By Derek S. Jeffreys, The American Journal of Bioethics, Fall 2002
This book should disabuse anyone of the idea that animals are unthinking machines or creatures that act solely on instinct. Presenting extraordinary data about animal behavior, Donald R. Griffin persuasively shows the presence of cognitive activity in some nonhuman animals. Unfortunately, he also endorses a simplistic philosophy of mind that undermines his thesis that animals have consciousness.
Griffin structures his book with initial chapters considering objections to animal cognition, multiple chapters devoted to research on animal behavior, and concluding chapters considering the philosophical and scientific import of animal cognition. Behaviorism, he argues, arbitrarily denied animal cognition, and now that it is largely discredited, we should be more open to the idea of animal consciousness. Considering behaviors ranging from finding food and using tools to language and symbolic communication, Griffin argues that animals have thoughts and develop concepts. For example, he presents a wonderful account of how honeybees develop complex systems of signals and dances to communicate food sources, house hunt, and alter hive construction. He also describes the extraordinary level of language use and cognition in apes and dolphins. Using this data, Griffin reflects insightfully on the ethical and scientific significance of animal cognition, urging us to seriously reevaluate how we treat other animals.
A defective philosophy of mind, however, vitiates Griffin's insights about cognitive ethology. Early in the book when discussing animals, he pledges allegiance to philosophical materialism, stating that he will "take it for granted that behavior and consciousness (human and nonhuman) result entirely from events that occur in their central nervous system" (p. 4). However, he never defends this highly controversial assumption, and I could not ascertain which kind of materialism he endorses. For example, identity materialists argue that conscious states are identical with events in the central nervous system. Functionalists, however, identify consciousness with complex functions of the organism. Griffin seems completely unaware of such important philosophical distinctions, and his treatment of animal consciousness suffers as a result.
Griffin creates further confusion when he considers the physiological indices of thinking (chapter eight). Identity materialists often claim they can correlate neural activity and consciousness. However, after surveying the available literature on this topic, Griffin concludes that we lack such clear correlations. Without them, I cannot see how he can justify his claim that consciousness results "entirely" from events in the central nervous system. Moreover, he assumes that establishing such correlations would explain consciousness, but he ignores how consciousness and neural processes possess different properties.
Nonmaterialists often cite these differences when they reject identity materialism. Again, Griffin seems unaware of an important discussion in contemporary philosophy.
A more fruitful approach to the subject of animal consciousness would focus on intentionality, or the way consciousness directs itself toward objects. The classic approach to cognition in the European Middle Ages, intentionality was retrieved and developed by modern phenomenologists. By carefully exploring intentionality, we can define levels of consciousness. Griffin's data suggests intentionality in some nonhuman animals, but it differs drastically from human consciousness. Human beings have the extraordinary capacity to transform the material world around them into entities like beliefs. They can then construct second-order beliefs about these beliefs. In the medieval world these were called "second-intentions." Griffin offers very suggestive evidence that apes may form second-intentions, but otherwise he purports to establish animal consciousness by merely identifying a central nervous system and limited intentionality. This will not do asa sophisticated philosophical treatment of consciousness.
Griffin's book should be required reading for anyone interested in animal cognition. Nevertheless, it may lead the reader philosophically astray, and he or she should read it in tandem with a serious study of the philosophy of mind.