Friday, May 14, 2010

Learning to Love Skinner II

Last summer, after I'd finished a year-long "visit" with the theatre department of a nearby college and determined that academic games weren't the games I wanted to play anymore, I returned to passions I'd long neglected-- for animals and for minds. Combine the two, and you have my undivided attention. I read almost indiscriminately through the lay literature on ethology and animal cognition, hopping here and there and everywhere: Clive Wynne, Mark Bekoff, Donald Griffin, Temple Grandin, Marc Hauser, Robert Sapolsky, etc.

One book I found especially congenial is Franz de Waal's The Ape and the Sushi Master. It seems ridiculous to me that anyone should have to argue for the existence of culture among non-human animals, but because the necessity exists, I'm glad de Waal is around to meet it. He's just able to contain his impatience with his scientific colleagues' irrational terror of anthropomorphism, but he does not shy from pointing out the absurdity of supposing that our capacities for empathy, learning, planning, and creative problem solving arrived from the clear evolutionary blue. Of course it's important to exercise due caution when we try to describe the experience of creatures whose physiology differs markedly from our own, but the significant overlap between my physiology and that of a dog (a not so random example) strongly suggests a significant overlap between our internal experiences. Any refusal to acknowledge this must make a hash of evolutionary theory and its rather ruthless principles of conservation.

The stupidity of denying what we share with "beasts" would infuriate me less if it were consistently maintained as an epistemological problem. This, I think, was Skinner's contention: the tools of science cannot reach interior states. We must confine scientific description to what is directly observable. As an honest assessment of real limits, this kind of rigor is utterly inoffensive. Mark Bekoff says much the same thing: "Feelings do not fit under a microscope." But I think this is where Skinner might have got himself such a lousy reputation among humanists, by his insistence that one should train the same lens on (thinking! feeling!) human subjects as on (reflex-driven! soulless!) rats. His indifference as a scientist to the magnificent embroideries that people sew into the fabric of their observable behavior (everything Freud and Jung pored over and reworked in ever more florid patterns) did not compromise his intellectual project, constrained as it was.

But a scientist who takes the limitations of his discipline and makes them a dividing line between his own richly mysterious, ineluctably individual life and the supposedly simple, mechanical, disposable lives of his subjects has made a grave logical (and potentially moral) error. He wouldn't dare say of other people, "Well, they tell me they feel things, but I can't ever know for sure," though he has no more direct access to their emotions than he has to his dog's. He might argue (sloppily) that language itself makes the difference. Then it is up to him to learn a language not his own. A dog will tell him when it feels joy or pain
-- and use consistent, empirically distinct signals to do it-- but only if he cares to listen.

De Waal comments helpfully on the many subtle ways that methodological inadequacies get misread as inadequacies in the subjects of our study: our inability or reluctance to recreate circumstances meaningful to the animals we're observing often results in their fatal lack of interest in the silly tasks we set them to do (fatal to any accurate assessment of their cognitive gifts).

I couldn't imagine how a concern with animals' peculiar (yet familiar) inner lives would entwine with dry, mechanical behaviorism, until I stumbled on Karen Pryor's latest book, Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals. The title prominently featured both of my favorite words, and "training" also caught my eye. Our two dogs owed most of the gradual improvements in their manners to the predations of time; they were nearing official status as "seniors," with their eighth birthdays fast approaching. Both had mellowed beautifully, and we'd long since learned to find most of their "misbehavior" charming. Still I wondered whether we might reach a better mutual understanding about paper scraps (which Kili eats compulsively from the street and the dining table) and the dangers posed by cars (if Barley makes eye contact with a friendly-looking driver, she'll run right up, tail wagging).

Reaching the Animal Mind offers both an engaging narrative of Pryor's long experience as a trainer (of dolphins, horses, dogs, people, and fish, among others) and a primer in the principles and methods of what has come popularly to be known as "clicker training" (though it may not involve a clicker in many instances). Finally, it gestures out toward current research in neuroscience that helps explain the method's remarkable efficacy.

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