An article from the Christian Science Monitor a few years back made me think how common knowledge runs ahead of science, but without the rigorous evidence. The article is “Ravens might possess a Theory of Mind, say scientists.” Of course they do. The ravens, that is. So do many other animals. It’s pretty obvious when watching them interact on a daily basis. We’ve over-flogged the idea of “instinct,” using it as a way of preserving the biblically-inspired idea that people are separate from animals. We can be an arrogant species. We say we get to determine when other species are intelligent or not. When they do something smart we say, “That’s just instinct.” Is it? How do we know that? And isn’t “instinct” one of the greatest fudge factors ever invented?
We do not know what consciousness is. We claim it for ourselves and a few of our favorite animals only. The ravens in the article show by their behavior that they know, or assume they know, what others are thinking. I’m always struck how experiments set up to measure this assume a human frame of reference. Paint a spot on an animal and place it in front of a mirror. If it shows curiosity about the spot it has a self-awareness, a theory of mind. Maybe other species aren’t as concerned about zits as we are. Maybe they consider it vain to fawn over themselves. Maybe they use sight in coordination with scent and hearing to identify themselves. No matter what, at the end of the day we must say how our intelligence is superior. (Then we go and elect Trump.)
Scientists have to be skeptical—that is their job. Looking for evidence and coming up with hypotheses and theories and whatnot. That’s how the scientific method works. The scientific method, however, isn’t the only way of knowing things. We learn and animals learn. We like to think our “theory of mind” makes us unique, but watching how animals interact with each other, even when they don’t know someone else is watching them, shows more sophistication than we normally allow. Nobody has to be convinced that the corvids are intelligent birds. Their lives are different from the nervous little finches and wrens, however. Does that mean wrens and finches have less developed minds? I think not. Until we learn how to think like animals we have no business claiming that they have no theory of mind. Maybe if we could define consciousness we might have a claim. Right now, though, all we have are instincts to go on.