Griffin, Donald Redfield
GRIFFIN, DONALD REDFIELD
(b. Southampton, New York, 3 August 1915; d. Lexington, Massachusetts, 7 November 2003),
zoologist, ethologist, cognitive ethologist, animal behavior, animal mind and consciousness.
Behavior scientist Griffin enjoyed a scientific career of startling discoveries about animal behavior made by himself and other scientists. Early on he studied how birds and bats migrate. During the last thirty years of his life he immersed himself in the investigation of animal mind, spearheading inquiry into what was considered, during most of his career, to be an unacceptable or marginal topic within behavioral science—conscious awareness in the animal world.
Overview . Griffin was the only child of Mary Whitney Redfield Griffin and Henry Farrand Griffin. His mother kindled his interests early on by reading him Ernest Thompson Seton stories and the color-illustrated Mammals of North America. His father, a journalist and graduate of Yale, eventually turned amateur historian and wrote two historical novels. Griffin’s uncle Alfred C. Redfield, who encouraged his boyhood nature interests, was a founding scientist of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Griffin’s beloved wife, Jocelyn Crane Griffin, was an internationally recognized ethologist, who during her retirement earned a PhD in art history and studied human gestures in art. She died in 1998. Donald and Jocelyn Griffin were survived by their three children.
Griffin’s fascination with natural history and animals had roots in his childhood and adolescence, from his mother reading him animal stories to his roaming the countryside observing and trapping critters. He entered the field that came to be known as ethology in the 1930s, when the scientific study of naturally occurring behavior was beginning to emerge with the pioneering work of European scientists Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas (Niko) Tinbergen (Burkhardt, 2005). Griffin dedicated himself to the study of animal behavior at a time when scientists were urged to put aside such “naive” interests, and devote themselves to respectable areas within the life sciences (such as physiology). Griffin’s commitment to learning about animal life remained steadfast in the face of institutional discouragement throughout his career.
By dint of determination and creative research, his career as a student of animal behavior from the 1930s to the end of his life in 2003 was enormously successful. He received his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from Harvard University between 1934 and 1942. After holding a faculty position in zoology at Cornell University until 1953, he returned to Harvard where he worked until 1965. He subsequently joined Rockefeller University until he retired in 1986. Griffin spent his last years affiliated with Harvard University’s Concord Field Station, in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he continued his lively writing and research career to the end of his life. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Animal Behavior Society, and American Philosophical Society.
Griffin’s career can be divided into two phases. The first spanned to the mid-1970s, and was dedicated to etho-logical studies of animal behavior both in the field and in experimental settings. His research focused especially on the navigation behaviors of bats and birds. The second phase of his scientific life was devoted to the question of animal mind and to the work of building the subdiscipline of cognitive ethology. Considering his career as a whole, it is possible to discern how his behavioral research prepared him to inquire into the role of consciousness in animal life. In an autobiographical account, Griffin himself acknowledged how behavioral discoveries primed him to turn to the question of animal consciousness (1998a).
Research on Navigation . As a field and experimental scientist Griffin is renowned as codiscoverer of bat echolocation (Griffin and Galambos, 1941). His early work demonstrated that bats are able to avoid obstacles by emitting high frequency signals, which allow them to see their environs through the echoes bouncing back to them. At the time of Griffin’s research on echolocation, in the 1940s and 1950s, no one suspected that bats also use this detection system to catch flying insects; indeed, the idea that they might echolocate moving targets was deemed improbable. It took Griffin several years of working with different experimental designs, but he eventually showed conclusively that bats use their bioradar to catch flying prey.
Griffin researched diverse aspects of bats’ complex perceptual apparatus. He showed that bats can evade wires of 1 millimeter diameter or less, that they avoid such wires even in the presence of jamming sounds by modifying their flying pattern, and that they learn to distinguish between different sorts of objects (especially edible versus inedible), even if those objects return echoes of similar wavelength. He also found that echolocation is not used in a monolithic fashion, for bats will not deploy their radar detection abilities in known territory—relying instead on their familiarity with the surroundings. This was demonstrated by experiments in which bats steer clear of a previously present obstacle that has been removed, and run into obstacles newly erected on familiar routes. Griffin’s field and experimental studies of bats are presented in his elaborate 1958 work, Listening in the Dark, for which he received the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1961.
From his comprehensive study of the perceptual modality of a single animal, Griffin gleaned two crucial insights: one, that echolocation is a versatile mode of perception—used (or not) by bats in different contexts and for different purposes; and two, that scientists, like most people, have consistently underestimated animal capacities. These insights disposed Griffin favorably to the possibility that animal mind, in the sense of conscious awareness, may be an active and efficient modality for animals to navigate a complex world. The use of echolocation by bats as a versatile tool also prepared him to argue that, though animal consciousness may seem implausible to many, inquiry into the question is justified by amazing discoveries about animals that would remain unknown without suspension of disbelief and dogged research.
Griffin also studied bird navigation, designing experiments to see whether and how birds find their way back
home after they are experimentally relocated in distant places. He pioneered the method of following birds in light airplanes to observe their homing patterns. He found that some species make their way home via indirect routes (suggesting that they search for familiar territory), while others immediately orient homeward often with great accuracy. Griffin researched bird navigation at a time when, as he put it, “the possibility that birds might distinguish Polaris from other stars was outlandish” (1998a, p. 79). His work contributed to highlighting the sophistication of bird navigation.
In 1948 a startling discovery in the history of behavioral science made a huge impression on Griffin: Karl von Frisch’s announcement that honeybees use a symbolic system to communicate about the distance and direction of food sources. On hearing about this discovery, at first Griffin was incredulous. In his characteristic scientific style he immediately set out to repeat some of von Frisch’s experiments and confirmed for himself the efficacy of the honeybees’ symbolic code—known in the behavioral literature as their “dance language.” Though it was not until some thirty years later that Griffin would openly broach the question of animal awareness, the discovery of the dance language played a significant role in turning him in that direction. For Griffin the use of symbolism by a group of insects underscored, once again, how profoundly animal abilities are underestimated; it reinforced his intuition that an indefinite number of astounding facts about animal life remain to be uncovered; and lastly, the dance language suggested the possibility that honeybees use it to consciously share, and follow up on, information about their surroundings. Griffin became so excited with von Frisch’s breakthrough that he arranged an American lecture tour for the German scientist and his wife, and also negotiated with Cornell University Press to publish a translation of von Frisch’s manuscript Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language (1950).
Cognitive Ethology . Griffin’s work in ethology spanned the decades of its creation and establishment as a legitimate scientific field. Exciting discoveries about animal behavior, as well as firsthand experience of seeing ethology battle for acceptance as a worthy arena of scientific inquiry, seasoned Griffin to lead the founding of cognitive ethology, the subdiscipline he introduced with his first book on animal mind in 1976— The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience.
Ethology had by this time come of age as a lively research field—also recognized more broadly with the Nobel Prize awarded to Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch in 1973. The question of consciousness, however, remained a proscribed topic within ethological science; behavioral scientists were actively discouraged from inquiring into animals’ conscious mental lives. The reception of The Question of Animal Awareness showed that Griffin had broached an idea whose time had come. Whatever the perceived shortcomings of his first book on animal mind, many reviewers hailed it as refreshing, important, exciting, and stimulating (Friedman, 1977; Dawkins, 1977; Hilgard, 1978; Sarles, 1978). While some twentieth-century scientists, in both zoology and psychology, had previously wrestled with questions about “the complexities of the animal mind” and with “the evolutionary continuity of mental experience”—as certain critical reviewers reprimanded Griffin (Mason, 1976; Humphrey, 1977), no scientist had yet suggested establishing animal conscious awareness as a question for science.
It was extremely fortunate for the fate of cognitive ethology that its creator was a highly regarded, successful scientist who had proved his mettle with nearly half a century of productive research. In her review article of The Question of Animal Awareness, for example, Caryl Haskins noted that “no one is more eminently fitted to speak strongly on the matter than Donald Griffin” (1978, p. 383). William Mason as well, despite his critical commentary, began his review by noting Griffin’s eminence in the field of animal navigation and orientation (1976, p. 930). Reviewers agreed that the book was too short and limited in scope for its subject matter—with much of its focus on the natural language of honeybees and experimentally taught languages to chimpanzees. One reviewer offered that he “would have preferred a more leisurely book, one argued more closely, more widely and more deeply to reflect the author’s marvelous scientific intellect” (Hail-man, 1978, p. 615; see also Beer, 1977). In his next books on the topic, Griffin took the criticisms to heart.
After The Question of Animal Awareness, Griffin went on to publish two more books on the animal mind: Animal Thinking with Harvard University in 1984 and Animal Minds with the University of Chicago Press in 1992 (revised and expanded in 2001). In Animal Thinking he updated and extended evidence of conscious awareness, by including the examination not only of animal communication (the focus of his 1976 work), but also of complex behaviors such as foraging, predator-prey interaction, artifact construction, and tool use. The variety and number of animals he considered in his second book also broadened considerably. While reviewers of Animal Thinking continued to perceive Griffin as “challenging conventional wisdom,” “heretical,” and “iconoclastic” (Dunbar, 1984; Graham, 1984; Herman, 1985), they also recognized that his inclusion of new lines of evidence and a richer database promised to make a greater impact on the field (Beer, 1984). Griffin himself closed his 1984 book with the assessment that changing the scientific community’s beliefs about animal consciousness “will require an accumulation of extensive and mutually reinforcing evidence, far beyond evidence now available” (1984, p. 209). Marshaling this evidence was the task he set himself in writing his magnum opus. His 1992 (revised, 2001) Animal Minds was meticulously compiled, lucidly argued, and written for a broad audience of scientists, other academics, and a lay public.
Animal Minds . . In the span of three decades and three books, Griffin’s thinking on animal mind evolved profoundly both qualitatively and quantitatively. No one has gone so far as Griffin in classifying behavioral indicators of mental experience, and collecting a comprehensive dataset of animal behaviors under those headings. In his third and last book on the topic, Griffin brought together a rich collection of findings from ethological and psychological research, an extensive database of behaviors—ranging from the insightful to the commonplace—suggestive of conscious awareness. “If nothing else, but is much more,” ethologist Marc Bekoff wrote in his review, “Animal Minds is a fine natural history of the behavior of a wide variety of organisms; it is a comprehensive and comparative review of evidence, including anecdotes, data from rigorous observations, and experimental findings that suggest animal consciousness” (1993, p. 166).
The book’s central strategy consists of a systematic consideration of behavioral evidence amassing since Charles Darwin’s work on animal mind (1871, 1872). Indeed, Griffin’s strategy in Animal Minds recalls the approach of On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin assembled a variety of evidence for the purposes of making “one long argument” for evolution by common descent (1859). Griffin compiled an enormous amount of behavioral data suggestive of conscious thinking and feeling in the animal world. His project is also analogous to Darwin’s in challenging the human predilection to assign ourselves special origins and/or distinguishing qualities. While the idea that the human species was specially created has been largely discredited, the view that conscious awareness is the privileged possession of our species continues to have purchase, in one form or another.
In Animal Minds, Griffin organized the empirical evidence in terms of broad categories of naturally occurring and experimentally studied behaviors suggesting conscious awareness: finding food, predation, constructing artifacts, tools and devices, category learning, communication, and deception. Under these headings, Griffin gathered a gamut of behavioral examples. Herons’ practice of baiting fish, raptors drowning their prey, ingenious cooperative hunting in several species, injury-feigning by birds as a distracting tactic, experimental evidence of concept formation in pigeons, the honeyguide bird guiding people to bee hives, the experimental demonstration of some animals’ simple numerical competence, ravens’ solution of piecemeal hauling of a string on which food is suspended, the semantic information communicated by vervet alarm calls, the linguistic feats of honeybees, apes, and African parrots: these examples are but a fraction of the complex behaviors, suggesting the action of mind, that Griffin discusses.
His point of amassing example after example is to suggest that the accumulating knowledge from field and experimental psychology studies belies the received zeitgeist of animals as sleepwalkers, and encourages an understanding of nonhumans as wide-awake to their lived experience. “A conscious organism,” Griffin maintained, “is clearly different in an important way from one that lacks any subjective mental experience. The former thinks and feels to a greater or lesser degree, while the latter is limited to existing and reacting” (2001, p. 253).
The perennial difficulty that Griffin faced in making the case for conscious awareness was that the (hypothetical or real) skeptic might redescribe the same behaviors as unconscious reactions. An example may illustrate this interpretive parallax: in autumn, a bird known as the Clark’s nutcracker stores seeds underground and in crevices that it retrieves and feeds on during the winter. Experimental research has shown that this species relies on landmarks for caching its seeds and subsequently finding them. In his narrative, Griffin noted two divergent interpretations: the behavior might be understood as involving simple conscious thinking on the bird’s part; or it might be regarded as the outcome of unconscious memory mechanics (2001, p. 60).
Griffin often simply highlighted such contrasting interpretations/images of a behavior—as mindful versus mindless—and then entreated the reader to consider the plausibility, or at least the possibility, of the former over the latter. In juxtaposing images of animals as aware creatures versus robots, Griffin might be seen as problematizing what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to (for different purposes than the subject matter in consideration) as pictures (1953). Pictures in Wittgenstein’s sense conjure the concept-ladeness or assumption-ladeness of perception. Such perception, tinted by preconceived notions, is vividly exemplified in how people see and understand animal action. Griffin’s descriptions sometimes appear tacitly aimed at shifting the reader-observer from an automaton picture of animal behavior to a mindful one of how and why animals act as they do. His overt tactic was to argue that the accruing behavioral evidence has begun to weigh in favor of consciousness over mechanistic conceptions.
In his investigations into animal mind, Griffin never wavered from his interest in subjective conscious experience—as opposed to framing his approach in terms of the study of “animal cognition.” The subtitle added to the 2001 edition of Animal Minds— Beyond Cognition to Consciousness—underscores this focus (see also Griffin, 1998b). “Cognition” can be framed with a raft of computer metaphors such as information processing, input-output schemata, neuronal maps and representations, memory storage, and the like—a mechanistic vocabulary that either suggests that mental processes are carried out unconsciously or elides the question of consciousness altogether.
Whereas Griffin engaged philosophy of mind literature (much of which abounds with computer jargon), he was interested in animal mind in the phenomenological, quasi-commonsense view of the wide-awake, aware experience of living. He applauded the fact that the reign of behaviorism was supplanted in the 1960s by the cognitive turn—in which inner representations finally became plausible phenomena for inquiry. But he also repeatedly highlighted the fact that within cognitive science “animals are granted only un conscious cognition” (1997).
Animal Consciousness . Griffin was thus tuned to phenomena of awareness, which, with refreshing straightforwardness, he identified as the quest for what animals think and feel. Griffin wrestled with definitions of such terms as mind, consciousness, conscious, awareness, thinking, and the like, but in the end opted for using their down-to-earth meanings. “We all know what consciousness experiences are,” he wrote, and went on to identify the key question as “whether other species have any conscious experiences, and if so what these are like to the animals themselves” (2000, p. 889). But while using human conscious experience as the rough-and-ready yardstick of the meaning of “consciousness,” Griffin also acknowledged that animal conscious states are likely to be qualitatively different from humans’. Perhaps endeavoring to preempt the charge that he was humanizing animals, Griffin often insisted that human mind and animal mind must differ profoundly—and that his interest was in uncovering “the simplest thoughts and feelings” of animals, not in overattributing mental abilities. He admitted that human language underskirts the vast scope of the human species’ thinking ability. Griffin did not completely rule out “more complex forms of consciousness [in animals] such as introspective metacognition or thinking about thoughts,” but thought such topics of investigation “best left for future inquiries” (1997).
In making the case that a subdiscipline devoted to animal consciousness is a worthwhile endeavor, Griffin had a multilevel approach. As noted, he systematized large amounts of evidence from the corpus of behavioral, biological, and psychological knowledge. But besides considering the empirical evidence in toto and afresh, Griffin also contested the institutional barriers and background-assumption roadblocks to exploring the question of animal mind. He exposed the institutional resistance, historically entrenched in the behavioral sciences, to the investigation of animal consciousness, and deconstructed the ingrained assumptions that blocked the consideration of animal mind within science.
Griffin’s inquiry into animal mind thus involved scrutinizing the attitude of the scientific community toward the question itself. Throughout his work, he consistently highlighted the institutional resistance to the idea of nonhuman consciousness, and criticized such closure to inquiry as contrary to the spirit of science. Griffin called the twentieth-century doctrine that entreated scientists to focus solely on observable behavior, without any reference to the mental experience, as “inclusive behaviorism.” He regarded most behavioral scientists as “inclusive behaviorists” for excising phenomena of animal awareness as either epistemologically inaccessible or empirically nonexistent. Griffin also challenged cognitive scientists for rendering conscious thoughts or feelings superfluous by framing cognition as “information-processing” (2001, pp. 263–264)—a mechanistic conceptualization that served to avoid grappling with the question of consciousness. By shunning conscious awareness in animal life in different ways, behavioral scientists of all stripes (psychologists, ethologists, behavioral ecologists, and cognitive scientists) have contributed to perpetuating the received zeitgeist of animals as nonconscious beings.
Reaction of the Scientific Community . . To promote the emergent field of cognitive ethology, Griffin was compelled to face resistance to change. He highlighted inhibitions to engaging the topic of animal mind, noting how behavioral scientists have been indoctrinated to regard a fascination with animal consciousness as a kind of tender-mindedness. (Indeed, one reviewer called Griffin a “sentimental softy” for proposing that animals are consciously aware [Cronin, 1992].) He exposed many other mechanisms by which a scientific discourse about animal consciousness has been preempted and silenced: by students being trained that it is unscientific to raise questions about animal awareness, and discouraged or ridiculed whenever they do so; by field and experimental scientists avoiding to report evidence suggestive of conscious thinking; by scientific journals being reluctant to publish such evidence; and by a general filtering out and censoring of observations relating to animal consciousness. Griffin used words such as taboo and brainwashing to characterize how animal awareness has been handled by the scientific community; he called the avoidance of mind “mentophobia”—diagnosing it as the vestige of the long reign of behaviorism in the life sciences (2001, pp. 34–36).
Another barrier to the study of mind that Griffin noted is the “fear of anthropomorphism” in behavioral science—the concern of attributing to animals specifically human traits. He challenged the notion that ascribing consciousness to animals is a form of anthropomorphism by pointing out that this “merely reiterates a prejudgment that consciousness is uniquely human” (1997). The assumption that the attribution of mind to animals reflects the error of anthropomorphism begs two important questions: whether mind is a privileged human possession, and whether empathy (that is, some form of critical anthropomorphism) may not be useful, or even necessary, in discerning the presence of mind in others. Griffin also realized that the accusation of anthropomorphism is a whitewash over diverse mental ascriptions of extremely different levels of plausibility. Referring to Clever Hans, the famous turn-of-the-twentieth-century horse claimed to know mathematics, Griffin highlighted the crass generalizations encouraged by the charge of anthropomorphism: “We were in fact brainwashed into equating the belief that a horse can carry out a long division with the suggestion that a rabbit consciously anticipates escaping from a fox by plunging into its burrow” (1992, p. 24).
Beyond criticizing the inhibitions of the scientific community toward the question of animal mind, Griffin also unpacked widespread assumptions that blocked inquiry. One key assumption he challenged, in all his works, is the long-standing idea of a “Rubicon” separating animal and human mentality. While the assumption of a radical disparity is far less common in the early twenty-first century than it was in the 1970s, the belief that only humans possess mind in the sense of complex thoughts, reasons, deliberations, or intentions that accompany, or underlie, action continues to hold sway. Griffin contended that such an exemptionalist belief is out of synch with the knowledge of evolutionary continuity bequeathed by the Darwinian worldview—a continuity that only “conceit” would keep scientists from extending to the realm of consciousness.
A second entrenched assumption that Griffin scrutinized is the belief that if an animal’s behavior is genetic or learned, it is executed automatically. In countering this assumption Griffin raised two points. Firstly he argued that there is no compelling evidence that an instinctive or learned behavior cannot also be consciously executed; a bird, for example, may inherit its nest-building pattern, but this does not mean that while constructing its nest the bird is unaware of what it is doing—that it is being run by its “genetic program” like a virtual sleepwalker. Secondly Griffin insisted that instinctive and learned behaviors are rarely as invariant, or as rigidly expressed, as the language of “programming” suggests. The hunting behavior of certain predatory spiders, for example, while inherited (that is, “genetically programmed”), is not a stereotyped pattern, but rather a set of tactics subtly adjusted to the particular prey hunted and its responses. Griffin shrewdly pointed out about this case that “if monkeys did what these spiders do, we would be strongly tempted to conclude that they were acting intentionally” (2001, p. 63).
Behavioral scientist Colin Beer rightly pointed out that “Griffin takes the whole animal kingdom as his province,” and is “an advocate of equal rights to cognitive consideration for all animals” (1984, p. 31). Griffin’s extensive inclusion of invertebrate examples was noted by most commentators—one reviewer called it “the strength and challenge” of his work (Norris, 1985). Indeed, a third pervasive assumption Griffin contested is the prejudice against conscious awareness among so-called lower animals, especially invertebrates. He repeatedly exposed how deep-seated assumptions of an obsolete (but diehard) phylogenetic scale of mentality in the animal kingdom—from mindless automatism to self-conscious agency—inform scientific judgments about animal behavior (2001, pp. 262–263).
Griffin noted that the complexity and variability of behaviors in a wide range of animals, including insects and other invertebrates, belie human prejudgments. For example, he discussed the behavior of the assassin bug, an insect that camouflages itself by gluing pieces of termite nest to its body, thereby luring in termites that it kills and consumes. In reporting the assassin bug’s predatory tactics, Griffin brings up the analogy of “chimpanzees fashion[ing] sticks to probe termites.” But when scientists discover “assassin bugs carrying out an almost equally elaborate feeding behavior,” he goes on to ask, “must we assume that the insect is only a genetically programmed robot incapable of understanding what it does?” (1984, p. 124). Thus he both exposes human preconceptions about invertebrates and highlights the intentionality of the insect’s behavior.
Griffin devoted extensive attention to describing the honeybee dance language, which he called a “sort of geometrical symbolism” (2001, p. 195). His elaborate account highlights that the dance is a communicative tool used only when there is need in the hive and strictly in the presence of an audience. Honeybees deploy the dance for a variety purposes: for nectar by indicating the location of flower patches, but also for water when the hive is overheating, pollen when supplies in the colony diminish, and, in its most enterprising use, for the purposes of identifying the whereabouts of potential cavities when the swarm needs to relocate. After underscoring the multiple uses of this direction-giving language, Griffin argued that the honeybees do not dance mechanically. Its versatility suggests it is more likely a tool employed by mindful actors than a rigid program executed by quasi-automata (2001, pp. 190–211; see Crist, 2004).
A fourth received assumption that Griffin found questionable if not fallacious is that accounts of behavior in terms of mental experience violate the law of parsimony. He sums up this view by quoting behavioral scientist David Premack: “What need is there for mind when there are contingencies and reinforcement?” (Premack quoted in Griffin, 2001, p. 144). On the contrary, Griffin argued, having direct awareness of what needs to be done, or of how to accomplish a task, would confer an adaptive advantage in an animal’s life, while blindly following a fixed genetic or learned program can be inefficient in a world that presents unpredictable challenges, and in which doing the wrong thing can be fatal (2000, p. 891). Natural selection would likely favor an aptitude for conscious thinking about alternative courses, given the survival value of such an aptitude in a changeable and dangerous world.
Behavioral versatility is especially difficult to account for in a parsimonious manner, when the metaphor of “programming” is reified and projected onto the reality of animal lives. Certain ground-nesting birds, for example, exhibit markedly distinct behaviors in the presence of a lurking predator versus an approaching grazer. Positing the bird’s conscious awareness of its experience offers a more straightforward account of why it will respond one way to a fox and another way to a cow, than adding “special subprograms” to account for its versatile modulation of behavior protective of its eggs or chicks (2001, p. 112). Similarly, after detailing the intricate maneuvers of pike and minnows (predator and prey fish, respectively), Griffin noted that the scientist “can postulate a complex network of instinctive reflexes for the observed behaviors, complete with random noise generators at strategic points to explain unpredictable sequences.” Highlighting the ad hoc nature of such schemes, he submitted that “it becomes increasingly plausible, and more parsimonious, to infer that both pike and minnows think consciously in simple terms about their all-important efforts to catch elusive food or to escape from a threatening predator” (2001, p. 66). Recognizing mindfulness in the behavior of predators and their prey is a more economical way of understanding their flexible maneuvers than postulating a complex series of stimulus-response connections to render the same phenomena.
Lastly, Griffin faced a fifth obstructing assumption about animal mind, perhaps the most difficult to crack: that the study of conscious mental states is moot because they are fundamentally inaccessible. The view that mental states are private and unattainable, if indeed existent at all, is a shared premise of inclusive behaviorism. As an example, Griffin cited cognitive scientist Edward Wasserman, who steered clear of subjective experience in animals despite his extensive work on pigeon cognition. “No statement concerning consciousness in animals is open to verification and experiment. Isn't it time we set aside such tantalizing but unanswerable questions?” (Wasserman, quoted in Griffin, 2001, p. 147).
Regarding the inaccessibility of mind, Griffin noted that while people can claim the same about their fellow humans, they are not hampered in drawing conclusions about one another’s inner states on the basis of their behavior. “We routinely make valid (if not totally perfect) inferences about the conscious experiences of our human companions,” he noted, and immediately identified the challenge as developing “ways to make reasonably plausible inferences about private experiences of other species” (1997). Griffin thus did not question the idea of mind as a “private realm.” He called for extending the circle of analogy from one’s own experience, beyond our fellow humans, to other species; and he deplored that the privacy of animals minds should lead to hopeless pessimism and the abandonment of all investigation.
But in descriptions of behaviors redolent with intentionality and mindfulness, Griffin implicitly challenged the doctrine of the “privacy of mind.” When the observer is receptive to a view of animals as mindful, then their intentionality is witnessed as an observable aspect of their actions—a bending upon a task, a lone or concerted effort toward a particular end, and a persistence, deliberateness, or texture of presence in the expression of behavior. In his thick descriptions, for example, of how different insects, birds, and beavers build their nests (2001, pp. 85–112), Griffin’s tacitly conveyed message is that mind is visible to the patient, open-minded, careful investigator. But in his explicit conclusions Griffin usually maintained that the behaviors he described were highly “suggestive” of conscious awareness—but did not constitute foolproof evidence. Thus he remained party to the entrenched western philosophical and scientific paradigm of mind (challenged by late Wittgensteinian and phenomenological traditions) as a purely inner realm that behavior hints at only obliquely (see Crist, 1999).
While complying with the idea that thinking and feeling are not directly accessible phenomena, Griffin was bent on offering empirical approaches that might render animal consciousness more plausibly transparent. He offered three criteria, or lines of evidence, for the discernment of conscious awareness: one, the versatility of animal behavior—the ability to modulate behavioral repertoires in the face of challenging conditions; two, similarities in brain neuronal function between animals and humans; and three, the complex communicative skills of many species (1999).
Of these lines of argumentation, his most compelling insight for empirical access to animal consciousness involved the documentation of what he called “versatility,” which Griffin viewed as a powerful indicator of intelligent adaptation to the peculiarities at hand. Versatility may indeed be regarded as subsuming Griffin’s third criterion for mind (that of complex communicative skills) for versatility may be broadly defined as the capacity of animals to engage in nuanced conversation with their environments. For Griffin, an animal’s ability to adapt or tweak its behaviors indicates a deliberateness and reasonableness underlying its relationship with the world. At the very least, flexibility in response to environmental modulations belies a picture of behaviors (inherited or conditioned) as rigidly expressed.
It is difficult to read descriptions of raptors drowning their struggling prey without a sense that such an act is mindful of the desired and anticipated consequence (2001, pp. 66–67). Yet routine behaviors, as well, such as nest-repair among birds, are carried out in a reasonable as opposed to stereotyped fashion, suggesting that versatility may be a ubiquitous aspect of animal life, not simply a feature of clever behaviors (2001, p. 91). Beavers modify their dam and lodge building styles according to local conditions and materials, suggesting flexible behavior and a sensible use of resources, rather than “the thoughtless unfolding of a genetically determined program” (2001, p. 112). Moreover, animals can sometimes apply a previously well-developed type of action to a new situation—such as the famous tits who, utilizing their skill of stripping off the bark of trees, learned to open milk bottles (2001, p. 53).
“To what extent,” Griffin wondered, “does the novelty in applying well-established actions to new situations indicate conscious thinking?” (2001, p. 54). While he posed this as a tantalizing question, he did his utmost to compile such novel applications of behaviors showing versatility to be pervasive in the animal world. The importance of this project cannot be underestimated: no other behavioral scientist has gathered such extensive empirical material to show that the ways of animals are rarely, if ever, rigid patterns of acting. His encyclopedic vista of behavioral data documenting versatility—from subtle to innovative modulations of behavior in response to circumstances—would alone earn him the title of founder of cognitive ethology.
Griffin’s interest in considering animals as mindful creatures with a subjective point of view was not limited to insightful behaviors, nor to animals’ performance under unprecedented conditions, but extended to their everyday life as well. An example is Griffin’s description of the interactions between tommies (a type of gazelle) and their predators on the African plains. His description provided a commonplace, yet more subtle, way of seeing mind: in the watchful behavior of the tommies that intermittently monitor the movement and position of predators, such that in the herd there is at least one gazelle always watching; in their alert posture, and soft snort or stomp on the ground, warning others if something suspicious or unusual occurs; and in the variation of the speed of their gait, according to the type of predator attacking, its approaching speed, and initial distance from the herd.
Furthermore, the futile attempts of female tommies to distract hyenas chasing their fawns, and the frantic efforts of tommies, just before capture, to escape by rapid change of direction, have no statistical survival value, and thus cannot be convincingly explained as adaptive behaviors that have been forged by natural selection. “But when we broaden our horizons,” Griffin submitted, “by considering what life may be like to the animals themselves, it is not surprising to find that they make strenuous efforts to avoid being killed, or having their offspring killed, even when such efforts have little or no chance of success. This is an example of how our theoretical concepts can be broadened by considering how life may seem to the animals themselves” (2001, p. 70). Griffin thus called attention to how the inclusion of animals’ experiential perspective can elucidate and enrich one’s perception of their behaviors.
It is admirable that Griffin never compromised his interest in consciousness, despite its being a non sequitur for many of his colleagues; nor did he shrink from the challenging endeavor of finding scientific venues to peer into the subjective experience of animals, despite the insistence of some that it is a “hopeless enterprise” (Galef, 1993). Griffin’s pioneering spirit was rewarded toward the end of his life, when he witnessed “a marked departure” within science from erstwhile inhibitions to consider questions about animal consciousness (2000, p. 889). From his inception of the field of cognitive ethology in the late 1970s to the turn of the twentieth-first century, he saw the expansion of an arena of scientific inquiry that was once “forbidden territory” (2000, p. 891). As behavioral scientist James Gould put it in his eloquent obituary in Animal Cognition, because of Griffin’s masterful work the view “that animals are not robots, but part of the mental continuum Darwin felt was obvious, has moved from the lunatic fringe to what may be described as the default assumption: the burden of proof has shifted” (2004, p. 4).
Griffin was the forerunner of an altogether new way of thinking about animal life. It remains for the future to witness whether his work and discipline building will topple the deeply lodged skepticism, in science and western discourses more generally, toward the existence or accessibility of animal conscious awareness. For many agnostics in particular, the important issue is whether explanations relying on consciousness are more useful than behaviorist renditions or accounts invoking the forging of behaviors by natural selection (Baenninger, 1994). Yet what is at stake with the question of animal consciousness is more complex than the relative efficacy of explanatory schemes.
During the hottest hours of the day, the Egyptian plover wets its belly feathers in the river before returning to settle on, and thereby cool, its eggs or young (Griffin, 2001, pp. 121–123). This behavior may be regarded as mechanically executed or as mindfully enacted; in either case, it is clearly adaptive and shaped by natural selection. Does it matter if the parent plovers, as Griffin suggests, may be thinking about keeping their eggs and young cool when they wet their feathers? Does it matter, in other words, whether animals really mean what they do?
There are at least two ways in which Griffin’s raising this question of consciousness matters deeply. Firstly, in challenging restrictive injunctions against mindfulness, he opened new horizons of researching, thinking about, and seeing animal life. His work has thus brought greater freedom of thought and expanded realms of knowledge, both to students of behavioral science and to a broader public that scientific knowledge eventually reaches. Secondly, by encouraging a shift toward regarding animals as conscious beings with experiential viewpoints, Griffin also beckoned a change in how humans perceive animals and, therefore, how humans relate to them and to their habitats. The more widely consciousness is viewed as a realistic feature of the animal world, the more awe and respect animals and their homes will be perceived as due.
WORKS BY GRIFFIN
With Robert Galambos. “The Sensory Basis of Obstacle Avoidance by Flying Bats.” Journal of Experimental Zoology 86 (1941): 481–506.
“The Sensory Basis of Bird Navigation.” Quarterly Review of Biology 19, no. 1 (1944): 15–31.
“Bat Sounds under Natural Conditions, with Evidence for the Echolocation of Insect Prey.” Journal of Experimental Zoology 123 (1953): 435–466.
With Frederic A. Webster and Charles R. Michael. “The Echolocation of Flying Insects by Bats.” Animal Behaviour 8, no. 3 (1960): 141–154.
Animal Thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Animal Minds. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992.
“Adaptiveness of Perceptual Consciousness.” Poster at June 1997 meeting of Animal Behavior Society.
“Donald R. Griffin.” In History of Neuroscience in Autobiography, Volume II, edited by Larry R. Squire. Washington, DC: Society for Neuroscience, 1998a.
“From Cognition to Consciousness.” Animal Cognition 1, no. 1 (1998b): 3–16.
“Mind, Animal.” In Elsevier’s Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, 2nd ed., edited by George Adelman and Barry H. Smith. New York: Elsevier, 1999.
“Scientific Approaches to Animal Consciousness.” American Zoologist 40, no. 6 (2000): 889–892.
Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness. Rev. ed. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001.
Baenninger, Ronald. “A Retreat before the Canon of Parsimony.” Contemporary Psychology39, no. 8 (1994). Review of Animal Minds.
Beer, Colin. “Review: Animal Awareness.” BioScience27, no. 5(1977): 360–361.
———. “In Search of Solomon’s Ring: New Light on Animal Ways.” Natural History 6 (1984): 30–31.
Bekoff, Marc. Review of Animal Minds. Ethology 95 (1993): 166–176.
Burkhardt, Richard W., Jr. Patterns of Behavior: Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and the Founding of Ethology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005.
Crist, Eileen. Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.
———. “Can an Insect Speak? The Case of the Honey Bee Dance Language.” Social Studies of Science34, no. 1 (2004): 7–43.
Cronin, Helena. Review of Animal Minds. New York Times Book Review, 1 November 1992.
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1859. Reprint, 1964.
———. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1871. Reprint, 1981.
———. The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1872. Reprint, 1965.
Dawkins, Marian. Review of The Question of Animal Awareness Ibis 119 (1977): 253.
Dunbar, Robin. “The Awareness of Animals.” New Scientist (18 October 1984). Review of Animal Thinking.
Friedman, Herbert. Review of The Question of Animal Awa reness. Journal of Wildlife Management41, no. 2 (1977): 332.
Frisch, Karl von. Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses, and Language. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950.
Galef, Bennett. Review of Animal Minds. Animal Behaviour49, no. 4 (1993): 1133–1134.
Gould, James L. “Thinking about Thinking: How Donald Griffin (1915–2003) Remade Animal Behavior.” Animal Cognition 7 (2004): 1–4.
Graham, Frank. “Mentioning the Unmentionable.” Audubon 86, no. 3 (1984): 138–140. Review of Animal Thinking.
Hailman, Jack. Review of The Question of Animal Awareness. Auk 95 (1978): 614–615.
Haskins, Caryl. Review of The Question of Animal Awareness by Donald R. Griffin. Review “The Evolving Mind.” Semiotica23, no. 3/4 (1978): 381–385.
Herman, Louis M. “Raising Consciousness.” Contemporary Psychology 30, no. 4 (1985): 266–268. Review of Animal Thinking.
Hilgard, Ernest. Review of The Question of Animal Awareness Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 7, no. 3 (1978): 243–248.
Humphrey, Nicholas K. Review of The Question of Animal Awareness. Animal Behaviour 25 (1977): 521–522.
Mason, William A. “Windows on Other Minds.” Review of The Question of Animal Awareness. Science 194 (1976): 930-931.
Norris, Kenneth. Review of Animal Thinking. Quarterly Review of Biology 60, no. 3 (1985): 393–394.
Sarles, Harvey. Review of The Question of Animal Awareness. Physical Anthropology 80 (1978): 164–165.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953.