The Conscious Lives of Animals

I’m currently reading¬†Carl Safina’s “Beyond Words: What animals think and feel”, and to back it up also watched a DVD of the BBC TV series “Inside the Animal Mind”.

Both are quite recent and summarise some of the current thinking around animal cognition and consciousness. Now, this is a field that has long suffered from a rather strangely oppositional stance by science, and before that by a remarkable assumed ignorance by human beings.

I think that in the past (and to an extent even now) the religious ideas of Western civilisation held sway and influenced general views about the relationship between man and other animals with its inherent sense that man is something apart, something different and divinely inspired. And as science grew out of religious inquiry into the nature of God’s creation, it perhaps hasn’t entirely rid itself of this underlying outlook. Descarte’s notion of a divine essence in particular seems to have resonated broadly and the Cartesian idea of a central dualism to man’s being persuades many people to believe that we are indeed different, beings standing at the pinnacle of creation. Or perhaps it’s simply too challenging to our own sense of meaning and identity to see ourselves as just another animal, or – vice versa – that animals are not so different from us.

Safina observes early in the book that it seems ridiculous to deny animals an internal subjective experience of the world when they share the same nervous system, the same general cognitive centres, and largely the same behavioural responses. Why should it be that an animal that expresses fear, or joy, or pain, is not actually experiencing anything when a human in the same situation is? Yet for far too long, that is exactly what we have done – ignored the evidence of our own eyes. As he notes, “… we desperately need to believe we are not just unique…but that we are so very special, that we are resplendent, transcendent, translucent, divinely inspired, weightlessly imbued with eternal souls.”

Safina considers the lives of elephants, one of the smartest and most social of animals, today under immense threat from the predations of human beings. When ivory can offer a man a lifeline to keep poverty and starvation at bay, the inner lives of elephants and the close social bonds of their family groups mean little. Nonetheless there IS meaning in the lives of elephants and Safina shows in empathic and sympathetic vignettes of everyday encounters a glimpse into the experience of the largest land animals, and in doing so invites us to feel some degree of familiarity with how they live in the world.

He goes on to examine the lived experience of wolves and whales and throughout he weaves a story of the unfolding evidence for animal consciousness, but even more than this, he highlights what I think is a fundamental insight into life on earth. Evolution has built upon a common foundation and we should not be surprised to find many of the core capabilities of human beings in even the simplest organisms. Humans are not so much apart as inherently part, a wrinkle on a theme at once more complex and more capable of wringing great change and yet far less capable than many other animals. It is when we look at animals in the context of their own meaning, through the lens of their own relationship to the rest of life and the world, that we can truly see their measure.

Yet there is a long history in the common and scientific outlook that would deny this angle to our inquiry into animal conciousness, a history steeped in what Peter Singer calls ‘speciesism’. Safina offers this thought: “Are they intelligent like we are? No, and therefore – we win! Are we intelligent like they are? We don’t care. We insist that they play our game; we won’t play theirs.” In this book, he shows us that caring is key if we wish to understand how animals think and feel and by extension better know our own relationship with and place in nature.

The BBC video examines the cognitive prowess of animals, from the problem solving abilities of crows to the remarkable behaviour of dolphins watching themselves in a mirror. Science, it seems, can no longer completely hold at bay the idea that animals do indeed think, feel, experience and look at the world in ways not so dissimilar from us.

One of the most illuminating learnings in this video is that relative brain size (ie brain to body mass) is a strong predictor of brain ‘power’ where brainpower equates to cognitive abilities such as problem solving and abstract thinking. And it turns out that by and large, the most social of animals have the largest brains relative to body mass. Humans, Great Apes, Wolves, Whales, Corvids and Elephants for example all share this trait and all are remarkably competent problem solvers.

This reflects something fundamental about the evolution of the brain (and consciousness). For social animals, it is important to be able to evaluate the behaviours of others. Early in the development of brains and nervous systems it became necessary for animals to be able to determine what other animals were doing, where their attention lay and what their next action might be. For example, a predator that has its eye on you is a greater danger than one that doesn’t. Being able to assess and predict the behaviour of peers and predators can be critical for survival. Similarly once animals begin to cooperate as social animals do, predicting the behaviour of fellow creatures becomes useful, as does the ability to adapt your own behaviour to suit. It’s only a small jump from there to being able to influence or manipulate your fellows’ behaviours in pursuit of goals or outcomes (think hunting as a pack).

It’s easy to see where that leads in regard to human beings. Our use of language and high order cognition means that we can work cooperatively in coalitions of considerable size. In effect, human beings can construct societies of almost unlimited numbers with consequent adaptive advantages to the species as a whole.

Coming back to the ideas in Safina’s book, we are struck by the fact that rather than consciousness or intelligence being something that humans have and other animals do not, it is in fact something of a continuous spectrum. Most animals – that is to say birds, mammals, maybe reptiles and fish – have a basic toolkit of awareness and the ability to adapt behaviour on the basis of perception. How this is applied varies between species and has achieved substantial specialisation in some, but on the whole we tend to find that the simpler forms of cognition and awareness are shared between most animals. Consciousness itself is similarly a spectrum event, with humans perhaps at the top of the tree due to our use of complex language.

I think this is the take home message. Conscious awareness of the world is not some special ability enjoyed by humans but not other animals, rather it is common to most animals and can be expressed in more complex ways depending upon application. Social animals with larger relative brain size seem to exhibit the most complex cognitive abilities and so we can conclude that the human experience is not that much different from that of creatures like the elephant and dolphin. That said, pretty much all the animals we hunt and farm for food can be said to be aware, conscious and experiencing. That means we really should be re-evaluating our relationship with the rest of nature. For too long we have stood apart and in our apartness felt we had the right to treat other animals as mere objects to be used. Science and religion both tacitly encouraged this idea, but finally the tide is turning and it becomes harder to ignore that our fellow animals are exactly that, our fellows.

Albert-Swinestein-2bSafina summarises: “Just as all humans are the same and each human differs, all species are the same and each species differs, and within that, each creature, too, is an individual”.

They are like us, we are like them. Perhaps in the end, we all just are.  We should try to remember this simple fact so long ignored.


Photo credit: Carrie Brock