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We Think, Therefore We Floss

Descartes famously pontificated that animals were machines. Actually, Descartes was just parroting famous stoic philosophers from way back (Chrysippus, Diogenes, etc.). Not to worry. According to his own logic, Descartes, being a parrot, was a machine. (Descartes may have had an anti-theocracy agenda, but that’s another story.)

Darwin, a non-peer reviewed, non academic hyper intellectual, dared to show more subtlety in the Origin of Species when he wrote: It is a significant fact, that the more the habits of any particular animal are studied by a naturalist, the more he attributes to reason, and the less to unlearnt instinct” (1871, Book I, page 46)

I pushed that point of view further in Instinct Is Fast Learning”.

Lions premeditate when hunting in the wild. They spent hours plotting under the weary eye of their potential prey. They reveal each other presence by discreetly pointing up their dark circled ears. Lions are good scientists with a knowledge of the minds of others, and excellent geography. Don’t ask me for a link, I saw it done as a child in West Africa. A few days ago, I ran below a rock where a puma was contemplating a gigantic panorama. It was not just to admire the forests tumbling in the Pacific Ocean.

Some will feebly object to my use of the word “science”. I stand ready to devour them, having long premeditated this. Science means to know, and lion knowledge has to be effective enough to feed them, it’s an excellent thing. Take much of today’s physics: differently from aerospace engineering, it could be completely wrong. Planes fly, but not necessarily the Big Bang. Lion science is much more true than much of physics. Why? The proof is in the pudding, or more exactly the buffalo lying in his own blood.

(See note.)

Lions have to be very innovative. Protecting cubs require quite a bit of knowledge about physics and the ethology of various species. Including saurian: watch this lioness protect her cubs by deliberately attacking a crocodile. I have seen a lioness use what she knew to be the knowledge of antelopes have about crocodiles to foresee what said antelopes would do (and thus follow a trajectory that would make her prey fall under her claws).

That told me lions’ hunts depend upon a theory of other minds to feed themselves.

Alexi Helligar, objecting to my vision of lions premeditating when planning dinner: . “Birds do this as well, especially corvidae. Just because an animal is able to calculate a priori means to an end does not meet my definition of premeditation.”

Tyranosopher: Call it precalculation then! Some birds plan and make tools, others speak and outperform chimps mentally. Wild animals are smart. Underestimating the mental capabilities of animals is the first order of the rawest, crudest anthropomorphism.

Brazilian scientists are discovering that wild parrots speak and name each other (work in progress).

Alexi Helligar: “Overestimating the mental capabilities of animals is the first order of anthropomorphism.”

This reflects Ivan Pavlov who in 1927, wrote that animals should be considered “without any need to resort to fantastic speculations as to the existence of any possible subjective states“. The Oxford companion to animal behaviour (1987) parroted this: “one is well advised to study the behaviour rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion”.

Well that’s Conventional, not to say Communal, Wisdom (let me not think of other things communal). Claiming that animals are not like humans, that various tales for children with animals as if they were human, were completely wrong, is what a whole line of thinkers following a gross interpretation of mysteriously subtle statements of the Stoics, took for granted. It fit perfectly well their religions. That became the philosophical party line: animals have nothing to do with humans. Some, all too many, scientists have goose stepped behind that.

The simplest observations show that claiming that animals don’t think is completely unthinkable. To survive in the wilds, one has to outsmart animals, and it’s not easy to do. I have extensively observed animals in the wild. I still do this. Call it Ethological Watching (in analogy to Bird Watching).

Observing animals in the wild is like observing a human outside of a small cage: it’s very different. According to my theory of mind, the mind is constructed by the environment.


Experiments on rats support this: a rat in a richer cage has a richer brain. The richest cage of all is the grand wild outdoors. Hence a wild animal will have more of a mind.

I have had dozens of bear encounters, typically when I run. Once I charged two mountain lions within 15 minutes (cautiously establishing a prudent life-saving hierarchy of ferocity: charging the enemy is often most wise).

Last week, during a run, I was loudly growled at, by a mountain lion (whom I did not see it). We had a short, but complicated interaction. S/he clearly wanted to scare me off, as s/he crossed the trail I just ran on (and ran back minutes later, because my way got blocked by poisonous vegetation).

Reason for the unusual growl? There was a dog with some hikers barking in the far distance, and the lion got worried that we were together doing lion hunting, and was legitimately worried. Hence the attempt to terrify me away.

I used to follow lions on foot in Africa. Using plenty of psychology.  General psychology applies to animals. It is not anthropomorphism, it’s life-saving. It’s ethology. Paleolithic natives knew well this science. Their lives depended upon it.

The animal kingdom on Earth is a bit like the network of mind on the planet Pandora (represented in the movie Avatar). Animals communicate, and they use their common psychology to do it.

Crocodiles concur. Their flossing and tooth cleaning methods are arguably more advanced than ours (as we can’t invent tiny cleaning robots yet). They can use them only because both birds and crocs have sophisticated theories of each other’s minds. Even feeding sharks under water involves shared theories of mind. The sharks know enough to have figured out they should not eat the feeder, lest the feeding stopped, and that, if they behave cool and nice, they will be fed tuna heads.

Why to think that animals don’t think? Descartes and his fellow theocrats would have to admit that animals had souls. That would have opened a vast can of worms: do worms have souls, can I eat them? Does that make me into the Devil? (One should get carried away in attributing too much equality to animals as Peter Singer tends to do; the main danger there is that deference to the individual animal could lead to the disappearance of the species; say by forbidding the incarceration of the last remaining specimen while attempting to save species.)

However the logical thing to do is that, considering we are animals, other animals do like us, and think. It’s the most natural approach: when a reasoning, or observation, works, so should what’s not too far topologically.

This is the line of inquiry that was started in Paris in the 1950s, where Eric Kandel was told to study the neurology of Aplysia Californica. The idea was that STUDYING THINKING IS ONE. That is the exact affirmation of anthropomorphism.

And it was highly fruitful. Ever since, and ever more, the minds of animals, all the way down to the fly Drosophila, have been studied, and the result of these studies has illuminated the way humans think.

We Think, Therefore We Floss.

Patrice Ayme

Note: A French scientist just found 120 gibberish published articles written haphazardly by computer, another scandal in peer review. Much of peer reviewed published biology is irreproducible, biotech companies such as Amgen have complained. This for those who have whined that I do not publish among my non-existent peers. Let them steal instead.


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