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Are Studies Dispelling the Illusion of the Uniqueness of Human Behavior?

Well, maybe. Consider, for example, the Mafia-like behavior of the cowbird. One difference between Tony Soprano and the cowbird that the experts still acknowledge: He really knows what he’s doing and understands the consequences. That may be a pretty big difference.

Discussions - 15 Comments

In fact, Tony Soprano does not know what the consequences are. All he "knows" is what they have been so far. Tony, like the cowbird, has an accumulated history of stimuli follwed by behaviors follwed by other stimuli.

"A Tony Soprano knows what he is doing and understands the consequences. "The birds may not even know what reproduction is," he said. "They are not thinking, ’If I trash the nest, next time they will be careful.’ ""

To take a radical behaviorist view, Tony does not have to know what justice is in order to enjoy it or to violate it. He does not have to know what luck is when he avoids capture or detection by the authorities. all he has is a private world "inside the skin" which is impossible to view cooperatively. There is no way for him to share it with another human in order to establish a reliable way to interpret it.

The same may well be true for the cowbird.

Fung, cool response...

But does the cowbird have an accumulated history of stimuli, or is she doing what she must do because she is a cowbird?

Kate, good question. And Tony has a genuine inward life, a sense of self, knows that he’s going to die, is capable of thinking about whether or not there’s a God, sharing his love of corny Italian songs and beautiful women with others, obsessing over the future of his children, and even lovin and genuinely trusting his friends. I could go on, forgetting that Tony is the very complicated literary invention of a very particular or even unique being. It would be much easier to write a script about the doings of a cowbird, although it would be hard to get enough material to get into the second searson or even the second show.

But, I bet the cowbirds would watch it!

Seriously, we don’t deny that humans are genetically distinct from cowbirds, and that part of that distinction is our relative complexity and generally superior cognitive capacity.

But, as for the rest, I cannot agree that our inner life is demonstrably qualitatively different from that of a bird.

Years ago, I had the good fortune to watch a pair of horned owls raise their two young in a nest overhanging Boulder Creek. For weeks, I brought my binoculars and watched them feed and comfort the growing owlets. One day, the nest was gone, and the parents sat by the vacant spot for days. It was very sad, and I imagined that the owls were sad, as well, and that they remembered their young ones and wished them back.

But, the fact is, I was projecting my own inner world onto those owls, and that is the stuff of childrens’ books. I have no way of knowing what, if anything, those owls were capable of "thinking," except that my cognitive map cannot fit the territory of an owl’s brain.

In a similar (but not identical) way, I cannot validate the fit when I try to project my inner experience onto yours.

That lack of our ability to validate doesn’t prevent us from projecting or from feeling validated, in some cases. But, I have observed people who feel that they understand what I mean, when their actions indicate that they don’t understand. I have seen people who profess to be great students of human nature, who chronically annoy, err, and bumble their way through the human forest. And, I have observed people who admit that they cannot understand another’s mind, and subsequently label the mysterious mind "crazy," or "evil."

Our "human nature" appears universal and wonderful, until it isn’t, and then we label those "exceptions" evil, aberant, or abnormal, all the while protecting our story book view of our uniqueness.

We even get to create our own story book views of other people, such as a Tony Soprano, or a King Lear, or try to understand the interior of another real person, as in some biographies.

Fung, I remember spending part of a day trying to see people as you said you saw them. No, I couldn’t do it. One of my questions about the cowbird was if each cowbird had a unique interior map. Would another set of horned owls have blithely flown away from the site of the lost nest? Or is that just what owls do in those circumstances?

Evil is universal to man, anyone being capable of any vile thing. The wonder is that we are not bound to do evil; we are not inevitably gangsters. What the cowbird does is not "evil" if it is just what cowbirds do. For a human to do such a thing would be evil, because a human can make the choice not to behave that way. You are quite right, that evil is not aberrant or abnormal, but I cannot see that we are wrong to stigmatize it as such. That simply seems necessary to orderly society.


Certainly, the cowbird can be trained to behave in a way that would be deemed "evil" by other cowbirds, if they were able to conceptualize evil.

While I am unaware of cowbirds as lab animals, we have used pigeons extensively. They can be trained via reinforcement and stimulus discrimination to (a) attack another pigeon (b) work and contribute cooperatively and proportionately to a group-reward system, and (c) select delayed, long-term reinforcement over immediate reinforcement.

We can condition this "good" and "evil" behavior with absolutely no reference to any pigeon’s internal map. Instead, we attribute their change in behavior to their experiences.

So, while I would agree with you that any human may ultimately be capable of any behavior, I would argue against any attribution of inherent good or evil, for a couple of reasons:

First, as Milgram and Zimbardo have shown, ordinary people can be pressured into doing extraordinary things, such as hurting innocent victims (out of obedience in Milgram’s case, or out of social roles, in Zimbardo’s case.)

As we have shown in the lab, ordinary pigeons can be "pressured" or otherwise conditioned to do extraordinary pigeon things, as well.

Finally, my philosophical position is that evil is better defined in a victim-centered way than in a "culprit-centered" way. Since one president, for instance, can be at once evil and benevolent (and the same is true of a parent, a child, or a political-social system) then I find labels and internal attributions insufficient.

Internal attributions also let "evil" people off the hook, while victims still experience the effects of their behavior. We bomb neighborhoods for freedom, and call the results "collateral damage," or god’s mysterious ways, or whatever, but the decimated families still experience the "evil."

We pander to rebels and despots until they aim their weapons at us, and then we label them "evil," or "crazy."

So, for the cowbird and the human, I acknowledge examples of both uniformity and of variety, but in neither case does that prove to me the existence of a soul, or a spirit, or a special relationship with a god consistent with the organism’s image.

I did not say that a bird could not be trained. If the study were about some unique place where the cowbirds did this, rather than saying that all cowbirds do this, I might say that training went on between those particular cowbirds. Your conditioning of pigeons is certainly not natural, is it? The pigeons you conditioned were not going out into the general pigeon population and training other pigeons in their new behaviors, thereby changing pigeon behaviors, world-wide.

I do not disagree with people being able to do temporary evil, or selective evil and being otherwise benevolent. And, yes, one’s man’s evil is another man’s justice or convenience, or has some other rationale. Slavery is an example of that. Locke or Alexander Stephens found justification in something that the slave found evil. Islam justifies it, today, so it is not a universal evil. To enslave others was once considered a universal trait of man, but slavery is no longer universal. Is it natural?

Your characterization of victim-centered evil, set in a more benign state, is the reason we told our children that they could never tell us that something "wasn’t fair." Fair was in the eye of the beholder. Also, we as parents could never produce an absolute state of fairness. Still, we tried. We never had one child free and another slave, though each has told me that I favored another, and no two children of the six has pointed to the same child as the one favored. It made me laugh. In the same way, in society we OUGHT try to do what is right and avoid all evil, even if sometimes we can’t.

And I cannot help seeing God, because of my inner experience.

In the studies you cite, did all of the people who were pressured do those extraordinary things, do them?


I am not sure, anymore, what we disagree about. Nevertheless, I will do my best to disagree in the best fashion possible!

First, our conditioning of pigeons and rats is meant as a model for how all organisms learn, including humans. We assume that humans have at least as much capacity as the pigeons do. So, we try, sometimes, to show that, since pigeons can be trained to "be good," or "be bad," then that suggests a model for how people become good, bad, etc.

Is our conditioning "natural?" We think it is. It involves nothing more than an extreme level of control, allowing us to consider and discard alternative explanations. Basically, we set the reinforcement schedule, we set the stimulus-stimulus relationship, and then we watch to see how behavior fits its new environment.

similar things happen in the bird world when other birds enter or leave the environment, or when foods become more or less scarce, or when the number of young to be cared for changes.

Does everyone respond to social stimuli in the same manner, or with the same responsiveness? No. But, in Milgram’s case, for instance, out of 100 people who woke up that morning with no intention of hurting an innocent person, 65% of them were ordered to hurts another person, and obeyed at the maximum possible level of obedience.

What does that say about choice, or about the others? They would have obeyed, as well with greater amounts of pressure and longer durations of exposure.

Do those people carry evil and goodness around inside themselves? I would argue that they do not. Any more than do two puppies, one of which grows into a dangerous junkyard dog, while the other is adopted into a loving family.


How sweetly disagreeable you are! Call it having a conversation.

As to your pigeons, you set up the parameters of the conditioning. What is natural about it? From the setting to the mode of training, to the choice to train for "good" or "evil" what is natural about it?

Then as to how it relates to training a human, above you allow for "our relative complexity and generally superior cognitive capacity" and while I can not demonstrate to you the difference between a bird’s inner life and yours, I think I am safe in presuming it, as I do not have conversations, like this one, with birds.

Which is partly why I insist that, no, in the Milgrim case, some people would not have obeyed, no matter what the pressure. We know that from accounts of POW’s, Chinese re-education camp failures, even Christian martyrs. And this IS what we disagree about, as I do believe that people carry goodness and evil in themselves and choose between the two. Sometimes the choice is one of habit, call it conditioning, and sometimes in extreme circumstances, it is active choice.


A "conversation" it is, then!

Certainly, no pigeon would normally find itself in an environment as simple as an operant chamber (a Skinner box.) But that chamber is merely a way to keep "noise" out of the environment, and to thus observe what happens under certain contingencies of the environment.

But, there is nothing "unnatural" other than that the place is unfamiliar to a wild pigeon. Otherwise, lab animals, domesticated animals, and wild animals (and I would include humans in all three classes!) all have the following in common: Their behavior must adapt to contingencies imposed by the environment. The family dog adjusts to the arrival of a new kitten, a mother wolf adjusts to the new high-powered scope on the rancher’s rifle, a mother human adjusts to changing laws about her reproductive rights.

Depending on a triple interaction between (a) genotypes of impinging and adapting parties (b) learning histories of both parties, and (c) availability of resources and alternative behaviors, then the adaptation will succeed or it will not succeed. If it succeeds, it may be tried again, and if not, then it is more likely to leave the repertoire of the adapting animal. A "choice" occurs, but you put the "choosing" inside the organism, and I put it outside. More precisely, I suggest that the contingencies operating outside the skin are the same ones operating "inside."

As for conversations with birds, I would offer a couple of observations: (1) right now, you and I are enjoying (well, I am, anyway) a conversation. But I have had other conversations (say, with Dain and David Frisk) after which all parties were feeling angry, frustrated, and misunderstood. Frankly, I have better conversations with my dog, and they probably do, too, with their dogs.

Second, as I type, I can hear cardinals and chickadees communicating with each other far more efficiently than they can communicate with me. Is it possible that they are discussing my limitations, or perhaps feeling sorry for me, that I cannot ever experience the "cardinal virtues?" (Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself.)


Unfortunately, I will be gone for a couple of days, and unable to continue this enjoyable (for me, too) conversation after this response. If you do respond, I’ll read it when I get back. You may have the last word.

Chickadees who depend on my bird feeders scold me when I let the feeders go empty. If I leave my house by the door that I use when I fill the feeders, they come to chatter at me, which continues until I fill the feeder or get in my car and leave. It is really efficient communication, because when they start their chatter, I notice the feeders, and even if I cannot handle the chore right that minute, I do so as soon as possible. I like that they chatter at me, and that they fly and chat within inches of my head as I fill the feeders. I chat back. We amuse one another, or at least they amuse me and I am doing what they want by filling their feeders. Other birds benefit. Believe me, I know what birds can learn. This has been going on for many years. I am sure they consider the faithful filling of the feeders as my cardinal virtue.

I consider myself as doing them good, but know that I have trained them to do something unnatural. Yes, they adapted their behavior, because I altered the environment. Chickadees, nor any other birds, come to me when I walk in the nearby park. I originally fed the birds so that I could make my children learn birds by species when they came to the feeder by the kitchen window. The training was for my children, not for the birds. I continue to feed the birds because it pleases me, though it has been a few years since I sat with a rapt child pointing out bird species. "Inside"/"Outside" motivations? For me, I like it. For them? It is easier than foraging. But they do not languish and starve, little corpses around the feeders if I do not fill fast enough.

What could I teach such a bird in a box? Lots of things, but I could not get them to fill my feeder unless their hunger was a motivator. Right? Is my internal motivation that I like to see myself as St. Francis of Assisi or Dr. Dolittle? No. I worry about the birds and like to hear them chatter. On days when I am not on the run, I can watch birds at the feeder in the morning when I eat my breakfast, and it pleases me. Why does it matter at all?

As to your other observation, I thought you guys all liked to growl and bark at each other. I figured it must be a sort of pleasure to you, because you keep coming back to your own box to participate in the conversation. Is this an inside or outside motivation, conversing or disagreeing here?


You could get them to fill the feeder with reinforcers other than food: like the appearance of a potential mate, for instance, or the sound of one, perhaps.

I have been thinking about this conversation quite a bit, today, and wondering if starlings are as reinforcing to you as chickadees are. They are not, to me.

Are your kids as interested in birds as you would like them to be? My boys are, more than average for male teens, I think.

Next on the list of random musings, your last entry reminded me of the essays of E.B. White. It has been years, but I remember a great deal of his writing about social life in the barnyard, which he found relevant to human goings-on.

As for the growling and barking, I think you are right.

Happy Spring


No, the birds are not interested in feeding me nor in filling their own feeders. You know that whatever the reinforcer I might produce, it would not be the same.

Starlings come and go, but the chickadees are always nearby. I do not know why. It seems to me that it is just how they are. Cardinals are always at the feeder, except when I am, as are nuthatches, titmouses (titmice?) and various sparrows. In the summer there is a catbird that comes to my poplars by my deck and sings. But I don’t think any of them, the birds, are really aware of me at all, except the chickadees as I relate to those bird feeders. Even they, I think, just know of me as the source of feed. If I have done my job with the feeders, they aren’t interested in me at all.

Only a couple of my kids are interested in birds, but they all know the types of birds that came to our feeder, and a few more from the yard.

A happy spring to you, too.

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