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Thought Capabilities of Homo Sapiens And Other Animal Species

Rachel Townsend's picture
Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life discusses, in great detail, the ramifications of Darwin's theory of evolution on human life and meaning.  While looking over portions of the book again, I found myself wondering more about some of Dennett's ideas and other species of animals.  On page 369, Dennett writes: "The invasion of human brains by culture, in the form of memes, has created human minds, which alone among animals minds can conceive of things distant and future, and formulate alternative goals." (1)  What interests me here is his complete dismissal of other animals as thinking or having culture.  While Dennett certainly makes great, strong points about human culture, even if I do not necessarily agree with him, he jumps straight to dismissing other animals and asserting that humans are the only ones with the capacity to "conceive of things distant and future, and formulate alternative goals." (1)  I was interested in this dismissal and thought it a great opportunity for playing the devil's advocate for a little while.
On page 330 of Dennett's book we are presented with a cartoon which seems to illustrate Dennett's later point about humans being the only creates capable of thought and future planning.  Figure 11.1 shows a sort of evolutionary chain starting with a fish emerging from the water onto land and ending with a modern human.  The emerging fish and three subsequent creatures leading up to the human all have thought bubbles above their heads with the words "Eat. Survive. Reproduce." in them.  The human, standing at least twice as tall as any of the other figures, has a thought bubble that reads "What's it all about?"  The author of this comic, seemingly along with Dennett, is asserting that all life before humans had no capacity for thought beyond the basics of life and that all the sudden humans began to think about all sorts of different things and to question the way the world was.  Clearly the modern human is being posited as above the rest of the creatures and all other inhabitants of this world are being cast off as inferior and incapable.  
But why? Certainly humans have more developed applications and manifestations of thought, but how are we to know that other animals are not having what we might call "higher thought?"  The simple answer is that we do not know.  We cannot know for certain that other species do not think about the future and what it might hold in the same way that we do.  While we see other species as acting on instinct and their biological incentives, acting out natural selection and reproductive success stories for us, we do not know whether beyond these actions there might be deep thought as well.   Animals such as gorillas certainly have a sense of culture and group dynamics, so it is not too much of an extension to say that they may also think towards the future in ways that are similar to humans.  Many animals show characteristics like this and even still Dennett is dismissing that they might have something similar to memes that they pass along which maintain their cultures.  Additionally the brainpower and thoughtfulness of animals like gorillas and orangutans can be seen through their creation and use of tools.  While Dennett might argue that this is a component of the "Eat." command, seeing as tools are often created for eating, we can also see this use of tools as evidence of thought towards the future.  The creation of tools allows primates to have a way to continue to maintain food in the same manner in the future, rather than needing to do this task in a different way each time the particular substance is eaten.  If we expand the way we see animals' interactions with the world we might find that they share more thought patterns with us than Dennett considers them to.  
Dennett might point out that other animals have not created vast empires (although, here, we may argue against this seeing as meerkats do seem to have done this) and do not have such sophistication in their cultures as homo sapiens, but me might also point out in rebuttal that many animals do not have the "tools" required of them to do some of these things.  Just because certain animals do not have opposable thumbs does not mean that we can prove that they have not thought of things which they might be able to accomplish if they did have those "tools."  Great things can only be accomplished if one has the mean through which to create the final product.  
Truly, it goes against the theory of evolution for Dennett to assert this lack of higher thought in all other animal life.  If other animal life had not thought of ways to make use of opposable thumbs then when they appeared thumbs would not have been of greater use and might very well have disappeared, not having contributed to survival, but with the thought which could then be executed with the appearance of opposable thumbs, that "tool" helped those with it to survive and those without to not.  We must realize that just because we can fathom certain things but cannot yet accomplish those things does not mean that they will never be accomplished but yet that some later mutation may help us to execute those things and thus survive better than current human beings.  Thus to think that all other forms of life as not capable of "higher thought" is to deny that we evolved from those other forms of life.  Certainly, thought comes before action and we find that in order for Homo sapiens to exist as we do earlier species must have had foresight and knowledgeable thought processes as well.  

1. Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.  


Paul Grobstein's picture

thought/culture: humans and other animals

"to think that all other forms of life as not capable of "higher thought" is to deny that we evolved from those other forms of life."

It is indeed interesting that Dennett would be so enamored of Darwinian thinking, including the notion of everything related by small changes to everything else, and then assert a huge gap between humans and other organisms.  I wonder what's on Dennett's mind, in his unconscious?  Maybe there's a skyhook there he neglected to notice?