top of page
  • Writer's pictureCrone

The sliding scale idea

I mentioned last time that orcas might have some emotional complexity that we might not have.

Here I'm going to look at some of the evidence of skills which are different from ours, skills which approach ours and skills which may be greater than we assume.

Marc Bekoff suggests that mice and rats may be better at imitation than primates. Imitation has been regarded as an advanced skill suggesting complex intelligence and social learning. From my own personal experience with pet rats I am not surprised at evidence that rodents are smart. I noticed little cognitive disadvantage in dealing with rats as compared to cats. He also cites research suggesting that piping plovers who do the 'broken wing display' to lead predators away from their nests may show intentionality. Indeed, birds generally, though having very small brains and no neo cortex, show impressive intelligence in many areas - memory, sense of time, concept formation and so on. This suggests that an idea of a bird to mammal to human mammal trajectory is false and that analogies based on brain similarities are ineffective.

Lisa Feldman Barrett suggests than NHA can form concepts to a limited extent and can engage in social learning. The Kyoto Primate Research Institute has greatly expanded our knowledge of primate cognition. Previous research failed in that when chimps are separated from their mothers in infancy, rather than growing up in family groups, they - like similar children - appear at a cognitive disadvantage.

Dogs can regulate their emotional systems by resonating with their carer in the same way that mothers and infants regulate each other's 'body budgets' - to use Feldman Barrett's terminology. They also appear to have a concept of theory of mind, rather more developed than that of chimps. This skill is not entirely the result of selective breeding and socialisation with humans - wolves too show the ability to gaze-follow.

Primates, it is now suggested, are capable of an implicit awareness of death. While they may not know that they will die or fear death, they seem to have a concept of death.

The human capacity to reason, to use concepts, to time travel and to imagine is used as evidence both for the greater richness of our capacity for pleasure and the greater potential for suffering. I would suggest that in some cases this can give individual humans a form of protection against adversity unavailable to NHA. For example, research into the fear of predation has shown that snow-shoe hares can and do die of fear. In part, watchful behaviour leads to them eating less and in part the increase in stress factors is pathogenic. Confinement and the inability to escape from threats that do not cause physical harm have an adverse effect on their health and well-being. The same could be said, of course, of kidnapped humans in frightening confinement, but humans do have the capacity to overcome these emotional and psychological adversities. Consider the case of Terry Waite who was held captive in Beirut from January 1987 to November 1991, for the most part in solitary confinement. He said that this period gave him 'a unique opportunity to learn how to appreciate being alone but more importantly how to value silence.' It is unlikely that any NHA could find any solace at all in like circumstances.

The point here is that this cognitive advantage could, if one were to be strictly egalitarian about doling out harms and goods, make it 'better' (less harmful) to confine a wise person than a squirrel.

Moral individualism states that each individual's moral standing requires equal consideration, irrespective of species. But as we have seen, as it is not possible to consider the individual interests of all concerned in a decision, species becomes the heuristic. It's wrong to do this to cows and that to piping plovers, wrong to do this to squirrels and that to persons. This leaves us inevitably failing to recognise any scalar conception of values within other species, but also usually falling back on a hierarchy or ladder of being that is not scientifically supported.

That's enough for now!

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page