A Tasty Treat for the Slime-Mold: More Inane Reporting on Animal Cognition


Koshik the talking Korean elephant

by Justin E. H. Smith

It’s been a busy few weeks for announcements about how smart non-human life-forms are. First there was the talking beluga in California, then there was the elephant in Korea who could articulate a few words, then, finally, the report on a lowly slime mold’s ability to make sophisticated decisions. All three of these reports repeated many of the conventional tropes for talking about animal intelligence; all trumpeted as wholly new and unheard-of the sort of data that have long been a staple of science reporting; and all are sure to leave everything exactly the same: with anti-anthropocentrists shouting see! See!, and with those who believe that human beings are something special in the cosmic scheme insisting that anything they are shown can be explained in terms of mimicry, stimulus, and other automatisms.

The irrelevance of empirical data for deciding the matter, in fact, long precedes the very existence of science journalism: it defines a clear rift already in 17th-century philosophy, while the ‘new’ discoveries themselves are for the most part only variations of what was already well documented in Aristotle’s Historia animalium. And yet, the journalists always report as if until yesterday we were all fully committed to a hardcore version of the bête-machine doctrine. At the same time, however, they ensure that the topic will remain perpetually new by reinforcing, willy-nilly, the very doctrine their news item is supposed to be calling into question.

What do I mean by this? Consider the report from the New York Daily News, in which Koshik the Korean elephant is described as ‘parroting’ human speech. Parrot speech, again, at least since Aristotle, has been easily bracketed as non-speech in view of its presumed automatic or (to project back our own technological analogies) recorder-like character. The great authority on elephant cognition, Christine Roberts (whose day job is as a reporter for the News), tells us that although Koshik is vocalizing by putting his trunk in his mouth, nonetheless “he is only mimicking the noises, not speaking them.” Mimicry, or ‘aping’, as it’s sometimes called, is so far from serving as a corroboration of the reality of animal cognition to those who have an a priori commitment to not believing in it, that in fact it has generally only served historically to reinforce the conviction that nature is a very impressive, and deceitful, producer of simulations. This is why humans hate apes (or generally have hated apes): because they look like they can do many of the things we explain in humans through the possession of a soul, and yet we know that only humans have souls. The language has been updated, but this remains the take-away point of the reporting on Koshik the elephant.

Though it concerns a variety of protists, and not animals, reporting on the slime-mold follows much the same pattern. None of what is described will strike the skeptic as in any way indicative of anything like cognition. The ‘ability’ to trace the shortest line between any two points, for example, thus ‘simulating’ the work of a city planner designing an underground rail system, is easily and obviously explicable in terms of the mundane principles of optimality that govern the behavior of catenaries and other systems in the physical world. But what is particularly interesting here is the condescension in the language used to describe what a slime-mold does. What I describe as ‘condescension’ will of course be explained by others as an attempt to make the news fun, or kid-friendly, or something, but the fact remains that no one would think to describe the behavior of either a human being taking an IQ test or the behavior of gas molecules in a vacuum as if they were describing a diminutive cartoon character. In a PBS video about the slime-mold, we’ve already been told that this species has no brain, or nervous system, and presumably therefore no taste-buds; and yet we are expected to play along when the protein-carbohydrate blend it gets for performing its little trick is described as ‘tasty’.

It is by such cute little words (‘yummy’ is the one that is usually invoked in science journalism to describe the rewards given to test subjects) that we are meant to understand that whatever amazing behavior an animal has just exhibited, in the end it only did it for the treat. This sort of system of rewarding, we are meant to recall at least subconsciously, is, since Pavlov, the touchstone of the classical-conditioning theory of animal motivations, and also by extension of behaviorism, both of which rest on the presumption that there is no real cognition of interest going on in the animal’s mind. The fact that we can only introduce the possibility of intelligence in a brainless slime-mold by simultaneously taking it away with reassuring cutesiness about the yummy treats the scientists are giving it shows, I think, how anxious we really are about seriously considering the possibility that non-human creatures have rich, not cute, internal lives.

I make no secret about being a pananimist. I am fairly convinced that it is minds, or mind-like principles, that govern the activity of all natural beings, and that there is nothing fundamentally different in my intelligent behavior from what we observe in a slime-mold. I am happy whenever new attention to the rationality of creatures such as slime-molds is paid, but (i) I think that it is something we knew about all along, but which we have preferred of late to ignore; and (ii) I am very wary of the conventions we have for talking about it, as I believe they carry with them a built-in mechanism for self-deflation.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website