WILD MINDS by Marc Hauser


What Animals Really Think
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When it comes to animal behavior, Hauser (Psychology/Harvard) opts for the empirical high road over intuition every time: Anecdotes are sweet, and may prompt interesting questions, but he doesn’t go basing theories on them. For Hauser, the way into an animal’s brain is via systematic, controlled experimentation informed by the latest news from the front in evolutionary theory, cognitive science, neuroscience, and human infant development (because of their similarly prelinguistic status). He has nothing against Jeffrey Masson or Elizabeth Thomas Marshall; he just wants to distinguish between their hunches and the fruits of “objective scientific methods.” Even when animals— —behavior and neurochemistry are similar, this doesn’t guarantee that the intervening thoughts or feelings are the same” as in humans. For the record, Hauser states that “I don—t believe we will ever know what it is like, exactly, to be a bat, a bird or a bonobo,” yet from his fund of developmental, adaptive, and phylogenetic research, he concludes that all animals have a universal mental tool kit; a basic capacity to recognize objects, count, and navigate; and a divergent set of specialized tools, shaped by environmental pressures, to cope with their own ecological and social needs. Reviewing the evidence for emotions, communication, and the use of rules in animals, he agrees they exist. He concludes, however, that without language “they are Kafka-creatures, organisms with rich thoughts and emotions, but no system for translating what they think into something that they can express to others——and without a sufficiently expressive system, there is no question of is or ought in the animal mind. Although Hauser’s style is dry, it is never dismissive, and what his language lacks in music (altruism becomes “direct fitness costs”), he makes up in verve and excitement. A sober, rationalist take on why elephants weep and why dogs’ lives may be as mysterious to them as to us. (15 b&w illus.)

Pub Date: March 9th, 2000
ISBN: 0-8050-5669-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1999


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