For much of modern science, since the Enlightenment, animals were generally thought to be automatons: materialist robots programmed to behave in certain ways. Rene Descartes drew a sharp distinction between thinking beings, humans, and everything else, matter. 20th Century behaviorism continued to think of animals in this way but added humans to the mix. “Mind” was a myth, a “ghost in the machine“, and did not really exist. All that counted was behavior and we did not think to complicate science by positing a “mind” behind the actions.
But in recent decades the question of the animal mind has come to the fore again. The question of an animal mind is a difficult one:
- You want to avoid anthropomorphizing species by claiming similarities to our experiences simply on the basis that they look similar.
- You want also to avoid denying similarities just because they are, well, animals and not humans.
Connected to this are a set of wonderful questions about consciousness, the marks of mind, intentionality, self-awareness, and the basic challenge for us of understanding a being which is not completely analogous to a human and may be quite alien. Think: snakes, mosquitos, fish.
This lesson will introduce students to a reading from National Geographic online on animal minds and a TED video on animal awareness by Franz DeWaal. Use these two sources to get students discussing the criteria for a mind, the scientific process of testing hypotheses, and the important questions about how we can know.
A. Read this short online article from National Geographic which details some experiments to prove that animals have minds. As you are reading it, note the criteria or signs used to point to a “mind.” Discuss your answers to the questions below.
B. Watch the Franz DeWaal video (see below) about animals showing compassion and a sense of justice. Discuss the questions below.
C. What difference would it make if animals had minds? Create a class chart on the differences it would make, or not make.