the information that there is food available at that moment for the purpose of eating it or hiding it.

Criterion 3: An animal can process aspects of that information separately

The third criterion is that the information is internally structured in a belief; accordingly, individual aspects of that knowledge can be processed separately. This has been shown, for example, in experiments with rats that are able to learn that different kinds of foods can be found at certain times in specific places. Their cognizance has a what-when-where structure.

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Border collies were bred to be independent problem solvers capable of handling complex tasks. When a border collie thinks it has a job to do—such as herding sheep—it makes its own decisions relative to the information it has and the situation at hand.

Criterion 4: An animal has the ability to recombine information in novel ways

The fourth criterion that the scientists came up with is that animals with beliefs must be able to recombine the information components in fresh ways. This reassembled belief should then lead to flexible behavior.

Rats have been shown to be able to do this, too. In March 2013, a report published in the science journal Current Biology showed how researchers using an eight-armed labyrinth demonstrated that the animals learned that if they received normal food in arm three of the maze in the morning, chocolate could be found in arm seven at noon.

Crows and scrub jays meet all criteria

The authors from Ruhr-Universitat Bochum cite crows and scrub jays as examples of animals who scientifically have qualified as having beliefs. One conclusive experiment with scrub jays was carried out by researcher Nicola S. Clayton in 1998.

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Elephants “mourn.” Wild mother elephants have been seen grieving over stillborn calves, and some elephants have even been spotted returning to and lingering for days near spots where their friends and family members have died.

Researcher Clayton found that when scrub jays are hungry, they initially tend to eat their food. When they are not hungry, the birds systematically hide the leftovers. In the process, they encode which food—peanut or worm—they have hidden where and when. If they are hungry in the following hours, they first look for the worms they prefer. After the period of time has elapsed in which the worms become inedible, the scrub jays head for the peanut hiding places instead.

What best explains this change in behavior is the birds’ beliefs about the worms being spoiled and their beliefs about the location of other food items. The animals also react flexibly in other situations; for example, if they notice that they are being watched by rivals while hiding their food, they conceal their provisions again in a different place later.

Flexible behavior, which can be interpreted as caused by beliefs, has also been shown in chimpanzees and border collies.

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Researchers have found that the songs of male humpback whales change every year, indicating that whale communities have active, changing “cultures,” much like our human societies do.

Believing in the beliefs of all animals

Although I may only be going on anecdotes, gut feelings and observations, it seems clear to me that the behavior of animals without human speech undeniably shows that they have beliefs and desires. After all, we already have proof that elephants mourn and whales have cultures.

It’s quite probable that many more species have beliefs. Let’s hope this new study and its framework criteria will scientifically prove it.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

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