Critique of Daniel Dennett’s article in the Guardian
I just read this article by Daniel Dennett:
Although Dennett is one philosopher I admire, I think that he builds this piece on some mistaken assumptions which I would like to pinpoint here:
“I know of no evidence to suggest that any other species on the planet can actually think this thought. If they could, they would be almost as smart as we are.”
Just because he knows of no evidence it does not make this assumption true. Think of black swans! It just states that he is ignorant about the existence of such evidence.
“The natural human reaction to making a mistake is embarrassment and anger “
He restricts the trait to humans. This is obviously an assumption without support. I have observed animals making mistakes and displaying behaviours of embarrassment. For example. Several times I have observed cats who miss their jump and fall short of the target. When they reach the floor they look at me ( the human “mother” ) with “embracement” .
Now you are right to challenge me about the word “embracement”. How do I know that they are embraced? Am I not making anthropocentric projections (oh that sinful A. word!!!). The only thing I can say is, I have observed two outcomes of cats successfully jumping and reaching the target as well failing the target. The post-jump behaviours are different. In the successful jump they don’t check the reaction of the human observer, in the second ( failed jump) they look at the human as to check if we were looking and usually they run away as if in “shame” for the failure. I am the first to admit that these observations need statistical data for support.
Then Dennett goes on claiming that
“This, by the way, is another reason why we humans are so much smarter than every other species. It is not so much that our brains are bigger or more powerful, or even that we have the knack of reflecting on our own past errors, but that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error.”
First he assumes that humans are smarter. Well ! I would challenge this. He needs to define what he means my “smart”
Then he makes a lot of assertions about the size of human brains. I agree that bigger brains are not correlated with intelligence, however it is not the absolute size of the brain that is important, but the relative mass in relation to body mass.
Second he claims “why humans are so much smarter than other species ….(is) that that we share the benefits our individual brains have won by their individual histories of trial and error”
Wrong again! There is a thing called cultural transmission in social animals. The learner observes the practices of the demonstrator which have been perfected by trial and error. The learner can also observe in the very process, instances of error and learn how to avoid it. ( think of apes using tools, not to mention corvids and dolphins)
My warning to distracted readers: Beware of philosopher’s assumptions about the animal world. Just because they wrote books and are famous, it does not mean they have the authority to fabricate assumptions to suit their arguments.