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Nonhuman empathy

Sergio Navega snavega at ibm.net
Fri Feb 12 13:49:32 EST 1999

Jason Ebaugh wrote in message <7a1pge$euq$1 at news1.tc.umn.edu>...
>"Sergio Navega" <snavega at ibm.net> wrote:
>>That would, according to what we currently know about brain sizes
>>and evolutionary biology, appear to be pretty fantastic and will
>>prompt for a complete revision of most of the things we know about
>>biological organisms. "Unlikely" would not be strong enough a word
>>to describe this hypothesis.
>>Sergio Navega.
>Am I misunderstanding you here?  You claim that mentalism would
>require a complete revision of biology! With no offense intended, that
>staement makes me seriously doubt your training and understanding.
>Mentalism is indeed a force in behavioral biology. Many, hell most,
>phanomena of behavior are straining to explain with mentalism.
>Behaviorism is in no better shape. Also, the predictions of
>behaviorism continualy fail to be realized. Thats why classical
>behaviorusm was abandoned.

What is it that you call mentalism? I know this word meaning those
tricks that those guys in Las Vegas do to attract attention (and
get some money). It is just another magic trick.

But if you were talking about "mental states", on the cognitive
psychology side of the story, then I can comment.

You mentioned behaviorism and that discipline (if still existent
today) is against mental states. Since the cognitive science
revolution in the late 50's, things bent a lot to mental states,
leaving behaviorism alone in the dark. I'm against behaviorism,
but that does not mean I'll start putting mental states everywhere.

We can in fact ascribe some mental states to turtles, just as
a matter of populating one graph that goes from paramecia (purely
reactive, no mental states) to humans (reactive in some occasions,
but importantly driven by mental states). In that regard, I may
agree that a turtle is much more able to have some mental states
than paramecia.

But what I was trying to say is that the extent of what we call
mental states is very dependent on the organism being able to
*perceive* things. Perception is something that is not only related
to sensory transducer acuity, such as that we have in our eyes and
ears. It is dependent on what the brain does with that information.

To be able to empathize with a human, one animal must have enough
*perceptual ability* to discriminate eyes in a face. Not only that,
but also to *associate* that a certain orientation of the eyes mean
something in relation to the entities' *state of mind*. This
demands some kind of comprehension of that states of mind.

Humans are, obviously, able to do this, and so are chimpanzees
(to certain limits). Dogs are not able to do so much, neither
all animals in a lower evolutionary scale than they are.

One need brain power (neocortex) to be able to do that kind of
perceptual discrimination. A turtle simply does not have enough
brain to be able to discriminate eyes and associate their
position to a supposed state of mind. This is what we know
today from cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Sergio Navega.

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