Yet More Egnorance

We haven’t heard from creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor lately. (If I had to guess, I’d wager he’s writing a book, in order to cash in on the unlimited religionist thirst to have someone with credentials confirm their world view.) That’s too bad, because Egnor was a neverending source of amusement. He is, after all, the man for which the word “egnorance” was coined: “the egotistical combination of ignorance and arrogance”.

That’s why it’s such a delight to see Egnor make a fool of himself yet again, with this Discovery Institute column about animal intelligence and language.

Egnor claims that “cats can’t do logic, mathematical or otherwise, and they never will”. Here is one of his arguments in support of this claim: “they don’t do logic. Because they’re cats.” Well, that was certainly convincing.

Showing that Egnor knows even less about logic than he does about evolution, Egnor goes on to claim that “A logical statement is true inherently, independently of the particulars that occupy the place-holders”. Really? This will certainly be news to actual logicians, who labor under the delusion that a statement like “for all x, there exists a y such that x = 2*y” is a false statement in the logical theory known as “Presburger arithmetic”.

Like most religionists, Egnor seems to have a real need to believe that people are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. He claims that “What distinguishes men from animals is this: men, but not animals, can contemplate universals, independently of particulars. Animals cannot contemplate universals. Animal thought is always tied to particular things.” He goes on to claim, “Animal thought lacks abstraction” and “In fact, an animal cannot think about universals, for the simple reason that animals have no language.”

How does Egnor know these things? He offers no empirical evidence in support of his claims. Empirical evidence is absolutely necessary, since there is nothing logically impossible about animals thinking abstractly. After all, Egnor’s own holy book, the bible, depicts talking snakes and talking donkeys. While I am amused to see Egnor undermine the claims of his own religion, animal language and thought are questions that have to be resolved scientifically.

And there is an area of science that is actively interested in testing these kinds of claims, although you’d never know it from reading Egnor. It is a branch of ethology, which is the science of animal behavior. (I am not an ethologist by any means, but I can recommend the eye-opening books of primatologist Frans de Waal.)  Contrary to Egnor’s claims, the evidence for animal language is quite strong, although of course there are doubters. Animal language exists in many different animals, including bees, elephants, dolphins, baboons, and whales.

So how does Egnor back up his claims? By citing Aristotle. That’s it. He writes, “This rudimentary fact about animal and human minds was noted by Aristotle, and was common knowledge for a couple thousand years. Moderns have forgotten it, and it has led to a morass of confusion about animal minds and the differences between human and animal thought.”

I suppose if one’s worldview depends on a 2000-year-old book written by people lacking scientific knowledge of the universe, then it’s not a stretch to get your understanding of animal language and thought from a philosopher who lived 2300 years ago, and who simply asserted his claims without doing any experiments at all.

There is also evidence for abstract thought in animals other than people. Evidence exists for dogsbaboons, and crows, to name just three examples. Of course, all these examples are debatable (although I find these and others pretty convincing), and will likely continue to be debated until we know more about how abstract concepts are represented and processed in brains. Nevertheless it is pretty obvious that this is a question that, at least in principle, is capable of being resolved empirically.

I’ll conclude with the words of David Hume: “no truth appears to me more evident than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as man. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant.” Or maybe that should be “egnorant”.


  1. rrhain says

    Someone doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a difference in degree from a difference in kind.
    The thoughts of animals is probably very different from that of people. And part of that difference is probably because they do not have a language as humans do. But the idea that animals cannot think “abstractly” only makes sense if one has a very specific concept of “abstract thought” ad hoc-ly designed to specifically exclude animals.
    To my mind, “abstract thought” includes things like being able to plot a plan of action and of course animals can do this. I’ve seen my cat deliberately sneak up behind the dog in order to swat the dog’s butt on one side and run off in the opposite direction so that it won’t be seen. It’s not the most sophisticated of abstract thoughts…I certainly don’t expect a cat to contemplate the nature of existence as a predator that has been domesticated, but it does have the ability to think about things that are beyond what is merely in front of their nose at the moment. It’s how my cat knows to glare at me when I’m approaching him as he’s stalking a bird on the porch. He knows that if I make noise, it’ll scare the bird away and he’s trying to get me to shut up.
    It’s a difference in degree, not kind.

  2. Intaglio says

    I know that Aristotle is the go-to philosophical source for religious reasoning but why is that? The idea that there has to be at least one “unmoved mover” is so obviously pre-scientific and baseless that I am surprised that believers still keep on with it.

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