What Are We Learning From Animals? (per the NY Times)

I offer the following as an exercise in critical thinking. The New York Times article below illustrates the pretzel knot that modern behavioral analysis is locked in. The problem arises from trying to understand animal behavior as states of intention rather than as states of attraction. This leads to the false dichotomy that if behavior isn’t a function of Random Mutations, then it must be a function of God.


Another video, showing a lioness in Kenya “adopting” a series of antelope calves, provides an idea of how perception may differ from reality. In the video, a conservationist who observed the lioness says, “Many people felt this had to be a message from God.” She adds, “This was the lion and the lamb laying down together.”

“But Craig Packer, a lion researcher at the University of Minnesota who also appeared in the video, said in a recent interview that the lioness was likely toying with her prey before killing it.”

“’She was just keeping it around,’ Dr. Packer said. He added that amicable interactions between normally hostile species are unlikely to take place in the wild, where “they would end in tears every time.” Even in captivity, however, sustained bonds evoke interesting observations. Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said examples that involve animals raised together from a young age illustrate the openness present in many species for some time after birth.”

So a lioness spends a moment, a minute, a day or a month in consort with a fawn but then at some point eats it, and this is then dismissed. Yes, because intention is supposedly everything. But why wouldn’t this constitute a waste of energy, increasing the odds that some other lion could snatch their prey, or it might get away? By Neo-Darwinian logic she should immediately eat her prey, conservation of energy and access to resources being the rationale to justify all other evolved behaviors. And what if the lioness kills one of her cubs, or a lion kills all her cubs and then she mates with him? Does this then mean that therefore the relationship between mother and cub isn’t a maternal one? In intention state analysis a lioness consorting with a fawn is seen as a contradiction in terms if there is a possibility that she might end up eating it, but not if she ends up killing her own cub (presumably malformed in some way, but nonetheless that has no bearing on the logic). If she ends up killing an unhealthy cub then that’s not seen as a contradiction in terms of the maternal impulse. We still understand that there is a state of attraction between them that can possibly elaborate into the full blown relationship. We still see the dynamic between mother and cub on a continuum even when infanticide comes into play. Why not the lioness and the fawn?

What’s so contradictory about intentional-states-analysis of evolutionary theory is that Neo-Darwinian logic always argues that a behavior is borrowed from an unrelated context to serve an adaptive purpose in another context, for example the play bow is seen as an individual once long ago incorporating a submissive impulse into an intent-to-make-play signal. Once it proves adaptive as a social emollient it thereby becomes genetically encoded as a play-intention-state-signal available at some point to the entire gene pool. And yet here in this article the predator/prey dynamic is vividly manifest right before our eyes, yet the intention-state-analysis can’t see it.

An immediate-moment manner of analysis finds the continuity in the continuum. There is one universal code that is particularly pronounced during infancy and then will atrophy due to the weight of species-specific instincts as the nervous system of the individual meets with resistance in the environment. How does this serve the individual species that is thus limited? It doesn’t—per se. It serves the network into which the individual species is slotted. When slotted into the network, that then benefits each respective species.

An immediate-moment manner of analysis reveals that emotion is the universal basis of animal behavior, that it works as a function of attraction, and that the predator/prey dynamic is the architecture of any emotional state of attraction that elaborates into a sustained relationship, between parent and offspring, sexual paramours, peer-to-peer.  Therefore the “adoption” of a young prey by an adult predator, a cat toying with its prey before eating it, or a predator simply killing and eating it outright, are functions of the same dynamic. This continuum of relationships show us precisely how sociability evolved, why dogs are so social and playful even as adults, and how and why we should tap into the predator/prey dynamic when living and working with a dog. The purpose of sociability isn’t companionship, that’s simply a wonderful derivative. Sociability is “wave-coupling” so that ultimately objects of resistance can be overcome and/or assimilated into the configuration so that the FLOW OF EMOTION improves. This is how evolution happens and how animals are able to affect their environment coherently so that it too evolves to better serve the flow of emotion. A lioness with a fawn while rare and no matter how fleeting, is no different emotionally than a lioness with her cub. Which is also why infanticide among lions doesn’t fall outside the purview of the overarching dynamic that 99.99% of the time otherwise renders nurturing behavior between mother and her cubs.

All of these behaviors are elaborations of the one fundamental code that underwrites and drives all animal behavior, which as Bekoff hints at above with the notion of “openness” in the young. And what are the infants of all species particularly open about? About being able to sense the preyful aspect in anything. Their hunger is greater than their balance.

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Published January 31, 2015 by Kevin Behan
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5 responses to “What Are We Learning From Animals? (per the NY Times)”

  1. b... says:

    It occurred to me that the “intentional-states-analysis” also underlies the whole many-drive theory. So its proponents will describe that a dog playing with another dog is in “social drive” or “play drive”, but if things get too intense and a collapse results in a snap, suddenly the dog is under the influence of “prey drive” or “fight drive”. Or if a dog is chasing a ball it’s in “ball drive”, but if it grabs and shakes the ball, it’s in “prey drive”, etc.

    Makes you wonder – who is running this many geared machine and what exactly is the nature of the algorithm that determines the shift in gears? Or is it the work of a little god inside each dog’s brain?

    It doesn’t seem that different from attributing water pouring into your cup to “filling gravity” and attributing the cup falling to the floor to “spilling gravity”. If only physicists were this creative…

  2. Kevin Behan says:

    Exactly, I’m surprised that Abrantes’ formulation gets a pass on its self-recursive logic:
    “If any of the parties incur injury, then the behavior is aggressive and not dominant.”

    That’s like saying if you turn a switch and the bulb glows, that’s electricity. But if you turn the switch and the bulb pops, that’s not electricity.

  3. b... says:

    I think he gets a pass because he’s saying what the people who care about what he’s saying (average dog owners, fellow behaviorists) want to hear. Confirmation bias vs. critical thinking.

  4. Hundeskole says:

    Sometimes, there are things that only animals could understand and they’re the one who can teach us and let us understand. As a pet owner and base on experience, there are lessons in life that we learn only thru them.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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