Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Time, animals, and how difficult is it to teach humans…

tempest, close-up

Stop the presses, scientists have just discovered something they think is groundbreaking new information: animals can sense and keep track of time. I have to admit, I’m sort of embarrassed for the scientists.

New studies suggest that the two directions of temporal travel are intimately entwined in the human brain. A number of psychologists argue that re-experiencing the past evolved in our ancestors as a way to plan for the future and that the rise of mental time travel was crucial to our species’ success. But some experts on animal behavior do not think we are unique in this respect. They point to several recent experiments suggesting that animals can visit the past and future as well.

Two of the problems I have with this is first a general disagreement with animals being used in experiments, and second that these recent experiments seem to be “suggesting” what is blindingly obvious if you just open your eyes and observe behavior of the animals around you.

There are the foxes who cache their food for later, and remember where they left it, even when a lot of time has passed. They do this for the future – even when food is so abundant they can’t hope to eat it all now, they understand that life is uncertain, and they could be injured, get sick, not be able to hunt/scavenge for whatever reason, or the food supplies could dry up. If that isn’t a form of “mental time travel”, what is, I wonder? That is just one example. I’m sure we could all look at the animals we live with and see the same type of understanding.

What is wrong with humans that we can’t seem to grasp the basic concept? We’re not as special as we like to believe. It doesn’t matter how many times it is witnessed, experienced, or “proven”, humans seem to forget over and over, only to be surprised when more “evidence” shows up. We have a lot in common with the other species we inhabit the earth with (I’d say “share” the earth with, but we’re not so good at that) and it should surprise us to find differences, not the opposite.

Scientists keep congratulating themselves for coming up with experiments that prove what is obvious to general observation. I suppose they’re worried about their jobs, based on these comments by the scientists in the NY Times article:

Other experts on animal behavior say that the study is compelling. Even Dr. Suddendorf, who has been so critical of previous studies, is intrigued by Dr. Clayton’s results. He said he wonders how long the birds can plan ahead: “Can they do this for an event next week or next month like humans can? Is it limited to caching, to just food?”

“It’s good to see people waking up to this,” Dr. Suddendorf said. “In five years the picture is going to look a lot clearer. The future looks bright for research on the future.”

Too bad humans have such a hard time figuring things out. They’re not stupid and they’re not unaware. The animals, I mean. The non-human animals. They deserve better than they get at the hands of humans. I’d be interested in Dr. S doing research on Dr. C to see why he and others are so resistant to the idea that animals are a lot more similar to humans than otherwise.

But really, that is obvious as well.

As another scientist said earlier this year when it was observed that chimps would make weapons to hunt bush babies:

Frans B.M. de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, said aggressive tool use is only the latest “uniquely human” behavior to be found to be less than unique.

“Such claims are getting old,” he said. “With the present pace of discovery, they last a few decades at most.”

magnolia flower

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2 responses to “Time, animals, and how difficult is it to teach humans…

  1. cherie April 6, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    What is wrong with humans that we can’t seem to grasp the basic concept? We’re not as special as we like to believe. It doesn’t matter how many times it is witnessed, experienced, or “proven”, humans seem to forget over and over, only to be surprised when more “evidence” shows up. We have a lot in common with the other species we inhabit the earth with (I’d say “share” the earth with, but we’re not so good at that) and it should surprise us to find differences, not the opposite.

    I couldn’t agree more with the above paragraph. Like you, I get a little tired of hearing how “special” humans are, etc., and I think that, if we were so special, we’d use our reasoning and supposed compassion a lot more often! (people in general, I mean!) 🙂

    To me, if humans are to be considered more intelligent than other animals (which I don’t ascribe to myself), then, that means that perhaps we should think more thoroughly how our actions affect other animals and how to protect them, with our “vast” knowledge.

    I like your discussion about companion animal insurance, too. It’s something I would like to consider.

  2. Deb April 6, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    I agree about how we should be putting our intelligence to use. It is the same if we look at the environment – if we’re so much smarter than every other species, why are we the ones destroying the only home any of us have? That’s not exactly what I would call smart!

    Glad you’re enjoying the discussion on “pet” insurance! More to come in the next couple days. I was looking into it partially out of curiosity, but having done so I’ve gotten myself pretty well convinced to go ahead and get some for my cat. 🙂

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