Is free will unique to hu­mans?

We are far from unique in our abil­ity to con­trol our emo­tions. Chimps, mon­keys, par­rots, pet dogs – and per­haps many other crea­tures – can, too.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Frans de Waal

Are we su­pe­rior in our abil­ity to con­trol our urges, or can other crea­tures make ra­tio­nal choices, too?

Even if no one knows ex­actly what free will is, most of us would agree that if free will ex­ists at all it is lim­ited to just our species. We are proud enough to cap­i­talise free will, say­ing that only we can set our im­pulses aside. We can over­ride our emo­tions, whereas all other an­i­mals are the slaves of their emo­tions and in­stincts.

Yet, ob­vi­ously, all an­i­mals make choices. They de­cide be­tween ap­proach and avoid­ance, choose which prey to sin­gle out from the flock, opt where to build their nest, and so on. They of­ten hes­i­tate, or aban­don a course of ac­tion. A young male chim­panzee who’d love to mate with a fe­male may hang around her, hop­ing for an op­por­tu­nity. But when the al­pha male looks his way, he will sneak off, know­ing it’s not go­ing to work.

Even more strik­ing are the oc­ca­sions when a high-rank­ing male comes around the cor­ner and catches the young male spread­ing his legs to present his erec­tion to the fe­male – his not-so-sub­tle courtship sig­nal. Upon see­ing the high-rank­ing male, the young male quickly drops his hands over his pe­nis, con­ceal­ing it from view, well aware that he would be in trou­ble if the other male so much as sus­pects what is go­ing on. All this re­quires in­sight into what oth­ers know, as well as the ca­pac­ity to sup­press or over­ride one’s urges and show re­straint.

We are get­ting close here to the way free will was de­fined by Amer­i­can philoso­pher Harry Frank­furt. He de­fined a ‘per­son’ as some­one who doesn’t just fol­low his de­sires but is fully aware of them to the point that he may wish them to be dif­fer­ent. As soon as an in­di­vid­ual con­sid­ers the “de­sir­abil­ity of his de­sires”, he or she pos­sesses free will, Frank­furt as­serted.

To test this idea, all we need to do is sub­ject an­i­mals to a sit­u­a­tion in which they would like to sat­isfy one de­sire but are also given a chance to re­frain from ac­tion so as to sat­isfy an­other. Do an­i­mals ever aban­don their first de­sire? They must be ca­pa­ble of do­ing so, be­cause an an­i­mal that would give in to ev­ery im­pulse would con­stantly run into trou­ble. Mi­grat­ing wilde­beest in the Maa­sai Mara hes­i­tate for a long time be­fore jump­ing into the river they seek to cross. Ju­ve­nile mon­keys wait un­til their play­mate’s mother has moved out of view be­fore start­ing a fight. Your cat snatches meat from your kitchen counter only after you have turned your back.

An­i­mals are keenly aware of the con­se­quences of their behaviour, and of­ten in­hibit their first im­pulse to ar­rive at a smarter course of ac­tion.

One great test of re­straint, rou­tinely ap­plied to hu­man chil­dren, is the marsh­mal­low test. Most of us have seen the hi­lar­i­ous videos of chil­dren sit­ting alone be­hind a ta­ble des­per­ately try­ing not to eat a marsh­mal­low – se­cretly

lick­ing it, tak­ing tiny bites from it, or look­ing the other way to avoid temp­ta­tion. The chil­dren have been promised a sec­ond marsh­mal­low if they leave the first one alone while the ex­per­i­menter is away. The marsh­mal­low test mea­sures how much weight chil­dren as­sign to the fu­ture, rel­a­tive to in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion.

What do apes do when sub­jected to sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances? In one study, a chim­panzee pa­tiently stares at a con­tainer into which a sweet falls ev­ery 30 sec­onds. He knows he can dis­con­nect the con­tainer at any mo­ment to swal­low its con­tents,

but he also knows this will halt the sweetie flow. The longer he waits, the more sweets will col­lect in his bowl. Apes do about as well as chil­dren in this re­gard, de­lay­ing grat­i­fi­ca­tion for up to 18 min­utes.

But what about, say, birds? Do they need any self-re­straint at all? Many birds pick up food that they could swal­low them­selves, yet carry it to their hun­gry young in­stead. In some species, males feed their mates dur­ing courtship while go­ing hun­gry them­selves. Again, self-con­trol is key.

Irene Pep­per­berg, who stud­ies an­i­mal cognition, con­ducted many fa­mous ex­per­i­ments on her African grey par­rot, Alex, over a 30-year pe­riod. After he died in 2007, she con­tin­ued the re­search with an­other African grey, Griffin. When she tested the par­rot on a de­layed grat­i­fi­ca­tion task, he man­aged long wait­ing times. As he sat on his lit­tle perch, a cup with a less pre­ferred food, such as ce­real, was placed in front of him, while he was asked to wait. Griffin knew that if he waited long enough, he might get cashew nuts or even sweets. He was suc­cess­ful 90 per cent of the time, en­dur­ing de­lays of up to 15 min­utes.

The crit­i­cal ques­tion in re­la­tion to Frank­furt’s def­i­ni­tion of free will is whether an­i­mals un­der­stand that they are fight­ing temp­ta­tion. Are they aware of their own de­sire? When chil­dren avoid look­ing at the marsh­mal­low or cover their eyes with their hands, we as­sume they feel the temp­ta­tion. They talk to them­selves, sing, in­vent games us­ing their hands and feet, and even fall asleep so they don’t have to en­dure the ter­ri­bly long wait.

The fa­ther of Amer­i­can psy­chol­ogy, Wil­liam James, long ago pro­posed “will” and “ego strength” as the ba­sis of self-con­trol. This is how the behaviour of chil­dren in the marsh­mal­low test is typ­i­cally in­ter­preted, be­cause they use con­scious strate­gies to dis­tract them­selves from their predica­ment.

The same may ap­ply to apes. In the test with the fall­ing sweets, for ex­am­ple, apes hold out sig­nif­i­cantly longer if they have toys to play with. Fo­cus­ing on the toys helps to take their mind off the sweet ma­chine. That they do so in­ten­tion­ally is in­di­cated by the fact that they ma­nip­u­late the toys a lot more dur­ing sweet tests than oth­er­wise.

Griffin the par­rot, too, ac­tively tried to block out the in­fe­rior food in front of him. About one-third of the way through one of his long­est waits, he sim­ply threw the cup with ce­real across the room. On other oc­ca­sions, he moved the cup just out of reach, talked to him­self, preened him­self, shook his feath­ers, yawned ex­ten­sively, or fell asleep. He also some­times licked the treat, shout­ing “Wanna nut!”

This is one of the mis­un­der­stand­ings about an­i­mal emo­tions. Not only do we think they have only few sim­ple ones – a view for which there is ab­so­lutely no ev­i­dence – but we also be­lieve that an­i­mals surely must be the slaves of their emo­tions. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

Take the case of a mother chimp whose in­fant is picked up by a well-mean­ing

fe­male ado­les­cent. This is a daily sce­nario, as young fe­males are ir­re­sistibly drawn to ba­bies and al­ways want to hold and cud­dle them. Un­for­tu­nately, they are also clumsy. The mother knows this and will fol­low the ado­les­cent, whim­per­ing and beg­ging, try­ing to get her off­spring back. The ado­les­cent keeps evad­ing her, how­ever. The mother sup­presses an all-out pur­suit for fear that the kid­nap­per will es­cape into a tree and en­dan­ger her pre­cious baby. For the same rea­son, she can­not sim­ply grab her baby. Imag­ine two fe­males, each pulling at a limb, stretching a scream­ing in­fant be­tween them. I’ve seen it hap­pen, and it’s a most dis­turb­ing sight.

So, the mother needs to stay calm and col­lected. She may even act as if she’s hardly in­ter­ested, sit­ting nearby with a ca­sual air, munch­ing on a few leaves, just to show that she poses no threat.

Once the in­fant is safely back atop her belly, how­ever, ev­ery­thing changes. I have seen such a mother turn on the ado­les­cent, chasing her over long dis­tances with fu­ri­ous barks and screams, re­leas­ing all her pent-up fury. The whole se­quence gives the im­pres­sion that the mother held her worry and ir­ri­ta­tion in check for the sake of a safe out­come. There are lots more ex­am­ples of sel­f­re­straint. Any­one who has a large and a small dog at home can see it in ac­tion when they play to­gether. An­i­mals just can’t af­ford to blindly run after their im­pulses. Their emo­tional re­ac­tions go through an ap­praisal of the sit­u­a­tion and the avail­able op­tions. This is why they all have self-con­trol.

Fur­ther­more, in or­der to avoid con­flict and pun­ish­ment, the mem­bers of a group need to ad­just their de­sires, or at least their behaviour, to the will of those around them. Com­pro­mise is the name of the game. Given the long his­tory of so­cial life on Earth, these ad­just­ments are deeply in­grained and ap­ply equally to hu­mans and other so­cial an­i­mals. So even though, per­son­ally, I am not a big be­liever in free will for our own species, we do need to pay at­ten­tion to the way cognition over­rides in­ner urges. Hu­mans don’t seem very dif­fer­ent from other species in this re­gard.

My ten­ta­tive con­clu­sion is that if we hu­mans did evolve free will, it is un­likely that we were the first ones.

In some bird species, males feed their mates while go­ing hun­gry them­selves. Self-con­trol is key.

Do wilde­beest con­sider their ac­tions? Is it all hard-wired in­stinct or does free will form a part of their behaviour?

Above: chimps, and other pri­mates, of­ten have to show re­straint around young­sters, whose bois­ter­ous an­tics may lead to an­noy­ance and frus­tra­tion in the adults.

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