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.

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