Monday, January 23, 2006

In the news: "The Animal Self"

There's a great article in the New York Times Magazine by Charles Siebert about research into animal personality. The article begins with an examination of personality in the giant Pacific octopus (GPO), and quickly gets to the real problem: what the hell do we mean by 'personality'? How is it different from mere behavior? Can a critter that does not engage in self-reflection have a personality?

It sounds faintly nutty, this stuff, but read on and it starts to make sense. Snip:
Advances in fields like genetics and molecular and evolutionary biology have lent to the study of psychology something that it really didn't have when behaviorism first came to the fore: a better understanding of the biological and bioevolutionary underpinnings of behavior. No longer is the study of animal behavior rooted in that inherently naïve and anthropocentric desire to see ourselves in animals or to project upon them our thoughts and feelings. Animal personality, along with such integral fields as animal behavior, behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology, all pivot now around what might be called deep analogies. The more detailed and specific our knowledge has become of the animals and of the many differences between them and us, the more clearly we can see what is analogous about our respective behaviors.

Animal personality, in other words, is now redirecting psychology's focus in a direction the behaviorists would most appreciate: away from airy abstractions about personality and down to its very tangible and widely dispersed roots. It might be thought of as a kind of biological Buddhism or muscular mythologizing or armed anthropomorphism: a more disciplined and detailed form of that idle speculating we have all done in front of the head tilt of a dog or the sudden skyward shift of a flock of sea gulls or the comings and goings of ants around their respective mounds.

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