Monday, September 8, 2008

Slime molds and mind

Twice now, an anonymous poster has argued that because altruism is seen in social amoebas, pointing to altruism as evidence of a similarity between human and non-human mind is illogical.

Anonymous said...
The existence of altruistic behavior in other species cannot be denied. In fact, I previously pointed that it also exists in other species, such as insects and even social amoeba.

However, one cannot infer from such behavior that "the mind of animals is like our own". Otherwise, one would be led to conclude the mind of social amoeba also shares similarities to the human mind. This, I hope we all agree, does not make any sense.
Let’s clarify the terms altruism, social amoeba, and mind.

Biological Altruism
First published Tue Jun 3, 2003 [Okasha, Samir, "Biological Altruism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)]

In evolutionary biology, an organism is said to behave altruistically when its behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself. The costs and benefits are measured in terms of reproductive fitness, or expected number of offspring. So by behaving altruistically, an organism reduces the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but boosts the number that other organisms are likely to produce. This biological notion of altruism is not identical to the everyday concept. In everyday parlance, an action would only be called ‘altruistic’ if it was done with the conscious intention of helping another. But in the biological sense there is no such requirement. Indeed, some of the most interesting examples of biological altruism are found among creatures that are (presumably) not capable of conscious thought at all, e.g. insects. For the biologist, it is the consequences of an action for reproductive fitness that determine whether the action counts as altruistic, not the intentions, if any, with which the action is performed.
It is this apparent “conscious intention to help another” seen in de Waal and in Masserman that is indicative of a similarity in the minds of humans and other animals. Anon’s appeal to the behavior of "social amoeba" as a reason to reject the likelihood of conscious intention by monkeys to help others is spurious.

But what about those "social amoeba" and insects?

There is reason to believe that honeybees (Apis mellifera) have minds. (See: Donald R. Griffin: The Question of Animal Awareness, 1981; Animal Thinking, 1984; Animal Minds, 2001.)

"Social amoeba" aren’t what are normally called amoebas. The Amoebae are a diverse group of unicellular species These amoebas include the organisms responsible for amoebic dysentery.

"Social amoeba" refers to a distinct phase of various organisms loosely grouped into the slime molds. There are some interesting images here.

Whether a "social amoeba" acts with conscious intention to help another remains to be seen, but an assertion that there is no possibility that such organisms act willfully is dogmatic and unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. Some slime mold plasmodiums have been claimed to be good maze solvers.

But what of mind?

My Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) is 819 pages long, not counting the front and end matter. As you might suppose there are many interesting and sometimes contradictory essays about mind and related notions. But none of them do as good a job at summing up what is generally meant by mind as does neuroscientist Sam Harris in The End of Faith (2005).

Harris: "The fact that the universe is illuminated where you stand, the fact that your thoughts and moods and sensations have a qualitative character, is an absolute mystery."

We have such little understanding of the biological basis for this illumination that when we see organisms behaving as if they too live in such a world, then, until a body of relatively unambiguous evidence says otherwise, we should act as if they too exist mentally in a way similar to the way that we do. The degree of similarity might be a function of evolutionary relatedness, but as Harris implies, the truth is anyone's guess right now.

The fundamental notion of the Golden Rule seems to be common to many species. It is only arrogance or ignorance that compels us to say that their suffering is so unlike our own or that their mere existence or internal world is so inferior to our own that any harm we deign to visit on them is justified by our own magnificence.


Anonymous said...

"Whether a "social amoeba" acts with conscious intention to help another remains to be seen..."

Gimme a break... Do you truly believe that unicellular organisms have conscious intentions and minds of their own?!

If so, whoever bombed the UCSC researcher working on fruit flies did the right thing! Also, why not bomb your neighbor that is trying to get rid of those cockroaches in his kitchen?

Just to highlight your inconsistent position on these matters: recall that you stated that the attack on a UCSC researcher using flies was such a crazy action that it have could never been the work of animal right activists (you suggested, instead, that it was the work of the FBI).

If single-cell organisms can get the benefit of a doubt in having a conscious mind, why not flies?

Anonymous said...

You say: "It is this apparent “conscious intention to help another” seen in de Waal and in Masserman..."

Please explain what specific part of their data indicates that there is a "conscious intention to help another".

Anonymous said...

We don't have a testable theory to explain mind. In the absence of such, all we have is observable behavior. When mollusks, bees, monkeys, or foreigners behave as if they are acting with intention, a consistent moral course demands that they be given the benefit of the doubt.

And, if someone reading the short one and a half page paper from Masserman et al is genuinely unable to identify the monkeys' apparent "conscious intention to help another" then hope for informed conversation with such a person is probably futile.

It must be hard to breathe when one's head is so deeply burried in the sand.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. A logical conversation with someone that thinks that single cell organisms have conscious minds is futile.

At least, your extremist views are now in the open.

Anonymous said...

"[Rick Bogle's] troubles began when he announced classroom rules forbidding, for moral reasons, the killing of insects and spiders; they ended when he lost his teaching position after hosting a three-day animal rights symposium in the school building". -- Michael Conn in "The Animal Research War".

Ok, now that explains a lot!

Anonymous said...


Conn's even less reliable a source than FoxNews -- as if you care.

Here's what a more accurate rendition of history than his:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. Let us take a closer look at your rules.

Classroom Rules

1. Escort little visitors outside.
2. Be polite.
3. Be prepared to do your best.
4. Books will be covered.
5. No food, gum or drinks

By your own account children at school had behavior problems (even violence). Yet, your first commandment was to “be kind to bugs”. You are not asking your students to be kind to each other.... but to bugs. Your second rule only asks them to merely be polite to each other. Just to show respect... not kindness... and it only comes in a distant second place.

Clearly, you were not trying to teach kindness to your students. Your first rule was nothing more than a way to squeeze your views on animal rights into the classroom. The rule had no purpose in your daily teaching. The argument that kids were distracted by killing bugs is stupid. One would certainly expect a longer interruption in the class if you had to stop and escort little visitors outside every time you saw one.

Anonymous said...

If I'd have had a few students like anonymous, I'd also have had a rule that said "Own up to your opinions." My students weren't afraid to sign their notes.

Anon's attacks are a ploy typically used by someone who wishes to sidetrack a conversation. In this case, that adequate evidence demonstrates the likely similarity of suffering between monkeys and humans and thus, the people experimenting on them are monsters. But anon chooses to switch back and forth between claims that slime molds are altruistic (thus altruism proves nothing anon claimed), to wild claims about the biology of mind (about which nearly nothing is known), to wild claims made by vivisectors about me (which anon will simply ignore), to my classroom rules of 12 years ago... what a hoot.

Anonymous said...

I don't sign messages because I doesn't like the prospect of having my home firebombed.

I thought you liked having people to debate around. Does it matter to you if I remain anonymous?

In any case, it was you that sent me to read your long dramatic novel about what happened...

I was just pointing out that you lied: you were not teaching kindness but animal rights. It should be obvious to anyone reading your own account of the events.

Anonymous said...

to be promoting the wild and insane idea that perhaps if children are kind to animals, then hell they may just be kind to other humans as well in the future, doesnt seem too far-fetched to me. but maybe its a shame rick wasn't simply teaching children about the cruel use of animals in research or dissections. maybe its a shame rick attempted to help children look at animals as something other than a commodity or as lesser species we can cut up, torture, and lock up as we please.

im sure its displeasing though for someone who makes a living off the pain of another creature to come to grips with the idea that perhaps what they are doing is wrong. that perhaps what they learned throughout life is not science but torture.

now i dont really expect any researchers to have some sudden awakening and come volunteer for the primate freedom project, but how long do you really think your abuse will last? with countries around the world talking of ending primate research and even all animal research in the future, with more and more drugs proving dangerous in humans after animal research and a general public growing more aware to the lie that animal research=safe medicine, with laws such as the chimp act giving chimps permanent retirement, and with cases in courts battling for legal rights of great apes. again i'm not telling you to join peta now; perhaps you should simply start looking for a different job that doesn't rely on torturing animals. youd have a lot more time o your hands if you stopped trying to bash animal rights activists on blogs and really focused on that job hunt.

Anonymous said...

Who said I do primate research? I don't, but I support it.

Gary said...

There's no longer any serious doubt that chimps, cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, etc. have complex brians, and wide capacity for emotions. Given that, it's reasonable to conclude that when they go out of their way to sacrifice their own pleasures to help another - often one with whom they have a bond - they are doing so willingly. Furthermore, by my experience, many nonhuman animals know very well whether another being is hurting or happy or sad (just watch two dog companions at play, or a cows attending to a calf - not even necessarily their own), thus they can generally tell when their altruistic actions have had a positive effect.

I don't find the notion of intentional altruism in nonhumans the least bit far-fetched. I see evidence of it on almost a daily basis. However, I'm not surprised by the lengths to which some people will go to try to deny it. As ever, we are reluctant to concede that an ability is not uniquely human. May I suggest that if we want to prove that we're more altruistic than nonhumans that we treat animals with more respect and kindness, and stop treating them as mere units or disposable slaves; that might be more convincing.