Sunday, April 27, 2008

Defining Culture

As an interesting follow up to the article on Habacuc's piece in which he ties a dog up in a gallery and starves him to death. I thought I would further solidify our case for the humane treatment of animals (unfortunately it seems necessary, though I would think that it's self-evident).

What this video exhibits is more than just a circus act. Though the elephant is probably trained, it's amazing nonetheless. But what this tells me is that the elephant is able to think symbolically. It is not attempting to paint what it sees, but is conceiving of what an elephant is from memory and reproducing a pictographic depiction.

In the study of Anthropology, culture is what divides man from animals and it is defined in several different ways. Though there is no absolutely agreed upon definition, these three traits are common in nearly all of them:

1. Symbolic Thought - the ability to understand and communicate meaning through abstract ideas.
2. Learned Transmission - the passing down of learned behavior from one individual to another.
3. Tool Making - The ability to see a raw material and alter it to suite your needs.

The Elephant is exhibiting at least two of these traits - learned behavior and symbolic thought. Other animals, especially primates, have been known to exhibit all three of these criteria.

There was a study done on tool-making crows of New Caledonia, in which a piece of food was placed in a clear tube. The only object available was a straight piece of wire. The crow bent the wire and used it to fish out the food. Similar behavior has been seen in chimpanzees who fashion tools out of sticks to fish termites of of mounds and other chimps who make spears to hunt Bushbabies. Another study was presented to a chimp where a nut was placed in a narrow glass tube next to a bowl of water. The chimp drank some water and spit it into the tube so that the nut floated to the top so that he could reach it. What's remarkable about this is that not only did he know that he could use water as a tool, he also knew that the nut would float!

Among primates, Gorillas, and most notably Chimps, have a been trained to communicate through sign language. They have been seen to not only learn from each other, but have the ability to understand and apply words to different contexts.

And this brings us to the specific issue: canine intelligence. A border collie named Rico in Germany has exhibited a vocabulary of at least 200 words. If that's not remarkable enough, he has also demonstrated the ability to learn new words from only being exposed to a new object once. Further, if you train a dog not to urinate inside your house, it goes without saying that the dog will understand not to urinate in your neighbor's house as well. This is evidence that the dog has abstracted the idea and applied it to similar contexts.

Now, to solidify my point. Elephants and crows have demonstrated several of the traits necessary for culture. Primates and dogs have demonstrated all three on the list above. Thus, the argument that I've heard, which claims that animals do not think or feel is unequivocally false. These animals have demonstrated culture. Thus, the difference between torturing a human being and a dog is non-existent and the law should be enforced equally. What's more, think about the fact that the very dog that Habacuc starved, likely understood much of what the viewers were saying and likely understood that it was intentional. This is the greatest outrage of all.

If you haven't already, please sign the petition to stop Habacuc.

1 comment:

jeff said...

Elephant's are extremely smart and also very loving to there off spring and members of their herd.

I own a dog and I can attest to it's
ability to understand not only language but is very sensitive to my moods.

Border collies are the smartest dogs, have you ever seen them herd sheep?

Amazing creatures, not recommended for apartments as they have a huge amount of energy.

There is a joke about them if you leave them alone for the day they will rewire your house just to have something to do.

The thing is dog would never tie someone up and starve them.

Who is the beast here?