After over a century, mainstream scientists finally got around to acknowledging something anyone with pets or has watched nature documentaries has known all along – animals are conscious beings.
A year ago at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference, evidence of this obvious conclusion was presented by self-congratulatory scientists, despite the fact that only one of them had actually bothered to do any field research into wild animals and that field researchers had already made the same conclusion years before. As Michael Mountain at the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks to change the common law status of some nonhuman animals as “things”, stated: “Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”
Two of the primary reasons why it has taken so long for the scientific establishment to come to such self-evident conclusions are the nature of the study of psychology and consciousness itself, and the historical cultural values towards animals in the Western world.
The rise of behaviourism at the turn of the twentieth century as the dominant psychological model for the study of human nature represented an outright rejection of conscious and subconscious actions, reducing psychology to a strictly scientific discipline based solely on observable behaviour. Consciousness, it seems, was proving to be too problematic for the fresh-faced psychologists who were desperate for their field to be taken seriously by other scientists, with John B. Watson – one of the strongest early advocates of behaviourism – stating in his 1913 paper, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It: ” Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept. The behaviorist, who has been trained always as an experimentalist, holds, further, that belief in the existence of consciousness goes back to the ancient days of superstition and magic.”
While behaviourism doesn’t have the tight grip on the academic psychological community it once had, the dominant scientific consensus still has a tendency to reject any unorthodox views on the nature of consciousness. David Lewis-Williams described this as the “consciousness of rationality”, describing this in his book, The Mind in the Cave as follows: “The contemporary Western emphasis on the supreme value of intelligence has tended to suppress certain forms of consciousness and to regard them as irrational, marginal, aberrant or even pathological and thereby to eliminate them from investigations of the deep past.”
This suppression has manifested itself in a number of distinct ways. The study of emotions has been frequently ridiculed, for instance when U.S. Senator William Proxmire railed against researchers in the 1970s who were studying love and derided the work as a waste of taxpayer dollars, issuing them his first Golden Fleece Award. The subjective nature of emotional states by definition precludes them from investigation by an ideological model rooted in empirical data.
More recently, Graham Hancock found himself under attack from the scientific community and censored by the TED organization for his talk, The War on Consciousness - his major crime against established consensus was to reject the materialistic view which relegates consciousness to nothing more than the product of electrical impulses in the brain rooted entirely in our physiology, and suggest that the use of shamanic visionary plants can teach us “that we are immortal souls temporarily incarnated in these physical forms to learn and to grow.”
Given the inability for any form of consensus on the nature of human consciousness, it is little wonder that the scientific community has taken so long to concede that animals, particularly birds and mammals, are conscious too.
Another problem derives from cultural values. Historically throughout the West, non-human creatures have been relegated to the status of “dumb beasts” incapable of love or happiness, pain or suffering. Aristotle viewed the function of animals as serving human beings as “natural and expedient”, and the Bible states that animals are there to be used by mankind – while this was originally not intended as a license for abuse, history has demonstrated that as a species humans have failed to adhere to the proverb, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” It goes without saying that the contemporary factory farming model represents the total reduction of animals to unthinking, unfeeling commodities.
Philosopher Rene Descartes, adopting the mechanistic view of the world, infamously described creatures other than humans (lacking, as he saw it, the body-mind duality which made humans uniquely conscious) as “animal machines”, while in the nineteenth century the Zoological Journal declared that all behavior which appears to resemble characteristics of consciousness were actually little more than reflex actions. Often, people who exhibit violent or unreasonable behaviour are described as behaving like an animal, with specific creatures – asses, mongrels, pigs and so on – functioning as pejoratives.
All of this can be seen as an effective way in which humans have historically absolved themselves of responsibility for the manner in which they have historically exploited the animal kingdom for their own ends – the reluctance on the part of the scientific community to acknowledge that animals are indeed conscious can be viewed as a continuation of a willful collective blindness.
Yet the study of emotion in animals should have cleared up the question of consciousness in animals some time ago. As the dictionary defines it, emotion is:
an affective state of consciousness in joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like, is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness.
Numerous species of animals have been seen to demonstrate sorrow. Elephant families are so closely knit – and live for so long – that the death of one of their number can be devastating. They are known to bury their dead and attend the corpses in what appears to be a mourning ritual; they have even been known to bury humans with the same attendant behaviour.
Death rituals have also been observed in dolphins, and a number of primates – many of whom we know to have complex social structures – also show clear signs of mourning. Magpies have been observed conducting rituals similar to those of elephants – Marc Bekoff wrote in his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals:
A few years ago my friend Rod and I were riding our bicycles around Boulder, Colorado, when we witnessed a very interesting encounter among five magpies. Magpies are corvids, a very intelligent family of birds. One magpie had obviously been hit by a car and was laying dead on the side of the road. The four other magpies were standing around him. One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it-just as an elephant noses the carcass of another elephant- and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.
Other rituals more commonly observed relating to courtship and mating. In addition to the elaborate displays of birds of paradise, hermaphroditic flatworms engaging in “penis fencing”; male giraffes take a mouthful of the female’s urine then proceeds to stalk her – sometimes, when the female is particularly interested is a certain male she will pursue him and rub her neck against him in an effort to get him to rub her rump so she can urinate in his mouth. Porcupine mating rituals also involves urination, this time with the male peeing all over the female (once she has given him her approval after a bout of nose-rubbing). Male hippos prefer flinging excrement to attract the attention of a female. Some animals deal with sexual rejection in much the same way as some humans, for instance the male fruit fly, who will often turn to alcohol.
Other emotions have been observed in various species. In 2007, a 4 year old Siberian tiger took revenge on three men who had apparently been taunting her – the tiger left her enclosure and ignored hundreds of other visitors to San Francisco Zoo before attacking the men, killing one of them. A similar fate befell Russian tiger poacher Vladimir Markov - after shooting and wounding a tiger and taking part of its kill, the tiger found his cabin and waited for his return before dragging him into the woods and eating him.
University of Chicago neuroscientists have observed compassionate behaviour in rats. Placing one rat in a restraining device while allowing another to roam free, the latter will attempt to release its companion, ignoring any treats available. Professor of psychology and psychiatry Jean Decety said, “There are a lot of ideas in the literature showing that empathy is not unique to humans, and it has been well demonstrated in apes, but in rodents it was not very clear.” Perhaps, given the number of psychopaths amongst the human population, rats are actually more compassionate than ourselves.
A recent book by University of Miami philosopher Mark Rowlands has suggested that animals exhibit human-like traits which go beyond displays of emotions. Can Animals Be Moral? discusses the idea that social animals know right from wrong and can choose to be good or bad. Male bluebirds sometimes beat their mates if they catch them with another bird; monkeys refuse to electric shock one another even when it means missing out on food; a female gorilla by the name of Binti Jua rescued an unconscious 3-year old boy who had fallen into her enclosure, protecting him from other gorillas and calling for human assistance; there are many cases where dolphins have rescued humans from shark attacks.
These small samples of evidence clearly pointing to the rich emotional lives of animals indicates that the recent declaration by scientists regarding the conscious status of animals is a case of stating the obvious – science, it seems, often struggles with basic common sense.
What this sense of superiority and reluctance to acknowledge the capacity for other animals to experience emotions as conscious creatures highlights is an aspect of mankind’s unfailing arrogance. Many of the positive traits exhibited by animals are sorely lacking in our own species. One example might be an incident in my own city, where a young girl on the roof of a shopping mall was goaded by onlookers before jumping to her death – a stark contrast to the respect shown by elephants and other animals. And while it is true that some species of animals are known to commit suicide, there is no evidence that other members of their species look on with a perverse, callous pleasure.
It is the differences between human behaviour and that of other animals which should be the focus of scientific scrutiny. We display a number of negative traits rarely witnessed in the animal kingdom which if anything mark us as emotionally inferior: we lie, cheat, steal and get pleasure from bullying and cruelty, both psychological and physical. In fact, our propensity for violence for the fun of it is believed to be as strong as our drive for sex and food. While aggressive behaviour is observable in a variety of species, most often this relates to defense of territory or mates.
These negative emotions and behavioural characteristics have achieved a kind of supremacy in the contemporary Western world and are most obvious in the upper echelons of society, where greed, power and corruption dominates the elite cliques who shape the ideologies which have the most negative impact on humanity. Cultural and political institutions reflect the psychopathic tendencies of those in charge and the general population, through a form of mass conditioning on behalf of mainstream media and superficial popular culture, becomes infected with the value system of the rich and powerful. In daily life this manifests itself in bullying on the school playground, road rage, vicious serial killers and hierarchical street gangs.
Continuing down the path of negative behaviour, with its vast potential for destruction of both the species and the planet itself, is clearly untenable. But fortunately, the prognosis isn’t all doom and gloom. While the powerful elites continue their drive towards total domination over both the people and the planet, greater numbers are standing up and demonstrating that love and compassion can work as a powerful tool in reclaiming our lives from those who seek to oppress us. Peaceful protests and movements for positive social change are emerging every day as the flimsy facade of “democratic” political institutions crumbles, revealing the authoritarian underbelly ruled by oligarchs and tyrants.
As Graham Hancock demonstrated in his TEDx talk, the old psychological models which allow us as a species to justify our destructive impulses on the planet and everything which lives on it are now facing rigorous challenges. Rather than being viewed as something barely worthy of consideration, consciousness is increasingly considered as something fundamental to all reality; an interconnected web which ties humanity intrinsically to all life on the planet, and indeed, the universe itself.
Andrew Dilks is the author of Goliath.