Irradiated by LabRat
This is slightly reworked and crossposted material from a discussion elsewhere, because I wound up spending my evening on that instead of spending it on a long post about sexual strategies, mate selection, and human gender politics as I’d intended. So you get this instead.
One of the problems with judging if another animal has something like “a sense of self” is that their minds are highly likely to be RADICALLY different from ours, to the point where they may not even really be comprehensible to us, as our minds are heavily rooted in our own perceptions, instincts, and frames of references. Our intelligences have as much to do with being hominids, with all the special circumstances and influences that go along with that, as they do with being intelligent.
However, we can infer basic things about the minds of other creatures from the kinds of behaviors they’re capable of, what we know about their senses and therefore perceptions, and what we know about how minds in general work. For example, since abstract reasoning is the last ability to appear in the development of a human mind and for developmentally impaired individuals it may never appear at all, we can probably assume that abstraction is a uniquely human innovation. Since all animals need to be able to find necessary resources and avoid dangers, we can assume that even a pre-mind in a creature without a proper brain is capable of setting up some neurological rules that make certain kinds of tasks much simpler. It’s the areas in between that have the question marks on them, especially with respect to animals that are quite complex but not human.
What we really don’t know- and we try to infer when we do behavioral and psychological research- is which things are human innovations that go along with great intelligence, and which things are actually necessary tools for any animal that behaves in a complex fashion in a given context. If you’re going to swim efficiently, you need to have fins, and it doesn’t matter that much except to the details of what you’re doing whether you have a bony fish’s spined fin, a shark’s smooth one, a whale’s tail and flippers, a seal’s modified paw-flippers, or a human’s rubber fins; it’s just a tool that makes swimming much easier and you won’t be half as good at it without, which is why no animal that spends a lot of time free-swimming doesn’t have a structure like this. To borrow terminology from one of my favorite science writers, the exact kind of fin or flipper the animal has- the specific parts on a fish, shark, whale, seal, or human with special tools- are parochial features, unique to that species or general family of animals, but the existence of flippers themselves- a broad, flat surface attached to a limb and used to make moving in water more efficient- are universals, a ubiquitous or nearly-so solution to the same problem, innovated many times over. Lungs and gills are parochials; blood-rich areas of tissue with maximized surface area used for gas exchange from air or water to blood are universals. Chemotaxis, hunting, gathering, and filter-feeding are parochials; foraging is a universal.
My question is: what mental tools are similarly necessary to be a complex social animal? I think self- not our convoluted inner worlds that humans experience that let us do things like plot revenge or write poetry about how fall makes us feel, that’s a parochial, but a very basic sense of “I”- may well be a universal. “I” doesn’t need to be profoundly complicated just because human selves are; if that kind of logic held, then sharks would be unable to swim between continents because they haven’t got submarines. “I” need only function so far and be exactly as complex as the animal requires- and the very presence of abstraction in human thought, and its deep attachment to how we think about ourselves, makes even thinking about the prospect difficult for us. In order to start wrapping your head around the most simple I, strike up a conversation with your nearest available three-year-old. For now, back to dogs.
In training, we know that relationship matters- whether or not the dog trusts you to know what you mean and be consistent, whether the dog trusts you to protect him (and thus does not feel that he has to deal with a “threat”, like an approaching tall man with a weird umbrella, himself), whether or not the dog respects your ability to lead and to enforce your leadership. Those factors- the way the dog tracks your individual behavior and the way you behave in relation to him- influence how fast or well the dog will learn, as well as whether or not the dog will even bother to try.
In a broader context, sociobiologists are seeing in more and more and more and more varied different sorts of social animals (other than insects) that a hugely important factor, maybe THE important factor, to animals that can have complex socal groups is their ability to remember cheater/cooperator distinctions with individual members of their group. This is the most basic form of relationship- and also happens to require a certain advanced ability to distinguish individuals, remember them individually, and remember how they behaved toward you specifically… and if we’re going to get into this level of complexity of distinguishing individuals and keeping track of their behavior, a basic sense of self- if only to have an internal point of reference, the central individual self, to relate all those external individuals to- is a simple solution to an otherwise complex problem. In other words, likely to be a universal among diverse groups of animals facing the same fundamental problem.
Speaking of complex problems, we also have learning to rapidly cope with chaotic and novel situations, and planning- both of which dogs can do, as any shepherd knows. Human trainers use stepwise small learning events to create complex behaviors by chaining them together until the dog grasps the entire sequence as a whole, but wild animals don’t work like that. A wild dog learning to hunt simply cannot rely on learning to capture prey by small, digestible, simple sequences that then eventually link up into a complete behavior; the way a prey animal behaves is FAR too chaotic and unpredictable to rely on that kind of learning, because the sequence would never be repeated in the same way, would rarely even be begun in the same way. Thus, the animal must make simple plans based on the rapidly changing circumstances, and be able to think in a flexible enough way to try to solve problems as they arise rather than repeating stereotyped sequences of behavior and varying them slightly.
In order to plan, you have to briefly project yourself and the other object into the future- only a few seconds or minutes at a time, but even so- it seems to me that this relies on HAVING a sense of yourself as an individual whose actions are under your control, rather than having a series of instinctual or rote responses for every possibility, which would actually be a vastly more complicated and inefficient system. So now we have self as an elegant solution to TWO problems (or three, when you add trying different ways of solving novel problems in novel situations, without necessarily having to develop a plan), which makes it even more likely to be a universal. Human trainers have to use the much more simple and stepped approach to teaching because, unlike a group of dogs on a hunt, they share no common language or frame of reference with the creature they’re trying to teach- thus, reversion to the simplest and most common shared vertebrate mechanisms of learning is the best approach.
We used to assume no animal but humans had a sense of humor, until we thought to thoroughly test that assumption, and we found otherwise. We used to think no other animal used tools, until we looked and found multiple examples. We used to think no other animals had culture, until we looked and found multiple examples across many intelligent and social, but otherwise unrelated species. (Obviously not culture as in Shinto and opera, but behaviors, innovations, and mannerisms that varied with local groups.) If the argument I’ve made suggests that other animals than dogs, perhaps some that are actually less intelligent, have a sense of self… well, I’m really not all that convinced we’ve looked all that well.