Animal psychology

Animal Psychology

Studying animal behaviour is an old branch of psychology. This study is of fundamental value as a source of data on the origin of the human forms of behaviour, and subjectivity itself. That is, the primitive forms of human psychology can be found in animals, and there is no unbridgeable abyss between the humanity and the biosphere of the Earth. It does not matter which species of the animals is considered: cats, dogs, rabbits, or mitten rats. In any case one could find the links to the higher forms of behaviour and psychic phenomena.

However, seeking for the traces of human-like behaviour in animals requires elaborate methods based on a highly developed conception of human behaviour proper. Animals cannot go into introspection, or just relate their anamnesis to you. All one usually gets is the external signs of internal processes—and the scientist must have the tools powerful enough for extracting information from such signs.

Still, this does not make animal psychology different from other sciences, since any science deals with phenomena, extracting more profound knowledge from them with the help of elaborate analytical techniques. Thus, a cat cannot speak human way, and tell me about its intentions and plans—but a molecule cannot tell me about its atomic structure just the same! Scientists have learned to determine the structure of molecules, the composition of stars and galaxies—and they can learn to guess about the needs of the animals, and the contents of a cat's dream.

As it seems, this latter task is simpler than, say, guessing the configuration of electronic subshells in the atom. Animals are close enough to the human level in the nature, and any analogies may be much more justified. Moreover, one usually obtains the major part of information about the internal world of other human beings through non-verbal channels of communication—and people already have some training in guessing the meaning of behavioural signs. The analogous methods could be employed in observing higher animals, with minor modifications accounting for physiological differences.

Of course, one should always check the validity of the techniques employed, to avoid the misleading perceptual sets or attribution errors. However, the same holds for any science other than animal psychology.

[For those interested in references: I'm heavily exploiting L. Vygotsky's ideas expressed in his History of the development of the higher psychic functions. (written in 1931; partially published in 1960, published in full in the Collected Works, vol.3, pp.5-328; Moscow: Pedagogika, 1983). I will be grateful if somebody tells me whether this book has ever been translated into English, and gives me the complete reference.]

Now, let's return to the cat story. The behaviour of a cat is different that of a human being—and this difference will be present in any psychic phenomenon, including, for instance, purposiveness and intentionality. Still, one may ask to what extent these levels of behaviour are different? And what is it that makes them different? To get an answer one will have to somehow compare these two different kinds of behaviour, which, obviously, is not a trivial operation. It would be a folly to compare apples with oranges—unless one specifies a measure which might be commonly applied to the both. So, to compare human and animal behaviour, one must first find the situations where people and animals would be in the same conditions.

Thus, one might say: "I observe that my little son has much more developed behaviour than my cat, and therefore I cannot agree that a cat may have the same abilities."

However, such a comparison is illegal, since the hierarchies compared have been taken in different unfoldings. This is much like little children's refusal to recognise as equal two triangles, one of which has been put with its angle up, while another is the opposite side up (I understand that such an attitude may be quite justified another time—e.g. when one's looking for a WC). Have you ever paid your cat a millionth of the attention you've given to your child? Have you tried to educate a cat like a child? Or, maybe, you have tried to treat your baby like a cat, never really communicating with it and limiting the scope of its interests to the food and cotton wool balls? I doubt that a child would have grown into a person after such education.

The well-known instances of children grown up among the wild animals indicate that the natural abilities of a human child cannot make it more than a smart animal—and people should not conceive too much about themselves in that respect.

The situation may be just the same, if an individual develops in the cultural environment: when a worker is loosing his or her health to earn money hardly enough for lodging and food, when a student is studying something with the only goal to make his or her career, when a millionaire is spending enormous sums to maintain the decent appearance before the other wealthy men—aren't they just survival mechanisms operating at a very unsophisticated level? I do not see here much difference from the cat stalking a bird, or practising its skills. Well, cats do note vote so far—but they can do it indirectly, through the people, for example, fighting against the cruelty to the animals (especially in the UK). Anyway, babies do not vote too, and their parents have to organise demonstrations with the prams to defend children's interests. I am not too original suggesting that the process of domestication was not just the taming of the wild animals by the people, but rather their mutual adaptation.

I'm afraid, there have been no serious experimenting with cats to determine the limits of their abilities. One cannot count the reflex studies—if a person were to be treated this way, the reactions would be mainly the same, no matter reason or not. My own experience with cats, and the cases described by other people, makes me think that every single component of human behaviour can be developed in cats to quite an appreciable extent.

Of course, it would be strange to suggest that cats are like people in any respect. There are differences in physiology, which would not allow the animals to profit from the material culture of the humanity, which has been adjusted to the human ways of operation. Thus, you cannot teach a cat to wash with soap and shampoo and make a bath. Still, you can teach it to ask for your help, when the simple lick-up procedure is felt to be insufficient. A well-educated cat is much more tidy than most children I know, and even some grown-ups (if somebody's child is better—my congratulations). The same holds for any other cultural function.

Still, there is a field where it would be most difficult to admit any similarity between people and animals. I mean speech and language. A two-year-old child apparently has greater linguistic skills than any animal. And animals just cannot master human languages and learn to talk.

However, here one compares incomparable things once again. Well, cats are much worse than human babies in speech—but are there many human grown-ups much versed in communicating the cat way? Few people can distinguish the various signals issued by the cats, and most people don't even try to understand their pets. The reason why most animals do not learn human ways and attitudes is not because they cannot communicate with us, but rather because we do not want to communicate with them.

The study of communication abilities in animals should be based on the forms of communications suitable for the animals. Thus, the well-known experiments with chimps have shown that they are much better in sigh language than in oral speech—and the main obstacle to the development of their linguistic skills is mostly the absence of the environment requiring such skills. My observations of cats indicate that they are very sensitive to speech intonations, and they can learn to imitate the intonations of human speech. For example, my cats used to pose their questions in much the same phrases the people could have done—only without words. Of course, such "oral" questions were accompanied with the appropriate gestures of the cat communication system (just like people may accompany the oral questions with mimic and pointing gestures).

So, animals can be compared to people even in the area of linguistic skills. When my cat who wants to have the door open goes to me and invites me to open it—does it principally differ from a baby's "give" word-phrase?

Though every single psychic function can be observed in cats as well as in human beings, this does not make the cats' behaviour conscious, and I have never spoken of conscious animals. The presence of all the components needed does not mean the arrangement of these components into the whole. The sociality and productive labour are the clues—but this is a theme for another essay.

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