Derek Bickerton

Derek Bickerton

Strange Tongue


Why narrow the gap between humans and nonhumans?

Posted Aug 31, 2010

Since few blog posts can have been as widely and deeply misunderstood as my last, on the Hauser affair, I feel it incumbent on me to clarify exactly what I meant to do and why I meant to do it.

Contrary to what some seemed to think, I certainly didn't intend in any way to exonerate Hauser or excuse his actions. I simply did not choose to jump on the bandwagon of the self-righteous and lambaste Hauser for his (alleged) sins, with its inevitable implication that everyone else, especially the lambaster, is squeaky clean. Enough other people were there to do that. My initial motivation was (as the piece clearly stated) to answer the question, why would anyone in Hauser's position perform scientific misconduct, and why should that misconduct involve the cognitive capacity of monkeys, rather than any other subject?

You would have to be very naive to believe that science is a totally level playing field--that both the pressure to produce certain results and the ease with which those results can be produced are evenly distributed throughout all science's multifarious branches. I believe that in Hauser's line of work, each of these factors is at or close to its maximum. My post , far from being the tasteless exercise in self-advertisement that some thought, aimed solely at showing what drives the need for getting "the right answers" and what makes those answers seem temptingly easy to achieve (even if it turns out--as seems to have happened with the cotton-top tamarins--that the "right answer" is hard to achieve through legitimate means).

So I'll repeat what I said, hopefully in a manner that can't be misinterpreted. Here's the crux of it.

"He has made significant headway in narrowing the cognitive gap between humans and other animals," wrote Kate Shaw about Hauser. Whoa, wait a minute! Is this what science is about? Not about explaining the cognitive capacities of humans, or explaining the cognitive capacities of other animals, but about taking the huge apparent gap between those capacities and trying to narrow it? Who said it needed narrowing? Why would anyone take as a given that it MUST be narrower than it looks?

But Kate is right about one thing--the aim of Hauser's research was to narrow the gap. And I've seen blogs that painted him as far from the most extreme proponent of that agenda. Some researchers deny all differences between humans and other animals. Hauser, on the other hand, was prepared to accept that there was an elusive quality that he described with a term ugly enough to form the basis for a ninth charge of scientific misconduct--"humaniqueness". "Humaniqueness" had to be pretty limited, but he was at least ready to admit that it was there, somewhere... I suppose narrowing the gap is, after all, marginally better than simply denying its existence.

But there's something dreadfully wrong about it, even so. Remember the old "Scala Naturae"? A notion that preceded Darwin but still soldiered on in the non-professional imagination, the notion of evolution as a ladder leading onward and upward until it culminated in (guess who?)--us, of course! Well, here it is back again in more respectable garb. For what else could cause this "narrowing the gap", this "searching for precursors", except a wholly unbiological belief that evolution was, all the time, straining to produce you and me?

But if you hold such beliefs, then the temptation to find confirmatory evidence becomes extremely strong. As one blogger put it, "Rather than 'seeing is believing' we are often confronted more with 'believing is seeing.' It is only human to unconsciously select the information which fits with our preconceived views. To seek confirmation for our own biases." And don't forget, Hauser is not alone--very many behavioral scientists share similar views and biases. So what another blogger described as "group think, protective tribalism and willingness to spin findings" all increase the temptation to make results fit expectations (if that pesky data didn't quite fit, well, it's more likely there was something wrong with the data than with the overarching necessity to narrow the cognitive gap).

So much for the pressure to produce bias-confirming results. What about the means for producing them?

Well, animal cognition is notoriously a field where interpretation is unavoidable. The animal does something and you have to figure out why it did it. Was it really a response to your stimulus? Or was the animal simply following its own agenda, doing not what you but what it wanted to do. something totally irrelevant to your goals? There's no way you can see inside its mind, so it's a judgment call--can't be anything else. So what's to stop anyone from "judging" that, just about every time, the judgment goes the way you'd prefer it to go?

This is the climate in which Hauser worked. To point this out does not in any way excuse him from having gone way past wishful-thinking . Still less does it discredit the entire field of comparative psychology--countess researchers less renowned than Hauser (I just read a piece suggesting he was "too big to fail"!) have successfully resisted the pressures and temptations implicit in the field. However, it is absurd to pretend that those pressures and temptations do not exist.

For an impartial summary of all that underlies and surrounds the Hauser affair, I can't do better than cite something written (by two professors of psychology, Clive Wynne and Johnann Bolhuis) long before the affair came to light: "The prevailing view that there is significant cognitive continuity between humans and other animals is a result of misinterpretations of the role of evolution, combined with anthropomorphism. This combination has often resulted in an over-interpretation of data from animal experiments. Comparative psychology should do what the name indicates: study the cognitive capacities of different species empirically, without naive evolutionary presuppositions... The form of evolutionary continuity between man and beast that many contemporary researchers seek is, in fact, a tacit perpetuation of the old scala naturae concept."

Consequently, at least some of the evidence those researchers seek simply isn't there. But the temptation to find it remains.

These are precisely the kinds of issue my original post attempted to raise. I think they're important issues for the future of psychology and the behavioral sciences in general. If for any reason you disagree with that, by all means say so. Which is better-- to thoroughly discuss these issues, or to turn a blind eye to them while we go on playing the blame game?


About the Author

Derek Bickerton

Derek Bickerton is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii; his most recent book is More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution.

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