Re: Love and friendship
Sat, 10 Jul 1999 08:10:34 EDT

In a message dated 99-07-05 14:06:25 EDT, (Robert J. Bradbury) wrote:

> The consciousness question, begs the self-awareness issue. Psychologists
> have a very good test for that -- the "mirror test". If an animal looks
> into a mirror, does it recognize that it is seeing itself or does it
> think it is another animal?
> I think most psychologists would claim that only the great apes
> can reliably pass that test, with chimpanzees coming out on top.
> I've had people claim that their cat can pass this test -- but
> does it happen on the first encouter with the mirror, or is it
> simply a learned response?

As a sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent home to lemurs, our house provides a great place for observing the "low end" of the primate spectrum. Our newest addition, a three month old ringtail named Newton, just discovered mirrors last night. (At this age a lemur corresponds in lemur-terms to a young toddler, I'd say.) Like the others we've fostered or adopted before, he immediately perceived the mirror as a hole in the wall with another lemur on the other side. Newton's social instincts kicked in and he instantly jumped to go through the "hole in the wall" to interact with the "other" lemur -- with predictable results. Within seconds, he was involved in a detailed exploration of this new phenomenon, making small movements and watching the image in the mirror. As with every other lemur I've watched do this, Newton then settled into a session of absorbed staring into the mirror. What DIDN'T happen is behavior typically triggered by the presence of another lemur, i.e. social signaling.

The grand old man in our house, a six year old brown lemur named Darwin, seems to know exactly what's going on with mirrors. He'll spend a little time checking himself out and even use the mirror to play games with us and other animals in the house (his mastery of mirrors clearly giving him an advantage in the game of cat-and-lemur).

> Whether self-awareness and consciousness are the same is open for
> discussion. I would say that all animals have some level of
> "consciousness" because consciousness is that part of the brain
> that selects a behavior or action in response to a stimuli
> (external or internal). However, just because your dog is
> "looks" consious doesn't mean it is "self-aware". After thousands
> of years of selective breeding, of course it is going to look like
> there is something going on behind those big brown eyes, and of
> course it is going to have behavior patterns (including learning
> stupid dog tricks...) that make *you* think there is someone home.

Well, lemurs certainly haven't been selectively bred by humans. With patience, my wife and I have learned to mesh instinctive human and lemur social behaviors with a common suite of learned behaviors on both sides of the widest possible gap between primates. While there's no question in my mind after years of study and personal interaction with these little creatures that their minds are far simpler than ours, I feel pretty sure that there's some minimal level of "consciousness" in there. They use tools after a fashion (Darwin uses small objects to scratch his back and inside his ears, choosing them carefully, and knows how to use a doorknob) and they concoct simple plans in pursuit of their constant desire to stir up mischief.

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
     Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                      -- Thomas Huxley