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.