How do animals form categories?
Quickie from Wiki: “In metaphysics (in particular, ontology), the different kinds or ways of being are called categories of being or simply categories. According to the Aristotelian tradition, a being is anything that can be said to be in the various senses of this word. Hence, to investigate the categories of being is to determine the most fundamental senses in which things can be said to be. A category, more precisely, is any of the broadest classes of things - 'thing' here meaning anything whatever that can be discussed and cannot be reduced to any other class.”
Donald Schon, a researcher in the cognitive sciences, tells us of a group working on a difficult task of designing a satisfactory paintbrush made of synthetic bristles. In the middle of a discussion among the technicians designing the brush one of the group had that eureka moment and shouted “You know, a paintbrush is a kind of pump”. This insight Schon explains caused the designers “to notice new features of the brush and of the painting process”.
Cognitive science has introduced a new way of viewing the world and our self by declaring a new paradigm which is called the embodied mind. The primary focus is upon the fact that there is no mind/body duality but that there is indeed an integrated mind and body. The mind and body are as integrated as is the heart and the cardiovascular system. Mind and body form a gestalt (a structure so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts).
The human thought process is dominated by the characteristic of our integrated body. The sensorimotor neural network is an integral part of mind. The neural network that makes movement and perception possible is the same network that processes our thinking.
The unconscious categories that guide our human response to the world are constructed in the same way as are the categories that make it possible of other animals to survive in the world. We form categories both consciously and unconsciously.
Why do we feel that both our consciously created and unconsciously created categories fit the world?
Our consciously formed concepts fit the world, more or less, because we consciously examine the world with our senses and our reason and classify that world into these concepts we call categories.
Our unconsciously formed categories are a different matter. Our unconsciously formed categories fit our world because these basic-level categories “have evolved to form at least one important class of categories that optimally fit our bodily experiences of entities and certain extremely important differences in the natural environment”.
Our perceptual system has little difficulty distinguishing between dogs and cows or rats and squirrels. Investigation of this matter makes clear that we distinguish most readily those folk versions of biological genera, i.e. those “that have evolved significantly distinct shapes so as to take advantage of different features of their environment.”
If we move down to subordinate levels of the biological hierarchy we find the distinguishing ability deteriorates quickly. It is more difficult to distinguish one species of elephant from another than from distinguishing an elephant from a buffalo. It is easy to distinguish a boat from a car but more difficult distinguishing one type of car from another.
“Consider the categories chair and car which are in the middle of the category hierarchies furniture—chair—rocking chair and vehicle—car—sports car. In the mid-1970s, Brent Berlin, Eleanor Rosch, Carolyn Mervis, and their coworkers discovered that such mid-level categories are cogently “basic”—i.e. they have a kind of cognitive priority, as contrasted with “superordinate” categories like furniture and vehicle and with “subordinate” categories like rocking chair and sports car” (Berlin et al 1974 “Principles of Tzeltal Plant Classification”; Mervis and Rosch 1981 Categorization of Natural Objects, “Annual Review of Psychology” 32: 89-115))
The differences between basic-level and non basic-level categories is based upon bodily characteristics. The basic-level categories are dependent upon gestalt perception, sensorimotor programs, and mental images. We can easily see that these facts make it the case that classical metaphysical realism cannot be true; the properties of many categories are mediated by the body rather than determined directly by a mind-independent reality.
“Try the following thought experiment: Close your eyes and picture a chair. Now, close your eyes and try to picture a furniture. You cannot—at least not one that isn’t a basic level object such as a lamp, table, or chair. The reasons are, first, that one can perceive lamps, tables, or chairs in terms of a single overall shape, but there is no overall shape for pieces of furniture in general…Second we have special motor programs for interacting with basic-level objects such as lamps, tables, and chairs but no motor program for pieces of furniture in general.”
In humans basic level categories are developed primarily based upon our bodily configuration and its interrelationship with the environment. For other animals almost all, if not all, categories are basic-level categories.
Quotes from A Clearing in the Forest: Law, Life, and Mind by Steven L. Winter