Was Frege a Quack?

The duck has become the symbol of the Ne Da(vi)mo Beograd protest movement (a play on words which means both “we will not give up Belgrade” and “we will not drown Belgrade”), that is gathering momentum in Serbia. At issue is the defence of public space in opposition to the rampant commercialisation of the public sphere, much as with Taksim Square in Turkey, and the corrupt interface between the state and big business in contemporary post socialist society.I hope that the movement will remain ongoing so that I may participate upon my return to Belgrade.

I’m not especially interested, for now, in the protest movement.

I am, rather, interested in the duck.

It would appear that ducklings have a cognitive capacity for abstract thought and an understanding of concepts. New Scientist reports on a lovely experiment that, it would appear, demonstrates this.

In ducklings, goslings and other species that depend for survival on following their mothers, newborns learn quickly – a process called filial imprinting.

Kacelnik wondered whether this would enable them to be tricked soon after hatching into “following” objects or colours instead of their natural mother, and recognising those same patterns in future.

To find out, they hatched the ducklings in the dark and then placed them individually in lit enclosures, with objects circling around them. At first, they tried this with pairs of solid objects that were either identical – such as a couple of prisms – or non-identical, such as a prism and a sphere.

After putting the ducklings back in the dark following this “priming” period, they returned them to the enclosure but this time offered them a choice of what to follow – either two identical objects, or two that were different.

To their amazement, they found that the birds usually opted to trail the combination they had been primed with, even if the actual shapes of the objects were different from the original ones. The ducklings might follow two identical spheres after being primed with two identical pyramids, for example.

Next, they tried it with pairs of identical objects that had either matching or different colours. The result was the same

Ducklings understand the *concepts* of sameness and difference. The highly limited and degenerate exposure of ducklings to the external world also shows that the understanding of these concepts must be innate. It is argued that these experiments demonstrate that abstract thought and knowledge of concepts is more widespread among animals, that is not just limited to humans, than previously thought. A point to which I return.

Let me focus on humans first. We might argue from analogy here, and say that concepts, which are abstractions, cannot arise upon the basis of an empiricist theory of knowledge. If ducklings possess concepts, no matter how limited their array of concepts are, and clearly these concepts are innate then why would humans be unique in this regard? That is, why would humans be unique in that only we develop concepts upon the basis of an empiricist theory of knowledge?

To return to the point about the diversity of concepts in the organic world. It is interesting that we are dealing here with a species of bird. The avian kingdom possesses the closest thing to human language in the organic world. Could there be a connection here? That is, birds possess a cognitive capacity for understanding concepts because they possess birdsong?

What is interesting, also, is the issue of a conceptual scheme. Humans understand concepts, but we are also able to build up a conceptual scheme that interrelates and interlinks concepts through language, logic and recursion. Would species that understand, some, concepts also possess a rudimentary conceptual scheme built up through an innate proto logic? Do the ducklings in other words *reason.* They know “sameness” and “difference” and when confronted with a choice between the two *reason* about which to follow.

Notice the emphasis on ducklings. One of the more fascinating aspects of evolution is that there exists a tendency for “advanced transitional form” to first appear in the young of a “transitional” species. For instance, the closeness of humans to chimpanzees is often noted but this is especially striking with regard to young chimpanzees.

Have we gone from ducklings and chicks and stuff to Frege and the concept script? Quack, quack Gotlob you’re a duck man.

Nature is forever a source of wonder.

There also exists here some ethical implications regarding man’s relationship with the organic world.