“Animal minds research fits into the department of philosophy because in philosophy we're interested in the nature of mind and what is the mind. So, how do I know you have a mind? How do I know anyone has a mind? I know I have a mind, I experience it, but I have to kind of guess that you have a mind, or figure it out, or just treat you like you have a mind. And so, we can ask the same questions about cats and dogs and dolphins, and if we're interacting with our dog and our cat, we just treat them like they have a mind. So, we see their minds the way we see other human minds but how do we justify our belief in their minds? That's when the philosophy part comes in.
We had a cat who adopted us when I was very small, and we were living in California and the cat just came to our backyard and we started feeding her food, and some food she liked, like tuna; some food she didn't like, like bananas, and none of us knew anything about cats. I mean, I was four, so I didn't know anything about keeping cats, and my mom didn't know anything either.
So, I grew up with this cat who had adopted us and learned about cats and I watched Flipper on T.V. because it was the 1970s and Flipper was an awesome dolphin who, you know, saved the day all the time. And, I thought these animals are so smart and they have these mysterious minds. They obviously have minds, I can see them, but maybe they know things that we don't know; cats are out at night, dolphins are swimming underwater and echolocating things, they can see through solid objects. They live in these large social groups, so what can we learn from them?
I went to Antioch College and Antioch has no grades; you call your professor by the first name and you spend half the year doing co-ops; and so one of the co-ops that I did was at a dolphin lab in Hawaii. It was Lou Herman’s dolphin lab --the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory and they worked with…they had four bottlenose dolphins at the time: Hiapo, Akeakamai, Phoenix and Elele. These four dolphins had been trained to communicate with humans using a gestural communication system, where the different gestures represent objects, noun, verbs, adjectives and logical connectives. And so I ended up spending almost a year there and graduated from Antioch and decided I wanted to go on and study philosophy. I could have gone in studying psychology after that because everyone around me were all psychology grad students, but I had a mentor at Antioch who invited me to join him as a graduate student at Western Michigan University.
And so, I left Hawaii, sadly, went to Kalamazoo and started writing papers. My very first paper got published; was in a journal called Etica et Animali, Tamale out of Italy, on whether great apes have minds and it was called, “The First Step in the Case for Great Ape Equality”. So, I had this ethical issue associated with it as well, and that was where it started.
For my PhD I went to the University of Minnesota, I was training in the philosophy of science and all my fellow students called me ‘Dolphin Girl’ because I was doing this weird thing.
Philosophers were not engaged in empirical research very much at all, and certainly not research with non-human animals. Maybe humans, but not dolphins and chimpanzee and orangutans.
Studying dolphins was my initial experience, and then I came to York, and at York I went to a talk that York Psychology Professor Anne Russon gave; this was back in 2003 now, and she gave a talk about orangutan cognition because she works with the orangutan in Borneo. And I went up to her after the talk and said, “Oh, you said these interesting things about what orangutan can do, dolphins can do that too”. And she said, “No, they can't. Not like orangutans. You should come to Borneo and see what the orangutans can do,” And so I said, “OK!”. And that was the first time I went to Borneo. So, I've been to there three times and have written papers with Anne and we've been collaborating for fifteen years and we found some really amazing things that these orangutans did.
One of Anne's research assistants had helped a young orangutan named Kikan, who had a stone stuck in her foot and so she pried the stone out with a pencil, and she sealed the wound with some latex from a tree, a leaf of a tree, and Kikan then walked away. Kikan never liked Agnes, the human doctor, but then a couple weeks later, Agnes said that she came over and grabbed her arm to get her attention. So, Agnes looked at her and Kikan held her foot up, showed Agnes that the foot was healed; also took a leaf and poked it on the spot where she'd had the wound. So, Agnes interpreted this as Kikan acting out what had happened to her, showing her that the wound had healed, and thanking her for the work she did.
One thing I also want to say is that I started with really “fancy” animals that everybody sees as super cool: dolphins, orangutan and chimpanzees, but I think that what I really want to focus on now are the kinds of animals people like to kill, like bees. The little tiny things that we don't think of as fancy and smart and cute; because we're finding out that they're really smart, that bees can engage in social learning, they observe what other bees are doing and then mimic what they're doing, and they can use tools.
So, we need to expand the kinds of different species we’re looking at; I think we need to look at plants. If you look at sped up video of bean plants, they move around a lot; they compete with one another for climbing structures, they'll move away once they've lost the competition. So, there's a lot of cool stuff that I think we need to find out.
I want to learn about the diversity of kinds of minds on the planet. But, I also want us to think differently about our place among all these other minds on the planet; we're just one among many. We're not at the top of any kind of evolutionary hierarchy, we're just one among the many that exist. And so, we need to rethink our ethical standing in our treatment of these other animals that we share the planet with. And that's hard, it's really hard. It's hard for me, it's hard for most people I know. But these are conversations we need to start having, so we can see what kind of changes we can make as a society in order to respect the variety of mind and life.”
Kristin Andrews, PhD
York Research Chair in Animal Minds
Department of Philosophy
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies
Video credit: 4Boake Creative