The Minds of Squirrels
by Chris Bateman
Do squirrels have minds? If we are inclined to suggest that the human mind is merely an illusion, either on some kind of Buddhist metaphysics or on a neo-Darwinian skepticism about free will, then it may be easy to dismiss the mental worlds of the little shadowtails (the translation of their Latin name ‘Sciurus’). The fact that most people consider them vermin - and some of my neighbours here in Tennessee would go so far as to consider eating them - does not give the poor squirrel much hope of a fair treatment in the court of existential opinion. Yet there is much to ponder in respect of these fluffy tailed rodents.
All my life I have had a keen eye for what was once called ‘natural history’, a phrase with a wonderful poetic bent to it. I have snorkelled with crabs, lobsters, and dolphins, collected insect specimens in the desert reaches of West Africa in my youth, and listened to birdsong in Tennessee to learn who my avian neighbours might be. Yet of all the animals I have dallied with in this hobby of mine, few are as dear to me as the squirrels. I have watched them all over North America and Europe, hung out with chipmunks in Canada, glimpsed red squirrels in the British backwoods of the Isle of Wight where I grew up, and have spent many days with the grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis. It is considered a pest - especially in the British Isles, where it is not a native species—but still beloved by me for their boisterous playfulness, for all that they ate nearly all my hazelnuts this year.
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When a squirrel feels threatened, by humans, dogs, or anything else that moves quickly and noisily, they will scamper up a nearby tree. Unless they are especially bold, they will scurry to the side of the tree you cannot see then dash upwards, thus escaping behind cover to the branches above, whereupon they can dash along the fractal pathways and—when they reach a dead-end with another tree within reach—leap across to another branch. They do not do this lightly, and they grow in confidence with their acrobatics as they get older. Based on my own observations, the male squirrels are bolder in these leaps than the female, but the female squirrels themselves are not timid, and in days I have encouraged tamer park squirrels to climb upon me, it is often a defiant female that leads the charge.
I wish to consider an incident that happened while I lived in a flat in Manchester, in the north of the British Isles. Our streetside windows in that home overlooked the tops of evergreens that grew in our front yard. One day, a squirrel fled to the top branches having been startled by a particular noisy vehicle in the nearby street, and then for no obvious reason decided to crossover to a nearby tree. It leapt across, but the branch on the other side was much less firm than the little squirrel had anticipated, bowing savagely under its weight. I watched with my heart in my mouth as it clung on with its claws and pulled itself up to securer footing, a veritable cliff-hanger in my own neighbourhood!
Now consider this incident from three perspectives. Firstly, from that of the squirrel itself. If the squirrel has no mind, as some would assert (in one set of terms or another) then everything that it undertook here it did on instinct. But what instinct? It was not threatened, and had no need to switch treetops. I suppose you could describe as ‘instinct’ a desire to avoid going all the way down and back up again—if we held to a Darwinist metaphysics we might express this in terms of the competitive advantages of saving energy... Yet this is an unsatisfying description for something that might have been undertaken for amusement, for squirrels evidently play with each other all the time, and explaining this playfulness in terms of selective advantage cannot entirely explain away the specific actions taken when squirrels chase each other along trees merely for the fun of it.
Now consider this incident from my position as observer, or yours as a person envisioning my descriptions. We can place ourselves in the squirrel’s metaphorical shoes—we can conjecture a reason to make the leap, imagine a touch of anxiety about the action or perhaps a misplaced overconfidence, and we can experience that fearful moment of dread when the branch gives way underneath, our imaginary squirrel heart leaping out of our fictional furry chest. We have no problem whatsoever creating this fictional scenario within our minds, and we can feel the power of that experience because even within our imagination we bring our emotions to bear. The entirety of literature and poetry depends upon this faculty of ours.
However, I realise even to ask you to imagine in this way is the forbidden act of anthropomorphism, but one should never be afraid of fairly contemplating heresy. Nor is this scenario anything like the equivalent of shouting at an untrained dog to ‘drop it’, a command it cannot possibly interpret. We make an error when we think dogs speak our language because they are attentive enough to learn the noises we make that accompany our actions (what the dog has an authentic interest in). We do not often make this particular error when we imagine the mental states of other mammals, and this is not to suggest that we can perfectly understand other species—or even other humans! Ludwig Wittgenstein (pronounced ‘vit-gen-shtein’) famously objected in the second book of his Philosophical Investigations that “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”... but I fear dear Vicky may have been too skeptical in this regard, for even while the lion’s world would be very different from our own it’s far from clear that it is beyond our capacity to imagine at least its rough and inexact borders.
Finally, let us consider this from the perspective of the squirrel’s genes, as the neo-Darwinists would have us do. We should avoid the omnipresent speculation of the evolutionary psychologists who perpetually assume such-and-such must be inheritable without grounds or evidence, and stick to what we know with confidence can be related to genes. We must check with scrupulous honesty whether those genetic contributions by themselves are enough to explain what we observe. Otherwise we give up thinking scientifically, which given the ethical framework common to the neo-Darwinists, where scientific truth is counted among the highest goods, ought to be an unforgivable mistake.
In this case, we can be confident that goal-oriented behaviour (reaching the other tree) is involved, and so the gene that encodes the protein dopamine (or its squirrel-analogue) and all its associated developmental genetics for the orbito-frontal cortex. Likewise the genetic component of the brain region the hippocampus, entailed in memory, and the gene for the protein adrenaline (or the analogue in squirrels) along with the genetic codings associated with the amygdala (entailed in the instinctive judgement of whether to be afraid), and the cerebellum, which co-ordinates balance and movement. Also, eyes, vision and other senses. There should be nothing too controversial in associating these biological features with genetics.
I wish to suggest that all of these known biological qualities and their associated proteins are plausibly explained by genetics even if exactly how structures like the cerebellum and amygdala are constructed through protein folding are far beyond our current scientific knowledge. Yet this is problematic if we then want to come back and suggest that the squirrel does not have a mind, because while the biology here appears sufficient to explain every functional aspect of my scenario, it does not address the free will of the squirrel. It made a decision to jump—a decision underpinned by its biological faculties, yes, but its own decision nonetheless. If it had known the branch could not receive it, it would not (I conjecture) have made the attempt, yet it did, either because of lack of experience, an act of thrill-seeking, or simply bad judgement, none of which it makes much sense to associate overtly with genetics.
Now we might want to suggest that squirrels that take such risks are at a so-called selective disadvantage, and that they would be bred out of the population. Yet what exactly are we saying is being bred out here? We can readily see from the purposeful human management of dog breeding that we can select for more aggressive, more timid, more playful and so on when we tinker in the sexual reproduction of various kinds of animal. Indeed, the reason that so few people on the Isle of Wight where I grew up have ever seen a red squirrel is that they are much less aggressive and far more secretive than grey squirrels. But this is readily explainable in terms of bred differences in the amygdala, directly analogous to breeding for a less aggressive dog.
In fact, grey squirrels in the United States and grey squirrels in the United Kingdom behave in more or loss the same ways, a product both of their genetic legacy handed down to them through a chain of inheritance and their learned experiences from living around other squirrels. Grey squirrels were willing to climb upon my shoulders in Manchester after an hour or two around me because they have become tamed to human presence through experience and bribery (a peanut goes a long way in squirrel-human relations!). It is no part of their genetics that they do this except that they are less fearful and more aggressive than red squirrels or chipmunks, which is explicable purely in terms of amygdala functionality.
This is actually a highly problematic situation for those who wish to explain all observable animal behaviour (including human behaviour) as a result of selective genetics. Because those biological features that give rise to the important behaviours are incredibly old and not therefore appropriate to explain in any helpful detail specific observations like this one isolated squirrel-jump incident. The amygdala is at least 500 million years old, as is the protein adrenaline associated with it that together creates the balance between fear or aggression (‘fight or flight’). Likewise with the antediluvian origin of dopamine, or with analogous proteins—in crabs and lobsters, for instance, octopamine has the greater role in learning. These biological elements are ancient, and the vast majority of changes of behaviour in this regard are readily explicable via straightforward genetic variations analogous to dog breeding.
Indeed, if we take a long hard look at the role of genetics in animal behaviour, we may find that we are so closely related to everything from worms, to lobsters, to fish, to birds, and of course to squirrels in terms of the key genetic contributors to behaviour. It then becomes laughable to suggest, as so many do these days, that the behaviour in, say, the corridors of contemporary desk slavery can be explained in terms of what human ancestors were or were not doing on the African savannah. We would be on surer footing explaining anything we observe in terms of what early mammals did in the Cretaceous period, or fish in the Devonian—but in all these cases the genetic explanation provides only one thing: the Lego blocks behind emotions.
Now we are far from the kind of caution against anthropomorphism I mentioned before, because I am heretically suggesting that as long as we stick to these elements of our communal biology, we are able to reason with a fair degree of competence between an immense diversity of creatures. Indeed, if this were not the case, animal behaviour would be utterly incomprehensible! We are only able to invent our strange explanatory scenarios for behaviours because in the first place we share a substantial tranche of emotional commonality such that we can understand a lion even though it cannot talk to us, and in the second place because our imaginative faculties exceed anything that we know of elsewhere in nature.
This confluence of imagination and emotion is, I suggest, the essence of mind. If this is overdeveloped in our species to the extent that it gets us into more and more trouble whenever we lose sight of our essential continuity with the rest of the natural world, this is still the utter antithesis of suggesting that we have no minds whatsoever, that free will and mental states are merely illusionary. Not only us, but the dogs and the cats, the birds and the fish, and of course, the humble squirrel have imagination and emotion, and thus minds. Only by imagining that the jump could be completed could my Mancunian shadowtail have ever undertook the manoeuvre that ended up placing its life in danger. Genes are radically incomplete to explain this situation, unless they are evoked to admit that squirrels, like us, have an emotional inner life.
What’s more, this very presence of a mind is necessary to explain the diversity of species we encounter. The rock squirrel of the southwestern regions of the United States, for instance, is genetically near-identical to the tree squirrels we have been discussing. Yet it uses its claws to dig burrows instead of to climb trees and hang precariously from ill-chosen branches. The same biological blessing, a different behaviour and lifestyle, a different—dare I say it?—culture. Yes, the ground squirrels grew larger, but our intentional selective breeding of dogs makes it clear that these kinds of variations can be induced swiftly, without the need for grandiose explanations. The genetics of every species establish their potentials, but they in no way limit their achievements, nor what they can gift to their children or their children’s children.
When we examine the lives of rock squirrels in comparison to the tree squirrels that are almost certainly their ancestors, we have no need to evoke a chance genetic mutation in their distant past to explain these two divergent species. As it happens, most mutations disrupt key biology and result in death, not adaptations. It is sufficient in the consideration of squirrels to suggest what ought to be obvious if we were not suffering from a kind of natural history blindness brought about by an obsession with our newest biotechnological toy, genetic sequencing. Squirrels that once lived in trees came to discover they could also live under the ground, provided it was dry enough, using claws that work just as well to dig as to climb. I challenge anyone to explain this act of speciation without tacitly admitting that we have good cause to speak about the minds of squirrels.
Chris Bateman is a technology ethicist, game designer, and founder of the award-winning creative consultancy International Hobo Ltd. His original and eclectic work in philosophy has won praise from Michael Moorcock, Mary Midgley, Kendall Walton, Babette Babich, and Jane McGonigal. His most recent philosophy book is The Virtuous Cyborg, which asks what the good life might be for people so embedded in technology as we have become. He sits on the editorial board for the International Journal of Play, and was a member of the thinking group for Baroness Kidron’s Digital Futures Commission. You can discover his 3-minute reflections on contemporary problems at Stranger Worlds and How To Live In Them.
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