Beyond Cognitive Hypocrisy

One thing that make’s Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics such an absorbing read, even today, is that it is unafraid to explicitly described chimpanzee behaviour in terms humans would recognise. There’s times when this approach less useful than others (comparing Richard Nixon and a chimpanzee’s behaviour strictly in terms of their reaction to losing power is pretty reductionist), but many more times, it illuminates the behaviour of the primates in a way that more removed, dispassionate language would obscure, a point reinforced by de Waal’s article in the New York Times.

Currently, the most influential and cited academics (such as Michael Tomasello) are the ones who disagree that non-human animals are capable of having even basic understanding of social dynamics, like intentionality. They prefer to explain the phenomena of sociality among other species (deictic pointing behaviour in primates, for example: see Leavens, Racine, and Hopkins 2008) as a learned response. Tomasello, 1999, for example, refers to such pointing as “ontogenetic ritualisation”: the apes have come to learn that when they raise their arm towards an object it is brought to them, rewarding and reinforcing the action. Evidence raised in support of this conclusion typically consists of behaviours that seem to indicate different motivations behind them, such as pointing to request objects rather than purely to share attention (Tomasello 2006), or pointing with the whole hand, like a begging gesture, rather than using the index finger (Butterworth, 2003). When responding to articles raising empirical refutations of these arguments (e.g. Leavens 2011), the claim is typically that since such behaviour could occur without any understanding of the semiotics of pointing, the more parsimonious conclusion is that it is indeed a mere learned response. De Waal’s comparison between the world of apes and of humans is therefore unwarranted anthropomorphism.

However, this admirable committment to Occam’s Razor evaporates when the same researchers investigate the same behaviour in human children. Tomasello (1995) argues that babies visually orienting themselves towards their caregivers indicates “the child understands that the adult is a separate person who has intentions and attention that may differ from its own” (p. 109). The thought that this implication may be unjustified is dealt with in a single sentence: “the conditioning explanation can never be ruled out completely” (p.109).

Indeed it cannot. As academics such as Daniel Povinelli have identified, cognitive science’s experimental approach is incapable of identifying evidence of ‘mindreading’ on the basis of observable behaviour alone, a critique they dub ‘the logical problem’ (Povinelli and Vonk, 2004; Penn and Povinelli (2007); 2013). However, Povinelli assumes this problem applies only to interpreting the behaviours of non-human animals as mindreading, when it should be perfectly evident that it applies as much to non-lingustic humans too. If chimpanzee pointing can be explained through simple operant conditioning, then so can human baby pointing. This is the point of Searle’s (1980) Chinese Room thought experiment: every behaviour, no matter how complex, could in principle be the result of possessing a very comprehensive set of rules and not ‘understanding’.


So the hypocrisy well-identified in de Waal’s NYT article (human babies laugh, ape babies merely ‘pant’) is obviously unjust, but it points to a more worrying void in the centre of contemporary cognitive science: nobody can possibly measure a ‘mental state’ (Leavens, Hopkins and Bard, 2008; Bergmann, 1962) as currently conceptualised (i.e. completely internal to the mind). They are hypothetical constructs that are retroactively imposed to explain their putative behavioural effects.

With this understood, we can see that this ‘cognitive hypocrisy’ isn’t simple anthropocentrism: it serves to prop up a failing cognitive theory. The essential assumption of cognitivism is that the world we live in does not contain enough information in it to account for behaviour. Therefore, the world must be reflected in the mind (represented), and these representations must be acted upon in some way (cognition) to infer the information and arrive at the rich, meaningful world familiar to us. In the case of gestures, they are taken to be purely abstract movements, where the meaning we experience from them (“hey, look at that”) comes from our mind taking the movements and inferring that an intentional agent must for mean us to share their attention (the inference is a ‘theory of mind’: see Premack and Woodruff, 1978). Mental states thus conceived mean the information for understanding the intentions of others lies entirely within the head and is absent from the material world, and are not available for scientific inquiry: hence the ‘logical problem’ of being unable to tell if a baby or a chimpanzee really means the same thing you do when they point.

Without this double-standard for apes and humans, behaviour is either understood as only its surface elements, without any mentalism involved, or inherently as meaningful. In the former, as de Waal points out, “Animals don’t have ‘sex,’ but engage in breeding behavior. They don’t have ‘friends,’ but favorite affiliation partners.” Behaviour, human or other, is rendered meaningless, or at most, the meaning is inaccessible. I find this perspective utterly alienating. Would psychologists treat their own social interactions with such distance? A world without meaningful behaviour, that requires intense study to understand, is a strange, frightening place, more often described by people with schizophrenia or autism (see Hobson 2009; Shanker 2004). Stanghellini and Ballerini (2011) collected fascinating stories from those suffering schizophrenia and the difficulties they have knowing what others mean (“I lack the backbone of the rules of social life”, p.187) and the detached, scientific approach they take to alleviate this dysfunction (“I study persons, I want to get inside them to understand how they are inside”, p.187).

The alternative is to accept that the world has meaning, and to do away with the assumption that we must infer it with some secondary social cognition hidden away in the cranium. Meaning is therefore inherent in the environment, rather than only in the mind, and it is avaliable for direct perception. As Gibson (1979) quotes Koffka: “a fruit says ‘eat me’; water says ‘drink me’; thunder says; ‘fear me'”. Meaning is available in the affordances of the environment and inherent to all behaviour. De Waal puts it well in the article: “Relabeling a chimpanzee kiss ‘mouth-to-mouth contact’ obfuscates the meaning of a behavior(emphasis mine, see also Froese and Leavens, 2014).

In this way I disagree with de Waal’s conclusion in his NYT article. What we require is not a ‘swing of the pendulum’, away from anthropodenial towards anthropomorphism, as though it was simply a matter of correcting a bias, or rebalancing a hypocrisy. What is necessary is a complete repudiation of cognitive science and its dualistic assumptions that give rise to the hypocrisy in the first place, to be replaced by a psychology rooted in the study of the material world, not hypothetical mechanisms of the mind.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Cognitive Hypocrisy

  1. […] There is a double-standard in psychology that claims that humans have unique socio-cognitive skills, and a prominent explanation for this is the Social Intelligence or Social Brain Hypothesis: that human brains are outsized due to the enormous complexity of our social relations. I have noted in previous posts that the skills psychologists assume are human-specific have been found in other animals, casting doubt on whether these social abilities are as unique as they insist, but we also have reason to doubt whether these social abilities are related to having a large brain. […]


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