Monday, July 11, 2016

Yet More Egnorance

We haven't heard from creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor lately. (If I had to guess, I'd wager he's writing a book, in order to cash in on the unlimited religionist thirst to have someone with credentials confirm their world view.) That's too bad, because Egnor was a neverending source of amusement. He is, after all, the man for which the word "egnorance" was coined: "the egotistical combination of ignorance and arrogance".

That's why it's such a delight to see Egnor make a fool of himself yet again, with this Discovery Institute column about animal intelligence and language.

Egnor claims that "cats can't do logic, mathematical or otherwise, and they never will". Here is one of his arguments in support of this claim: "they don't do logic. Because they're cats." Well, that was certainly convincing.

Showing that Egnor knows even less about logic than he does about evolution, Egnor goes on to claim that "A logical statement is true inherently, independently of the particulars that occupy the place-holders". Really? This will certainly be news to actual logicians, who labor under the delusion that a statement like "for all x, there exists a y such that x = 2*y" is a false statement in the logical theory known as "Presburger arithmetic".

Like most religionists, Egnor seems to have a real need to believe that people are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. He claims that "What distinguishes men from animals is this: men, but not animals, can contemplate universals, independently of particulars. Animals cannot contemplate universals. Animal thought is always tied to particular things." He goes on to claim, "Animal thought lacks abstraction" and "In fact, an animal cannot think about universals, for the simple reason that animals have no language."

How does Egnor know these things? He offers no empirical evidence in support of his claims. Empirical evidence is absolutely necessary, since there is nothing logically impossible about animals thinking abstractly. After all, Egnor's own holy book, the bible, depicts talking snakes and talking donkeys. While I am amused to see Egnor undermine the claims of his own religion, animal language and thought are questions that have to be resolved scientifically.

And there is an area of science that is actively interested in testing these kinds of claims, although you'd never know it from reading Egnor. It is a branch of ethology, which is the science of animal behavior. (I am not an ethologist by any means, but I can recommend the eye-opening books of primatologist Frans de Waal.) Contrary to Egnor's claims, the evidence for animal language is quite strong, although of course there are doubters. Animal language exists in many different animals, including bees, elephants, dolphins, baboons, and whales.

So how does Egnor back up his claims? By citing Aristotle. That's it. He writes, "This rudimentary fact about animal and human minds was noted by Aristotle, and was common knowledge for a couple thousand years. Moderns have forgotten it, and it has led to a morass of confusion about animal minds and the differences between human and animal thought."

I suppose if one's worldview depends on a 2000-year-old book written by people lacking scientific knowledge of the universe, then it's not a stretch to get your understanding of animal language and thought from a philosopher who lived 2300 years ago, and who simply asserted his claims without doing any experiments at all.

There is also evidence for abstract thought in animals other than people. Evidence exists for dogs, baboons, and crows, to name just three examples. Of course, all these examples are debatable (although I find these and others pretty convincing), and will likely continue to be debated until we know more about how abstract concepts are represented and processed in brains. Nevertheless it is pretty obvious that this is a question that, at least in principle, is capable of being resolved empirically.

I'll conclude with the words of David Hume: "no truth appears to me more evident than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as man. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant." Or maybe that should be "egnorant".


Steve Watson said...

As it happens, I'm reading some of Aristotle's biology. It's interesting to note the things he got right (e.g. that scale and feathers are "analogous") and the things he got wrong (e.g. that insects don't breathe). Aristotle deserves credit for his early attempt at doing empirical science (in contrast to his teacher Plato), but there was a whole world of stuff he had no effective way of investigating at the time. Using Aristotle as some sort of authority is ridiculous.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Nobody can deny that Aristotle was smart for his time, but there's no way someone living 2300 years ago can compete with all the knowledge gained in the last 500 years using the scientific method. Why people have this crazy reverence for ancient thinking is a real mystery to me.

JimV said...

There was a documentary on animal intelligence on PBS years ago that refutes Egnor. It demonstrated, among other examples, that a five-year-old chimpanzee has better abstract reasoning than the typical five-year-old human (since brain development in humans takes longer).

A child is shown a room with various furniture and objects in it, then shown a small scale model of the same room with the same objects, with verbal explanations, e.g., "See, the big room has a big couch next to a wastebasket, the small room has a small couch next to s small wastebasket." Then they show the child a banana, and tell them, "I have hidden a banana in the big room. If you find it, you can have it." Next they take a small model of a banana and place it in the scale-model, behind a cushion on the couch, or in a cabinet drawer, or in the empty wastebasket, telling the child, "The banana is in the same place in the big room as it is in the small room." The child then runs into the big room to look for the banana and does so randomly, in several trials, even after being shown the banana is where it was in the model. The child cannot make the abstract connection between the big and small rooms.

A five-year-old chimp is given the same test (with the same demonstrated explanations). It immediately runs into the room and looks where it was shown to look in the scale model, and finds the banana.

My conclusion from this and lots of similar evidence is that there is a spectrum of reasoning ability among animals, and we happen to seem to be on the top of it, on this planet, just as giraffes have the longest necks and whales have the biggest volume. Some animal species had to be on the top, or tied for the top, and we happen to the one. It doesn't prove that we are special in any universal sense, just randomly lucky.

Chris B said...

There's also this study, which to me seems to show ravens can think abstractly.

Bugnyar, T., S. A. Reber, and C. Buckner. 2016. Ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors. Nat Commun 7. Article number:10506doi:10.1038/ncomms10506

Unknown said...

'Science' has this latest news on animals (ducklings) and abstract thinking:

It seems to me that people like Egnor have a crazy reverence for ancient thinking because obsolete science doen's contradict their believes.

Unknown said...

PS. See also: