|Theory of Mind in the NY Times? Who new?
The New York Times
September 4, 2005
Deceit of the Raven
By DAVID BERREBY
It began with apes. In the 1960's and 70's, scientists taught captive
chimps to use words and documented wild ones using tools and planning
hunting expeditions. Then other smart mammals -- monkeys, elephants and
porpoises among them -- also proved to have surprisingly ''human'' mental
powers. And in the last few years, the circle has expanded to still other
mammals and beyond.
Last year, in the journal Animal Cognition, the behavioral biologist
Thomas Bugnyar described a twist in an experiment he was conducting with
laboratory ravens. The birds' job was to find bits of cheese hidden in
film canisters, then pry open the lids to get the food out. One raven,
Hugin, was best at this, but a dominant bird, Munin, would rush over and
steal his reward.
So Hugin changed his strategy: when the other bird came over, he went to
empty canisters, pried them open and pretended to eat. While the dominant
bird poked around in the wrong place, Hugin zipped back to where the food
really was. He was deceiving Munin.
To do that, Hugin had to grasp that ''what I know'' and ''what he knows''
are different. He had to understand, on some level, that other ravens have
their own individual perceptions, feelings and plans, just as he does. It
was big news when scientists found evidence that apes could grasp this.
That some birds can as well is even more remarkable.
Bugnyar and his colleague Bernd Heinrich have uncovered still more
evidence for avian ''mind reading.'' In another experiment, described in
The Proceedings of the Royal Society, they had ravens watch as a scientist
gazed fixedly at a spot on the other side of a barrier. All the birds,
apparently understanding that the big featherless biped knew something
they did not, hopped off their perches to get a look.
Ravens aren't the only animals getting an upgrade. Earlier this year,
Brian Hare of Harvard, Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and their colleagues showed that
ordinary domestic dogs understand what is meant when a human being points
at something (as in ''the food's under this one!''). Even apes don't
understand pointing, which suggests that selective breeding has left dogs
especially attuned to reading human minds.
People, of course, are expert at that -- knowing that another person's
winks, nods, sighs and shrugs are not just random twitches but the signs
of a mind inside that other person's body. We have an apparently
effortless understanding that the person across from us has her own
thoughts and feelings. That sense comes to toddlers, the theory goes, much
as language does: because the capacity to learn it is ''built in'' to
normal brains. Not being able to learn it is one of the defining features
of autism (and the reason autistic people have such trouble getting on
with the rest of us).
This ''theory of mind,'' cognitive scientists say, is what makes life with
other people so rich and productive. We don't need to be scared to know
that our children are scared. We don't need to know any tsunami victims to
imagine their grief and wish to help them. And if we're working together
and you point to the tool you need, I'll look at the tool, not your
finger, because I know your movements aren't about your arm and hand but
about the mind that drives them. Of course, this awareness (that what you
know is not the same as what I know) also gives me the ability to cheat
you blind. It once sounded, depressingly perhaps, like a trait only people
The significance of research like Hare's and Bugnyar's is that it adds
mind reading to the long list of skills we can't claim for our own kind
only. When it comes to mental abilities, animals aren't on the other side
of a chasm: birds and dogs, as well as apes and sheep, stand with us on a
continuum. And even as biology establishes that animals aren't automatons,
another challenge to our sense of uniqueness arises in the field of
artificial intelligence. Even automatons aren't acting like automatons
anymore. They're increasingly apt and lively -- less like machines and
more like living minds. The robot soldiers on the drawing boards at the
Pentagon will be able to understand orders and make decisions (including
decisions about whether to kill). Tiny computer sensors are designed to be
flung as ''smart dust'' over wide areas and to configure themselves with
no human guidance. Earlier this year, researchers at Cornell described a
robot that could make robots, a working example of machine reproduction.
Machine-based intelligences can also read minds -- at least at one remove,
after those minds express themselves in writing. Last spring a British
software firm released Sentiment, an application that sums up the tone of
press clippings with a handy graphic indicator (red frowny face for
negative, yellow blah face for neutral, green smiley for positive). It's
not perfect, but then, as the company notes, neither are human readers,
and ''human analysts are only able to process about 10 articles per hour''
while ''Sentiment is able to accurately assess the sentiment of 10
articles per second!''
So science is chipping away at the case for human uniqueness from two
different angles. Not only is it showing that animals are more like us
than we believed but it is also making machines that are more like us than
we believed possible.
What happens, as these trends continue, to the familiar guideposts for
deciding what is human? How will people decide, without a checklist of
yes-no criteria for human standing, who, or what, is entitled to
privileges and rights? The history of human groupishness -- our tendency
to divide ourselves up by color, language, religion, sex, ideology and
many other criteria -- hints at a possible answer.
For millennia, humans have been capable of sending help to total strangers
because they're perceived to be like us -- fellow Americans, fellow
Muslims or fellow men. We're also capable, of course, of declaring that
Those People, over there, act and talk and smell so strange that they need
not be considered human.
As machines get smarter and animals are shown to be more mindful, perhaps
the same rhetoric will be applied to them. In a few years you may be
reading an article that sympathizes with a plucky little robot, working
hard to do a tough job -- just like me! Or asked, on the other hand, to
revile the depraved, barbaric monster robots of the enemy. And people who
want to sell you lobster dinners will tell you that lobsters are alien
''bugs'' that don't feel pain. While people who want lobsters to be left
alone. . . . Well, actually, they're already at it.
In 1995, Mary Tyler Moore wrote an appeal for lobsters, saying they're
''fascinating beings with complex social interactions, long childhoods and
awkward adolescences. Like humans, they flirt with one another and have
even been seen walking 'claw in claw'! And like humans, lobsters feel
In other words, even as the clear list of differences between human and
nonhuman gets shorter, the ancient rhetoric of Us and Them remains. People
will never have any trouble dividing the human from the nonhuman. We've
been doing it to one another for thousands of years.
David Berreby is the author of ''Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal
Mind,'' to be published by Little, Brown next month.
* Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company