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Rats and Rationality

News Flash: Rodents Have Socratic Wisdom

It turns out that rats have higher cognitive powers. In particular, they can think about their own thinking. This was recently reported by neuroscientists Jonathon Crystal and Allison Foote of the University of Georgia in the March 20 issue of the journal Current Biology. Should this excite us?

I suppose it may be considered a groundbreaking feat of scientific research to have demonstrated metacognition in an animal other than primates or dolphins. But this could reflect more on the methodological apparatus of science than on the mental apparatus of rodents. In other words, it may not be surprising either that rats have higher mental powers or that showing scientifically that they do is difficult. Some things are knowable far more readily by nonscientific means, and the intelligence of rats may be one of them.

Nevertheless I was struck by something in the research report. The authors write: “Developing a rodent model of metacognition may promote new opportunities for exploring the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, neurophysiological, and molecular mechanisms of metacognition.” Just what sort of research does that imply?

The lead investigator has not replied to my email inquiry, but in any case it is out of his hands. Are we not justified to assume that whatever research avenues suggest themselves to curious or concerned investigators will lead to the further confinement, perhaps torture, and ultimately killing of rats? And however humanitarian or noble may be the medical or basic research aims of animal experimenters, the bizarre fact remains that, thanks to an amendment sponsored by the former Senator Jesse Helms and signed into law by President Bush in 2002, the Animal Welfare Act explicitly excludes even minimal legal protection to over 90 percent of the animals in laboratories, including all rats.2

Now if I may make a momentary digression: One kind of metacognition that humans possess is the ability to think about the logic of their own thinking. Logic is one aspect of reasoning, and reasoning is presumably one of the activities that make us human. Indeed, Aristotle thought this was our defining characteristic, for we are precisely the rational animal. Nowadays we may be prepared to accept that we are not the only animals capable of reasoning. Still, it could be a hallmark of our humanity that we can think about our reasoning.

Those who make a profession of this sort of thing use the term “validity” to describe the aspect of an argument that makes it logical. If you are human and all humans die, then it is valid to infer that you will die. Arguments that lack validity are “invalid” or “fallacious.” An example: All humans have a heart, and Toby has a heart, so Toby is human. This argument is invalid because the premises are consistent with Toby’s being a rat.

In my decades of pondering arguments as a philosopher, I have been struck by one especially egregious form of fallaciousness, which I have dubbed “contravalidity.” This occurs when someone draws a conclusion that not only does not follow logically from the premises, but is in outright contradiction to what really follows. And that is why I have taken this digression, for it seems to me that researchers who tout the prospects of further research on rats based on the finding that rats are capable of metacognition may be committing this very fallacy. Rats are capable of metacognition; therefore rats turn out to be even more human-like than we knew; therefore rats are suitable for even more sorts of invasive experimentation. To bring out more the peculiar fallaciousness of this argument, I submit that it boils down to this: Rats turn out to be more human-like than we thought; therefore they make better subjects for inhumane research than we thought.

Ergo: Some rat researchers are illogical? Maybe rats are more rational than they! Consider the particular ability that the current researchers attribute to their rats: “they know when they do not know the answer in a duration-discrimination test.” Shades of Socrates! For as the pug-nosed one famously pronounced at his trial: “what I do not know I do not think I know either.” Thus, this new study shows that rats have reached the very pinnacle of humanistic attainment: Socratic wisdom. Or should we now say, rat-ic wisdom? It follows, I submit, that the usage of rats in experimentation should decrease rather than increase.

– Joel Marks

Published on: March 19, 2007
Published in: Animal Research Ethics

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