Telling Stories About Animal Minds

Michael Tye, Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Are Animals Conscious? (Oxford University Press, 2017)

So I’ve been reading a book. It is made up of dozens of stories about the boundary between the animal and human, and about the processes of change over time, and it ends with a discussion of the ethics of vegetarianism. So, this is that great Roman epic poem, my old favourite, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, right? Well, no, it’s Michael Tye’s book about animal psychology, with its cool title.
      The point of the title: can we identify mental states in other species that are equivalent to, or at all like, consciousness? An experiment shows that when bees are shaken (i.e. physically vibrated) they then behave in a way that looks like they are shaken (i.e. emotionally rocked, more pessimistic, wary, anticipating further perturbation). Just like we might. Bees! Not dolphins or apes or magpies but bees! Bees! The book is full of stuff like this, fascinating journeys into expected and unexpected kinds of behaviour.
      Tye’s goal is to persuade us not that it is certain that animals are conscious, but that it is a better hypothesis, more probable, that they have experiences. This relates to the question ‘what is it like to be a bat?’ (famously asked by Thomas Nagel, and blog-regulars will know that question has been on my mind before), and it relates to the question of animal treatment. UK MPs recently voted not to enshrine the sentience of animals in law, but if sentience is experience, then maybe they were wrong.
      There is some debate about that MPs’ vote, by the way. I have read some relatively wise heads saying that animal rights are protected by other legislation, and that the European law that was in question allows bull-fighting and foie gras so it’s not all that great. I have read others saying that the vote really was a bad thing, and that the rights of animals in general (rather than, say, pets) have been made less secure. The reality of politics, a huge number of amendments to a big bill, all of that hubbub and kerfuffle… I wonder what it’s like to be an MP voting on a philosophical matter? Any significant sentience there?

I made that opening link between Tye and Ovid for two reasons. Not long ago I gave a paper at a conference where I said some things about the ways in which non-human minds (what it is like to be a… bat / stag / lion / frog / wolf etc.) emerge in the Metamorphoses. Not a huge amount, is the first answer, since there is so much focus on change as it is experienced by the human involved. However, I think I put together some things that seem characteristic of animal experience as it is portrayed by Ovid: for one thing, there is a lot of angry complaining going on… animal minds seem unsettled.
      The second reason is what prompted this post. I think Tye’s book has a number of interesting things in common with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One of the traditions from which the Latin poem emerges is one wherein myths explaining the origins of species, or the nature of the cosmos (for example), would be told and then explored. Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura is the most famous of these natural-philosophical epic poems. So in its playful, sceptical way, Ovid’s is a scientific poem.
      Perhaps it’s a bit less straightforward to say that Tye’s is, quid-pro-quo, a literary book. I read a good essay by David Herman recently, in a book called Cognitive Literary Science that I expect to write about in my next post, which pointed out that there is often a lot of similarity between the language used in fictional and non-fictional efforts to discuss non-human thought. In keeping with this, and as in, I think, a lot of crossover psychology books, Tye’s descriptions of experimental findings read like anecdotes, or stories really, and they manoeuvre readers around, testing confidence, delivering surprises, as fictions do.
      Not that there is anything wrong with that. For Ovid, the idea that you could do science and philosophy in the form of poems and stories would not have seemed strange. It should not to us, either. If you want to convey, and make sense of, the things that might be going on inside an octopus or a macaque or a fish, you need to bring them and it to life. You also need to find a language that can be trusted to communicate what you think is there, prompting the right thoughts in response. These are literary strategies, the pursuit of what was classically called enargeia (vividness), and an apt style as well. Not for the first time, there is common cause here, perhaps easier for me to embrace than a scientist or philosopher who might not readily self-identify as a storyteller.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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