Animal Minds: The new anthropomorphism

Brandon Keim in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Photo_78602_landscape_850x566In recent years scientists have even found that insects possess evolutionarily ancient brain structures responsible for creating mental maps of one’s own place in space. Some researchers consider these structures foundational to human awareness; if they are, then insects, too, would appear to be conscious. Whatever it feels like to be a bee, it feels like something. What that something is, how instinct and awareness interact, how different forms of memory shape experience, how evolution’s convergences and divergences have shaped the development of cognition across time and circumstance — these are frontier questions now being asked. Science has come a long way from a reflexive adherence to C. Lloyd Morgan’s wariness of “higher psychical faculty,” or the famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s insistence that other animals are “conscious in the sense of being under stimulus control” and experience pain with no more conscious resonance than “they see a light or hear a sound.”

Other questions involve capacities like morality: Might its biological building blocks be widespread in the animal kingdom? Or what about motivation? After all, a human whose every physical need is provided for, but who doesn’t actually do anything except sit in a room, won’t be very happy. Beyond seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and procreating, what might an animal find fulfilling? “I don’t think I can understand that unless I try, with a whole lot of humility, to imagine what it would be like to be that animal,” says Becca Franks, a cognitive psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “Then you take those insights to create an experimental, data-driven paradigm. That’s how science proceeds.”

More here.