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Matthew Scully
New York Times

Stephen Budiansky

If a Lion could Talk

Animal minds can be something of a puzzle. Sometimes they seem to exhibit almost human behaviour, but we need to beware of excessive anthropomorphism.In If a Lion Could Talk: How Animals Think Stephen Budiansky discusses how to make sense of animal thought.

The book starts by looking at animal intelligence, showing how examples such as 'Clever Hans' turned out not to be as impressive as they seem. Budiansky also discusses tool use, and the ways that animals can map out their environment. For instance, experiments are described which test the ability of bees to communicate directions, looking at how they can get it wrong. The book also looks at language, and the arguments about whether it is unique to humans. Certainly there have been claims that chimps have learned the use of language, but Budiansky questions whether this is any different from some of the button pressing tests which pigeons have mastered. There is also discussion on the nature of animal minds and animal consciousness.

Scientific experiments generally need a 'null hypothesis', and in the case of the experiments described in this book, this is that animal behaviour can be explained by simple responses, rather than by detailed understanding. The result is often that, yes, it can be explained with this null hypothesis. The danger is that it is then all to easy to believe that this is the explanation of animal behaviour. I don't think Budiansky has this point of view, but sometimes thats what seems to come over in the book - I felt he could have done more to steer away from this. He does make clear his respect for animals though, his point being that we should judge them on their own terms, not on how similar they are to humans.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews