Cognitive Ethology: Slayers, Skeptics, and Proponents

Bekoff, M and Allen, C (1997) Cognitive Ethology: Slayers, Skeptics, and Proponents. [Book Chapter] (Unpublished)

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In this paper we identify three major groups of people (among some of whose members there are blurred distinctions) with different views on cognitive ethology, namely, slayers, skeptics, and proponents. Our analyses are based on our reading of some published reviews of Donald Griffin's works in cognitive ethology and other clearly stated opinions concerning animal cognition, in the sense of attribution of mental states and properties such as beliefs, awareness, and consciousness. Slayers Slayers deny any possibility of success in cognitive ethology. In our analyses of their published statements, we have found that they sometimes conflate the difficulty of doing rigorous cognitive ethological investigations with the impossibility of doing so. Slayers also often ignore specific details of work by cognitive ethologists and frequently mount philosophically motivated objections to the possibility of learning anything about animal cognition. Slayers do not believe that cognitive ethological approaches can lead, and have lead, to new and testable hypotheses. They often pick out the most difficult and least accessible phenomena to study (e.g. consciousness) and then conclude that because we can gain little detailed knowledge about this subject, we cannot do better in other areas. Slayers also appeal to parsimony in explanations of animal behavior, but they dismiss the possibility that cognitive explanations can be more parsimonious than noncognitive alternatives, and they deny the utility of cognitive hypotheses for directing empirical research. Skeptics Skeptics are often difficult to categorize. They are a bit more open-minded than slayers, and there seems to be greater variation among skeptical views of cognitive ethology than among slayers' opinions. However, some skeptics recognize some past and present successes in cognitive ethology, and remain cautiously optimistic about future successes; in these instances they resemble moderate proponents. Many skeptics appeal to the future of neuroscience, and claim that when we know all there is to know about nervous systems, cognitive ethology will be superfluous (Bekoff, 1993a; it should be noted that Griffin, 1992 also makes strong appeals to neuroscience, but he does not believe that increased knowledge in neurobiology will cause cognitive ethology to disappear). Like slayers, skeptics frequently conflate the difficulty of doing rigorous cognitive ethological investigations with the impossibility of doing so. Skeptics also find folk psychological, anthropomorphic, and cognitive explanations to be off-putting. Proponents Proponents recognize the utility of cognitive ethological investigations. They claim that there are already many successes and they see that cognitive ethological approaches have provided new and interesting data that also can inform and motivate further study. Proponents also accept the cautious use of folk psychological and cognitive explanations to build a systematic explanatory framework in conjunction with empirical studies, and do not find anecdotes or anthropomorphism to be thoroughly off-putting. Some proponents are as extreme in their advocacy of cognitive ethology as some slayers are in their opposition. But most proponents are willing to be critical of cognitive ethological research without dooming the field prematurely; if cognitive ethology is to die, it will be of natural causes and not as a result of hasty slayings.

Item Type:Book Chapter
Subjects:Biology > Ethology
ID Code:160
Deposited By: Bekoff, Marc
Deposited On:30 Sep 1997
Last Modified:11 Mar 2011 08:53


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