MadSci Network: General Biology

Re: Is thinking a property of all life? If so, do plants and animals think?

Date: Thu Sep 18 18:31:46 2003
Posted By: Mike Conrad, Post-doc/Fellow, Microbiology, UNC
Area of science: General Biology
ID: 1062712368.Gb

Is thinking a property of all life?  If so, do plants and animals think?

At first thought, I’d say animals think, but plants don’t.  But the
question is interesting.  According to my dictionary, to think is “to form
or have in the mind; conceive...” 

By this definition, you would need a mind to think.  For me, thinking is
done by a brain, using neurons, to process information.  Thinking, for
example, is used when a response must be chosen from a number of
alternatives.  A simple reflex would not be thinking.

People have minds and they think.  Early philosophers discounted the
ability of animals to think.  Descartes, for example, considered animals to
be just mechanisms.  Now many people think that animals can think.  

Chimpanzees have some ability to communicate, to solve problems, and to
recognize themselves in a mirror, so they must, in my opinion, be thinking.
 Some say that they are just mimicking and responding to their trainers,
but as I surf around, I get the feeling that chimps think.  Jane Goodall
says that chimps watch pretty sunsets.  They must be thinking of something.

Of course, a chimp’s mind is not as powerful as ours, so a chimp’s thoughts
would be proportionally less deep (and nonverbal).  If animal thought is a
matter of degree, then dogs and cats have some ability to think, albeit
less than people or monkeys.  Many pet owners ascribe thought and awareness
to their pets.  There is a danger of “anthropomorphizing”, or giving human
qualities to animals.  I know some pet owners who seem to give their pets
too much credit, but my cat seems to be happy when I get home.  She knows
she’ll get something to eat, I think she must be thinking about it.  I hope
I’m not anthropomorphizing.

Cats and dogs can solve simple problems.  I think that thinking is what
they’re doing between encountering a problem and finding the solution.
See the intelligent cat:

Here are some articles about “do animals think”:,2763,861968,00.html

What about lower animals?  Mice?  They need to make decisions as well as
they can.  Thinking would be what they’re doing between encountering a
problem and finding the solution.  I don’t think they think very deeply,
but they may be thinking their mouse thoughts.

Reptiles?  The mammalian brain has a neocortex, while the brain of reptiles
and lower are dominated by the brain stem and cerebellum.  A mouse was once
considered to be a mental giant compared to a reptile.  Then reptiles and
fish must think on an even lower level.  But snakes (and birds) seem to
have more smarts now than we once thought:

A fly has a brain of about 250,000 neurons.  It can learn has memory.  A
round worm’s brain is only 302 neurons, and even the worm exhibits behavior
and is capable of rudimentary learning.  It’s hard to say what a worm or a
fly is thinking, but I continue to be surprised at the complexity you can
get from a small number of components.

Plants and single cell organisms have no brains.  They can react to their
environment but I don’t think they are thinking.

One very “zen” idea is that consciousness extends from us all the way down
to the lower animals and even down to blocks and stones, which have the
lowest consciousness.  (Search panpsychism.)  Years ago, I was discussing
this with Milton Rothman, and he pointed out an article by Andrew A.
Cochran in the Foundations of Physics, Vol. 1, p235 (1971).  The article is
about “proton consciousness”, in which consciousness is extended all the
way to subatomic particles!  I don’t agree with everything in the article,
but it is in the literature.  If consciousness implies thinking, or if
thinking can be extended similarly, then everything thinks.  That’s a bit
far out for my tastes, but I included it to show some of the weird thoughts
that can come from thinking about this question.  Mike Conrad.

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