Dittrich WH (1998) Book review of Allen & Bekoff (1997) on Cognitive Ethology
Animal Behaviour 56 1305-1307
Species of Mind. The Philosophy and Biology of Cognitive Ethology. By Colin
Allen & Marc Bekoff. London: MIT Press (1997). Pp.xxi+207. Price £29.50.
The authors of this book, a philosopher and an ethologist, champion Darwin
in an attempt to strengthen the foundations of a discipline pioneered by
Griffin (1976), namely 'cognitive ethology'. Unsurprisingly, they take the
nuts-and- bolts view that animals have states of mind which are real like
any other bodily features and which have evolved like such organs as
kidneys or stomachs. In this view, animals' mental experiences are
intrinsically intentional and form the basis for their individual
experience of consciousness. In the authors' conception of mental
experience it is the 'aboutness' of mental images that makes
intentionality a necessary ingredient whereas they remain uncommitted
In chapter 1 Allen & Bekoff attempt to argue that Darwin's thesis of
mental continuity can be assessed only by adopting a mentalistic
viewpoint. They claim that organisms have "mental lives" and the best way
to understand "mental attributions across species" is to use the framework
of cognitive ethology, which they define as "the comparative,
evolutionary, and ecological study of animal thought processes, beliefs,
rationality, information processing, and consciousness" (page ix). This
introductory chapter already makes clear that this book is more a
philosophy-of-mind book than a book about animal behaviour. Their first
subheading summarizes well the main aim of the book, to contribute to the
"naturalism about the mind" debate. This view rejects the Cartesian
insight that the mind is distinct from things around us but assures us
that it is part of the physical world. In this sense, mental states are
physically real entities and one would not be surprised if Allen & Bekoff
support neurobiological attempts to describe such mental states. However,
they consider an alternative approach to such a reductionist view: they
favour the approach to compare mental states of animals and they look for
credibility by adopting the Darwinian idea of mental continuity. They
explicitly link their approach with Griffin's cognitive ethology, shifting
the emphasis though. First, they are aware of the empirical deficiency as
well as primatocentrism of cognitive ethology, a trend they try to
overcome. Second, because of their view about real mental states they have
to establish intentionality as the focus of cognitive ethology replacing
Griffin's emphasis on consciousness. In Allen & Bekoff's approach, mainly
following Millikan's (1984) concept of behaviour and intentions,
intentionality is divorced from consciousness altogether.
Their claim that Darwin had already successfully used such an
anthropomorphic approach seems ill conceived for two reasons. (1) Although
Darwin was concerned with the study of animals' mental abilities and
stressed the continuity of mental abilities between animals and humans,
this area was just another arena for him to demonstrate the continuity of
physiological and behavioural functions in organic life, in particular in
the highly controversial field of 'the descent of man'. In this context of
proving the generality of the principles of natural selection one has also
to understand his often neglected work about 'the expresssions of
emotions', in which he brilliantly linked functional properties with
underlying structures shaped by evolutionary processes. Darwin's ongoing
contribution is to have demonstrated how the principles of evolution can
be used to understand organic phenomena which until then were merely
anecdotal curiosities. (2) Of course, his use of language was often
affected more by lyrical intuitions than scientific clarity and his
cultural background was that of the mid 19th century. Ghiselin (1969) has
no doubt that he was aware of these ambiguities when using metaphorical
language but Darwin's main aim was not to found a new discipline, ethology
or evolutionary psychology (but see his excellent work on earthworms), but
to apply evolutionary theory in fields other than taxonomy. Therefore, his
approach can be seen as very different from that of cognitive ethology and
his descriptions cannot be construed as contributing to "naturalizing the
mind by natural selection".
In chapter 2 the brief historical account of classical ethology and
cognitive ethology is rather disappointing, from taking literally Darwin's
anecdotal descriptions of behaviour, to a confusing interpretation of the
Clever Hans phenomenon (the issue was whether a horse was able to count
because of its clever conscious mind and not the nature of behavioural
studies as suggested in the book), to a highly selective characterization
of classical ethology (e.g. von Frisch's brilliant methodological
contributions are neglected). This chapter consists of disconnected
topics, whose tiresome confusions of internal states, mental states or
internal variables serve the place of argument. Statements such as "Hull
recognized only a small set of intervening variables, such as thirst and
habit...Hull also sometimes wrote as though the intervening variables were
merely convenient fictions, not be accorded any real status in the
psychology of the organism. Tolman recognized a much richer set of
internal processes" (page 28) seem to confuse important distinctions in
methodology between constructs, variables and inner states by simply
referring to the importance of animals' inner states as variables.
Postulating constructs and variables does not allow any conclusions about
mental states or, similarly, the reality of inner states to be drawn.
Allen & Bekoff resist this implication and claim in circular fashion
"cognitive ethology is also an important extension of ethology because it
explicitly licenses hypotheses about the internal states of animals" (page 37).
A brief but precise discussion, in chapter 3, of the very notion of
behaviour reminds the reader of the importance of conceptual
considerations even in merely descriptive studies on animal behaviour.
In chapter 4 one finds a casual discussion about the scientific
nature of cognitive ethology under the headings "cognitive awakenings",
"mental privacy" and "the behaviourist challenge". The initial discussion
seems narrowly informed by recent debates on the mind (e.g. on
higher-order intentionality, subjectivity, language) rather than
epistemological concepts (e.g. causality or scientific proof). In the end,
the authors' main argument seems that because one can distinguish between
stimulus-bound and stimulus-free behaviours, and behaviourists are unable
to explain stimulus-free behaviours, the latter are the natural domain for
cognitive ethology. Only cognitive ethology seems able to explain
stimulus-free behaviours by considering mental states as reason for such
behaviours. At this point the reader is left with the puzzling question:
what is, in principle, the difference between Allen & Bekoff's
stimulus-bound and stimulus-free approach to mental states and Lorenz's
(1950; internal drive model) and Lehrman's (1953; S-R model) approach to
motor behaviour as these approaches both rely on the distinction between
internal and external stimulation?
In chapter 5 the authors discuss the usefulness of folk psychology
and its smooth transition to an empirically based cognitive ethology.
Using a rather rhetorical style they challenge Stich's (1983) and
Dennett's (1991) attacks on the role of folk-psychological notions in
cognitive science. Stich and Dennett have argued that the contents of
mental states are necessarily underspecified and therefore, data based on
mental states would not qualify to feature in predictions and scientific
explanations of behaviour. Allen & Bekoff's main argument seems that this
issue cannot be solved conceptually, as Stich and Dennett argue, but that
it is an empirical question about the quality of data on mental states,
and is therefore unresolved. Do Allen & Bekoff believe that up to now
attempts to provide rich enough data from investigating mental states have
failed only because of the behaviourists' 'mindless' challenge?
In chapter 6 the whole dilemma of cognitive ethology seems nicely
captured in the opening paragraph on play in ants. Disappointingly, the
crucial question "How could Huber have seen or inferred pretense from the
behavior of the ants?" (Page 88) remains unanswered (not only for ants) if
one is looking for conceptually-based criteria supporting a mental-state
approach. After a brief, but informative discussion about the definition
of play the above question about play, pretense and intentionality is
applied to the social play of canids. At this point, I must confess a
bias: it has always been a delight to read Bekoff's studies on social play
which are stimulating, instructive and a rich source of information. One
must ask, however, whether the data really afford the kind of intentional
interpretations the authors suggest in this chapter. The topic of social
play is taken as a prime example to provide an empirical underpinning of
Millikan's (1984) concept of behaviour and intentionality. Millikan's
notion is strongly based on the historical role of behavioural traits and
finally the functional aspect of behaviour. Clearly, the design question
in natural selection and its usefulness is the underlying topic. For
example, the notion of the 'sign- stimulus' is replaced by Millikan's
notion of the 'intentional icon'. The main core of the book seems an
attempt to provide an empirical underpinning to Millikan's ideas in order
to fulfil the promise 'to naturalize the mind'. Certainly, providing a
conceptual foundation for studying animals' mental experiences would be an
important step for the development of cognitive ethology.
In chapter 7 a discussion of antipredatory behaviour is based for the
first time on animals' cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, the important
question in animal cognition, that is, whether animals use internal
representations is hopelessly confused with the crucial question in
cognitive ethology, that is, whether animals can make use of their own or
others' mental experiences. The author's confusing use of the term concept
may illustrate the problem. The view to attribute 'concept use' to
pigeons can be justified merely on heuristic principles. However, it is
completely different to postulate that pigeons can experience their mental
concepts and use them as stimuli, that is to subscribe to the ontological
position that the mind consists of real mental states as the authors do.
The notion of 'receiver psychology' (Guilford & Dawkins 1991) would
capture perfectly well the message of the chapter without relying on folk
psychology or mental states.
In chapter 8 the question is asked whether animal consciousness is
essential or dispensable for a future cognitive ethology. The reader
expecting an overview will find that, instead, the discussion, not
surprisingly from a theory-of-mind viewpoint, focuses on three problems:
qualia, sensation, and self-consciousness. Qualia refers to the
qualitative nature of the conscious experience, for example, the pleasure
experienced while bird watching. Allen & Bekoff now claim that we can also
say something sensible about the same birds' mental experience when being
watched even if we might not be able to share their experiences, rejecting
Wittgenstein's (1953) wisdom that even if a lion could speak, we would not
In their final chapter the authors present cognitive ethology as an
eclectic discipline that is not restricted to field studies but takes the
challenge of laboratory scientists (=behaviourists) seriously. Thus, the
whole chapter is based on an earlier debate between the authors and Heyes
& Dickinson as proponents of the behaviourist challenge. Certainly, Heyes
& Dickinson (1990) present good arguments (e.g. reproducability of
evidence, causality) that proof of intentionality cannot be gained from
mere observational studies and that experimental manipulations are
required. However, Allen & Bekoff have a strong point when discussing
shortcomings (e.g. narrowness of intentionality concept, ecological
validity) of Heyes & Dickinson's neobehaviouristic modelling of animals'
'intentions', based on the belief criterion (instrumental belief of the
form that a specific behaviour R causes access to some desired object) and
the desire criterion (desire for access to object is causally relevant for
behaviour R) in typical Tolmanesque tradition. In this debate, the whole
dilemma of, on the one hand, Allen & Bekoff's approach and, on the other,
Heyes & Dickinson's behaviouristic approach comes to light and the reader
can see that it is neobehaviouristic terminology and their use of it that
can as easily lead to false assumptions in this field as can the use of
Many of us believed that the debate about animals' mental states, at
least in the form revived in this book, had disappeared. The promise seems
that cognitive ethology is promoting new insights in the study of animal
behaviour by the adoption of mentalistic tools. The authors' make most of
the objections they consider into strawman arguments and they often use
rhetorical figures which can best be illustrated as follows. (1) All
animals are linked by continuity. (2) Humans are intentional animals. (3)
Non-human animals possess kinds of intentional minds. Would their
conclusion best be labelled as a typical post-hoc fallacy (since human
minds have appeared, they have done so because of the pre-existence of
minds in a continuous lineage of evolution) or a fallacy of composition
(since one can label one species of animal as intentional, one can
therefore find intentionality in the whole animal kingdom linked by
On the overall evidence, I would say rather that Allen & Bekoff are
obscuring present insight about cognitive processes in animals by
introducing conceptual confusions (e.g. empirical approach (see index),
stimulus-free versus stimulus-bound behaviour), adaptationist just-so
stories (chapters 6, 7) and mis- characterizations of evolutionary
explanations (e.g. pp. 72, 180). There are too many arguments by
assertion, too many unsubstantiated claims, and too many vague promises.
The book makes accessible the wide variety of problematic and
controversial issues in cognitive ethology, if read from a natural science
point of view, but is unevenly referenced and unreliably indexed. In the
index, the foremost popularizer of Darwinism, Richard Dawkins, is confused
with Marian Dawkins, a leading proponent of one variety of mental
continuity, namely 'emotional consciousness'. Despite the criticism, Allen
& Bekoff have done a service, however, by getting students of animal
behaviour to think about animal cognition in suitably complex terms, and
by offering what I think is a fine list of important issues in the study
of animal behaviour from Uexkull's (1920) 'Umwelt' point of view. They
remind us of the richness and multifariousness of animal behaviour and the
everlasting search for new questions in studying it. Yet has the book
increased our understanding of how animals behave? Regrettably, the answer
has to be 'No', or perhaps 'Not yet' for the theory-of-mind ethologists
telling their never-ending story.
WHD is supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Winand H Dittrich
Imperial College School of Medicine,
Division of Neuroscience at Charing Cross Hospital,
London W6 8RF, U.K.
Dennett, D.C. 1991. Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown.
Ghiselin, M. 1969. The Triumph of the Darwinian Method. Berkeley: The
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Lorenz, K. 1950. The comparative method in studying innate behaviour patterns.
Symp.Soc.Exp.Biol., 4, 221-268.
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Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
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