Saturday, December 21, 2013

Meet the beaver

My theory of animal cognition began many years ago when my wife and I were studying beaver. I was working my way through grad school by designing earth dams for the US Government. Beavers build earth dams so naturally I was interested.

What I discovered was that a beaver dam is very different from a human dam. In fact a beaver dam is more like a bird's nest. A human dam is a big pile of carefully selected and compacted dirt. A beaver dam is typically a lattice of sticks supporting an upstream face of dirt. One advantage of this design is that it uses a lot less dirt than a human dam does. Another is that it does not wash away when water flows over the top, as human dams tend to do.

Presumably the beaver knows how to build these elaborate structures by instinct. But what I realized while watching them work is that a great many decisions have to be made along the way. These decisions involve the specifics of the local situation, so they cannot be merely instinctive.

For example, knowing how to build a dam does not tell the beaver which stick to use next. Or which tree to fell and how to cut it up to get that stick. Or where to get the next armload of mud. Or where and how to put these items into the structure. These specifics cannot be in the DNA, as it were.

The point is that the beaver must have elaborate sets of concepts in order to perform these elaborate tasks. So do birds and so do horses. It is easiest to see this when we know what the critter is doing. Speaking of which it is an interesting question why beavers typically build many dams in one place, not just the one their lodge is behind. I think I have a surprising answer to this question but that will be another posting.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Horses communicate a lot with posture and gesture

Unlike crows, horses do relatively little vocal communication. Of course they do sometimes whinny, nicker, snort, etc., but this is not the mainstay of their communication. As herd animals they are naturally in close contact, so they rely on what I call posture and gesture for communication.

For example, they make faces at each other, a lot of different faces, each with its own meaning. They frequently push one another, but without touching, by simply approaching in a certain way. They can threaten to kick by reversing, or mock strike with a front foot, or threaten to bite, etc. They can also groom one another, or play the face biting game, etc. Sometimes simply being close by is a form of friendship.

The point is that there is a huge amount of communication going on among the horses. This is easy to miss because humans tend to equate communication with human communication, which is dominated by verbal exchanges, just as with the crows. So-called body language is recognized to occur, but its role in human communication is relatively minor. With horses it is the primary means of communication, and there is a lot of it.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Crows cawing and counting

In the category of other critters one of my favorites is crows. They communicate endlessly while doing things that I do not understand. Part of the problem is that their group behavior is spread over a large area and often hidden in the trees, but even when I can see what they are doing I often do not know what it is. Yet they put a lot of effort into doing it and a lot of communication is involved, so it must be useful. We just do not understand it.

In particular crows know how to count, or rather they have calls that require counting in the sense that a specific number of sounds is repeated. We think of counting as a mental verbal exercise but it need not be. I can decide to take three steps then take them without verbally counting them in my mind. I can also see that there are three horses in the field without mentally verbally counting them.

One of the great obstacles to understanding animals is that we confuse our mentally verbal thinking with thinking in general.

Crows have many different calls, some of which clearly require counting. My favorite call involves two kinds of counting. It is a five caw call that goes caw caw-caw caw-caw. Like Morse code there are timing based pairs within the overall count of five.

But there is also a simple three caw call that is frequently used, and several others, possibly many others. I have never tried to count the calls and I am not sure that I could, because I may not be able to tell them apart.

Note too that what a call means may depend on the situation, or the context as it is called, just as with human communication.

I assume the crows know how and when to make these calls by instinct and they also know what they mean by instinct. But they still have to count when they do it.

Horses do not verbalized constantly the way crows do, but they make extensive use of gesture and posture to communicate. But this is another topic, for another posting.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Biting and "concept distance"

In my last post I mentioned what we call face biting, an elaborate and seemingly recreational form of relatively harmless combat between two horses. A friend said she had never seen this so I did some Web searches to see if I could find anything on it. Instead I found something interesting, namely a lot of articles that seem to treat all biting as more or less the same behavior. This is far from true, as there are very different kinds of biting, done for different reasons.

For example, a more serious form of biting can occur when a new horse is introduced into the herd. What we have observed, and it may be typical, is first that the herd tries to drive the newcomer away while it in turn refuses to go. In the meantime there is a great deal of running around, with horses within the herd chasing one another as well. This may go on for several days during which the newcomer may be bitten repeatedly. Both the new horse's persistence and the herd's hostility are surprising.

Note that this behavior seems to be more about membership than dominance. That is it is all against one, not a question of rank within the herd. In the cases we have observed the new horse typically joins the herd at or near the bottom, then works its way up in rank over weeks or months. This ranking process involves some real biting but nothing like the case of joining the herd. So we have two different cases of real biting, joining and ranking, plus mostly harmless face biting. That is three different concepts of biting.

Then there is nipping people, which is a very different kind of biting. It is not clear that nipping is even hostile. It may just be aggressively affectionate. (I also have a dog and a cat that do something like this.) I find this nipping behavior somewhat mysterious, but this is because there is not a good human analog, except perhaps someone who greets you or talks to you by hitting you on the arm. Thus this may be a case of what I call “concept distance,” which means we cannot understand the behavior because there is no clear human parallel. We lack the concept that the horse has. The horse knows what it is doing but we do not.

Humans have the concepts of rough play, hostility toward strangers and rank within a group or organization. So here the cognitive distance between humans and horses may be small, nor is this anthropomorphism, just analogous concepts. But when it comes to nipping it is unclear what is going on because the concept distance is much greater.

Concept distance is common among humans, by the way. For example, my wife knows a lot more about computers than I do, so she has a lot of concepts that I lack. As a result she often says and does things that I do not understand. Thus it is with horses and humans as well. They have many concepts that we do not understand.

Friday, October 11, 2013

If the lion could speak

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the pioneers of concept analysis, famously wrote that "if the lion could speak, we would not be able to understand it." Much has been written about what he meant, but I have my own take on the idea itself, as opposed to what Wittgenstein may have had in mind. It is central to my research on horse cognition and it goes like this.

Suppose some lions had a well developed language and their first encounter with humans was with us, as we are today. Would we understand them? No, but for two different reasons. First, they would have different words for the same things we have words for. This is not especially interesting, but what is interesting is that they would have words and phrases that embodied concepts that we simply do not have. They would have these because they have interests, experiences and needs that are very different from ours. (By the same token we will have many words and phrases that embody concepts that the lions do not have.) Thus they see the world quite differently than we do.

But because we share the same actual world it should be possible for us to gain some understanding of their language. Moreover, and most importantly, even without having a rich verbal language they still have a great many concepts, as do horses. The question about the lion’s fictitious language is designed to make this point. Lions and horses could have a rich language; they just do not.

Here is an analogy that might help. It was a popular saying that Eskimos had many words for snow. My guess is that these words were actually for the many different kinds of snow, because there are in fact many different kinds and in the Arctic knowing that could be a matter of life or death. Most people are not in that situation so have no use for these many different concepts of snow.

In the same way lions and horses have many different concepts that are useful to them. Humans do not have these concepts because they are not lions or horses. It is the same for other critters as well of course. So the first challenge is that we are dealing with concepts we do not have. The second challenge is how to understand and describe these concepts using the concepts we do have.

Here is a simple example for horses. Several members of my observation herd use a particular tree branch to scratch their backs. They clearly know where it is and what it is good for because they will travel some distance just to use it, then they often return to where they were. So we can tell that they have the concept of using this branch from their behavior. This is our basic analytic principle, that they must have this concept to do what they do.

But notice that I described it as scratching their backs, which may not be correct. In my language there are back scratches and back rubs, which are different things. What the horses are doing is sort of in between, but it is also neither because scratching and rubbing each involves hands or tools which are different from this branch. Perhaps we need a new word to describe what the horse is doing and thus to express the concept the horse has of doing it.

If this seems picky consider a behavior that is further removed from human behavior. Our geldings frequently engage in what we call “face biting.” But they seldom if ever actually bite and they go after things besides the face, such as the chest and neck, so our terminology is misleading. Also is it a game, or practice, or dominance, or what? Not only do we not know but none of these words may be appropriate, because we do not know why they are doing it. I am not saying we can never know just that it is a challenging problem. The further a horse’s concept is from our concept the harder it will be to understand and express.

To summarize, thinking about what language an animal would have, if it had one, is a way to think about the many concepts it already has. Thinking about how we might translate that language into our own is a way to think about how we can understand and describe that animal’s concepts. None of this is easy, but neither is it impossible.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Not knowing how to trot

Because of our back country riding we prefer horses that do the running walk, rather than trotting. Thus we have Tennessee walkers and rocky mountain horses, and here an interesting difference arises. The rockies can either trot or gait and have to be made to do the running walk. The walkers never trot, including when they are in the field unsaddled. Much follows from this.

So far as I know the walkers are physically capable of trotting. Physically they are almost indistinguishable from the rockies. If so then the fact that they do not trot is a mental condition, not a physical one. This suggests that the walkers either do not know how to trot or they choose not to. My conjecture is that they simply do not know how to trot. In terms of the theory of cognition being developed here, they lack the concept of trotting.

Concepts are bodies of basic knowledge, which can be acquired either by learning or by instinct. Breeding for behavior is the manipulation of instinct. The walkers have been bred not to trot which means they have been bred not to know how to trot.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grazing in motion

When a horse is grazing something interesting frequently happens. It appear to be grazing in one place, motionless. But a few minutes later it is somewhere else, still grazing. Groups of horses exhibit the same behavior, seldom where I last saw them. So I studied this a bit and here is what I found.

The horse is grazing, head down, but it takes a step or two every 3 to 8 seconds. Thus in a sense the horse is in constant motion, even though it is also constantly grazing. If it takes, say, a step every 6 seconds on average it will cover a lot of distance. Ten steps a minute and 600 steps an hour. Sometimes my little herd covers a fifteen acre field in an afternoon. They seem motionless because it takes less than a second to take the step, so they are only moving a small fraction of the time. But moving they are, sometimes for hours at a time.

One result of this pattern of constant motion while grazing is that the grass is taken down more or less uniformly in the field. This minimizes killing the grass due to over grazing, because the horse does not stand there eating all the grass it can reach before moving on. Rather it eats a little then moves on. This benefit might even be the source of the instinct that produces the behavior. After all the horse is expending considerable effort to move this way while eating, so there should be a good reason for it.

There are several other patterns of behavior which modify this uniformity of grazing, but that is a separate topic.

Friday, September 20, 2013

First a few technical preliminaries

First a few technical preliminaries. These are necessary because the field of concept analysis is unknown to most people, so initially folks are likely to misunderstand what I am saying. Moreover I am moving outside the traditional field of concept analysis, which is focused on human language.

I regard concepts as bodies of core belief. In philosophy of language a concept is often defined as what one has to know in order to use a word correctly. Thus a concept is a body of knowledge. I am expanding this definition in two ways. First, it is not about using words but rather action in general. If a horse looks for feed in a feed bucket it is because it has the concept of a feed bucket. Words have nothing to do with this. Second, knowledge implies that what one believes is true, but a concept can just as well be based on false beliefs, so I am likely to talk about beliefs not knowledge. In analytic philosophy knowledge is often defined as justified true belief, so belief is simply the broader category. Since my interest is what the horse (or other critter) believes, not whether it is true or not, I often prefer the term belief to that of knowledge. But in many cases we are talking about knowledge, sometimes deep knowledge.

Thus the scientific question is what can we infer about the core knowledge and beliefs of the horse (or other critter) from its behavior? Note that I am not particularly interested in horse training, or riding, etc., although what we discuss here may turn out to be relevant to those pursuits. My interest is to create a scientific framework within which we can study what horses and other critters believe about the world they live in. This is both simple and hard.

By way of introduction I am not a horse trainer, far from it. But I have worked with horses most of my adult life, especially in trying circumstances. I am the founding president of Back Country Horsemen of Virginia. See Back country refers to using horses to go to difficult places.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Instinct is a way of learning, not a way of thinking

Welcome to Horse Cognition (and other critters). The purpose of this blog is to explore my theory of animal cognition, especially but not exclusively in horses. The basic concept is that instinct is a way of learning, not a way of thinking. That is, instinct provides animals (including humans) with certain capabilities and beliefs, just as learning does, but it does not direct thinking any more than learning does. What I am specifically rejecting is the common notion that instinct is somehow an alternative to thought. On the contrary, so far as I can tell all animals think. Instinct merely provides some of the basic knowledge and beliefs that thought uses.

For example knowing how to use a shovel does not make me dig a hole. Once I decide where to dig a hole my knowledge helps me do it. In the same way a beaver has to decide where to build a dam before instinct tells it how. And even then there are a great many specific decisions to be made, just as there are when I dig a hole. Knowledge is not a substitute for thought and instinct is a source of knowledge (or belief).

This is a science blog so I am pursuing a basic science question, or a method if you like. The question is "what does an animal have to believe (or know) in order to do what it does?" I am especially interested in the concepts an animal must have in order to do what it does, because my training is in concept analysis. My focus is on horses because I have set up an observatory to study them, but I have been working on this for a long time, studying many sorts of animals, including humans.

I think blog posts should be short in order to focus the comments and questions so this is enough for now. Once again, welcome.