Hailing Taxis with Hyenas

Here I would like to pre-empt my paper presentation for the forthcoming conference at Notre Dame’s London Gateway: Wisdom’s Deep Evolution. The ideas I’m presenting here are essentially in line with the paper but the data will likely be different. While I intend to talk about human-canine relationships in London, here I’ll be relying on spotted hyenas to state my case.

Marcus Baynes Rock Hyena Feeding 768x512Photo by Marcus Baynes-Rock

What I’m interested in here is distributed cognition. This concept is a challenge to enlightenment philosophy and mind/body dualisms in that it holds cognition to be embedded in relations with the environment. Theorists such as Tim Ingold and Neil Kirsh argue very convincingly that mind – whatever that is – is not a separate realm wherein sensory data from the physical world are processed and rationalized. Rather, mind is a consequence of perception and action. This is not just an abstract or intuited position but is supported by evidence from neuroscience – particularly work on mirror systems and body maps.

Marcus Baynes Rock Hyena Listening 768x512Photo by Marcus Baynes-Rock

My data come from Harar in eastern Ethiopia where I did my field research on humans and spotted hyenas. Harar is a city of about 100,000 people and approximately 150 spotted hyenas. The hyenas den in the countryside outside the town and patrol the streets at night looking for scraps that people obligingly leave out. In fact people are kindly disposed toward hyenas to the degree that there are two hyena feeding places where hyenas are fed nightly. These feeding places have also become tourist attractions and it was at one of these places that I made the majority of my hyena observations.

Each evening the hyenas would arrive at the feeding place, and I’d sit on the hill with them waiting for tourists to arrive. There were sometimes long periods of waiting during which I began to pay attention to what the hyenas were paying attention to. Hyenas have an incredible hearing; they can detect a food source by sound from 10 kilometers. But it is also very discriminatory: in my experience they can identify people (and presumably other hyenas) by the sound of their footsteps alone. So anyone familiar with hyenas would not be surprised with my finding that hyenas distinguish vehicles by the sounds of their engines.

Marcus Baynes Rockhyena TaxiPhoto by Ardalle Yusuf

There were really only two kinds of vehicles that traveled the road from Harar’s eastern gate to the feeding place: the cars and taxis that were regularly parked up overnight in the secure library lot next to the feeding place, and the cars and taxis that were coming with tourists on board. The hyenas always paid attention when they heard a vehicle heading down toward the feeding place from the top of the hill. In some cases they stood up and invariably a taxi with tourists pulled into the drive and the feeding commenced. In other cases the hyenas remained lying on the ground and invariably one of the regular vehicles that parked in the library lot pulled in and went to its regular position to be left there for the night. So I surmised that when hyenas heard a car or taxi with a familiar engine sound, they knew it was only coming to park for the night and showed no further interest. But if it was an unfamiliar engine sound then it was very likely that the feeding was about to commence.

This is interesting in itself but where it has relevance to the subject of distributed cognition is in the effect that it had on me. Once I realized that the hyenas were distinguishing engine sounds, the limits of my cognition expanded dramatically. Whereas previously the sounds of vehicle engines had little meaning for me and I could in no way identify vehicles based on their engine noise, I began to take notice of these sounds coming from the top of the hill, and through the hyenas, I began to make distinctions. This, in turn, had an affective dimension in that if I perceived an unfamiliar vehicle, I anticipated that the feeding was about to commence. It was something to look forward to. On the other hand, if it was one of the regular taxis headed for the library lot, I felt profound disappointment and vicariously dropped my chin on my outstretched paws. And this is where the more profound consequence of the concept of distributed cognition emerges: as my cognitive capacities become embedded in those of spotted hyenas then the edifice of much of western ontologies – the self – begins to fray at the edges. So instead of seeing humans as mind/bodies navigating worlds of otherness, we begin to see human beings as nexuses of other creatures, organisms, viruses, and neurons combining to create an illusion that we are self-contained.