Why don’t we think animals are conscious?

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Of Course Animals are Conscious

Kelvin Hodges

When I look at my animal and bird friends and neighbors I am often surprised by the complexity of their behaviours. Recently, for instance, I have come to be aware that I can tell which predator is in the area. A slow lazy alarm call, whether from the chipmunk, blue jay, chickadee, and usually all three or more, means skunks. A rapid alarm means the cat. A variety of birds calling out while congregated in one area means someone is being eaten there.

Hey, what you looking so surprised for, of course I'm cooler than you are.
Hey, what you looking so surprised for, of course I’m cooler than you are.

I bring this up because as humans we have an understanding of observed truths about our fellow beings and yet we are burdened with a host of what can only be called myths.

One of the more egregious myths, I would posit, is that humans are somehow uniquely conscious. I have considered this idea to be myth for some time. Here’s why.

This is not an issue that should rely on religion

First, this idea that humans are unique derives its primary support in western knowledge from religious sources. You know, the idea that “god gave man dominion over all things.” The bible is many things, but it is not a compendium of scientific thought. This idea that man has a divine gifted right is, to my mind, a simple belief of an early time in history.

Articles that we take based on religious teaching are simply not arguable. So I will not try. That the bible also makes man unique by telling us that only man has a soul is in no way provable; it is an issue of faith.

But what of science?

The second support might be described as that of scientific enlightenment, the product that asks that the forces of nature be quantified. In this realm we look to that famous scientific philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes. The man who’s famous words “I think therefore I am” appear in his Discourse on Method. For several hundred years we have referred to his tract for this idea and its corollary that this “I” consciousness defines man as a unique species.  I read the book as a boy and, probably like many, take his description of human intelligence being uniquely conscious as the truth. I considered this a rational, repeatable, verifiable belief.

Recently however, while listening to the radio, I heard a rather interesting commentary on the effects of the death of an astronomer, one Galileo, dispatched due to heresy because he would not make earth the centre of the universe. In this commentary the author pointed out the effect that Galileo’s death had on the scientific community of that time, noting Descartes as one influenced.

This idea intrigued me and when, a few days later, I had the delight of finding Descartes’ Discourse for the princely sum of one dollar at a used book store, well how could I forgo such a pleasure as to reread the book and test the veracity of this new observation?

Was Descartes bullied?

So into the book I went. After he gives us a brief review of his life and sundry thoughts on reason by page 10 of my translation one finds Descartes bowing to the power of the church by disavowing anyone take his thoughts seriously “…it is not because I advise anyone to copy it. Those whom God has more bountifully endowed will no doubt have higher aims.” Today it sounds like tongue in cheek humour, yet it confirms that Descartes was aware of the church. Still, he gets on to the logical sequence of philosophy that results in, on page 21, those famous words, “I think therefore I am.” I admire this sequence of thought.

However, Descartes then goes on another ramble that balances his scientific observations, observations which may lead him to Galileo’s fate, against faith in the existence of god. On page 39, he directly alludes to Galileo, and then follows with, out of the blue, that man is suited as “master and possessors of nature.”

This is where I have two stomach-unsettling perceptions. First is that Descartes clearly makes this statement “out of the blue.” There is no rationale as we find in his cogitation on consciousness, “I think therefore I am;” rather, in one fell swoop Descartes puts man above the “animals” amid a rather polite begging to be tolerated.

My second thought is that Descartes, in making such long qualifying statements, may be warning us that he believes he must make this unverifiable exposition to avoid Galileo’s fate, keeping one foot on terra firma so to speak.

So that leaves us at a quandary. In so many ways we are committed to believing that we are the preeminent consciousness on this planet. We believe that we alone are gifted with a conscious awareness of individuality. We go so far as to mock those who would question this belief. When animals behave in ways that we define as conscious, say appear to laugh or show emotion, we are told we are anthropomorphizing. We have a whole big word that tells us our observation is wrong and that a concept, which is completely unverified, is correct.

Is anthropomorphizing bullshit?

So, “anthropomorphizing,” at least as it refers to animal behaviour, is a scientific sounding word that has a meaning but no proof.

Yet let us look upon man: what other characteristic can we find that he enjoys that no other species does? Certainly if we have one utterly unique facility that has no match we might expect to have others. Yet we can easily see that we have no physical faculties that are unique. Indeed many creatures on this planet enjoy the same outwardly use of a skin, teeth, eyes, blood, heart, bones and more fundamentally, are built from DNA and RNA sequences, much of which is shared.

We share so much

Even minor outward appearances and behaviours can be found to be shared. There are animals with opposable thumbs, Madagascar monkeys for one. Racoons. We know scientists are now decoding patterns of sound and body movement that animals use as their language, some with hundreds of phrases, which would be similar to a three year old human.

Many animals, even birds, use tools. New research seems to indicate that birds learn language the same way humans do and appear to have regional dialects.

Indeed if you are a pet owner you have first hand experience of the ability of animals to learn, to act from what they have learned, to laugh, to tease, to play, to love, to communicate their needs to you, to engage in what we are told are mere simulacrums of our conscious behavior.

Well I find this to be a very unsatisfactory state, so let us apply a very simple tool: it’s called Occams’ razor and it was an early lever into the age of rationalism. Basically William of Occam stated that when an answer is not clear, or apparently has multiple answers, it is the simplest answer that must be correct.

The simplest answer must be correct

So we now have three answers: One: Some religions tell us that man was “given” dominion over all things and alone has a soul. Two, Descartes might suggest that we alone are uniquely conscious, perhaps because we think. Or three, we may observe that consciousness, as being a result of evolutionary pressure, is likely being experimented with, in one form or another, in all successful life on the planet and is not unique only to man.

The first answer is not arguable in a realistic sense. To accept this answer requires one to a stretch of imagination I certainly can’t make. So we’ll cross it off the list as involving additional and complex external factors.

The second, I agree with Descartes that “I” have a conscious apprehension of the world. At least some of the time. The rest is, I’m afraid unsupported and indeed appears to have been recognized as such by the author himself. So again, too many murky factors.

Thus, to my view, the simple answer must be that evolution, being of such a vast proportion, has given consciousness, if in many forms, to all creatures. Perhaps we can even easily see reasons why we developed consciousness and the traits thereof.

Why consciousness?

My wife and I had a lovely property that is part of a several hundreds of kilometer stretch of trees. As a result we would see more than our fair share of birds passing by as they use the tree line for their migration. One of the downfalls of this migration past our windows is our windows. One observation I have made is that a small bird upon flying into the window will be stunned. At first I recorded the mortality rate and found almost half that fell to the ground would not recover from this impact. Quite by chance I happened upon a little lad, an American goldfinch, as I came home one day. He must have hit the window fairly recently for while he appeared dead, unresponsive to my approach, yet when I poked him he came back to life. After that time whenever I heard a window hit (much rarer now as we have white spider web imitations “stabilimenti” on our windows to warn away the birds) I would rush out and poke the bird. Almost invariably, close to 100% of the time, the bird will move and upon moving it’s as if this resets their internal processes and they come out of their stupefied state and eventually fly away. So, we know ourselves that when we receive a hard knock there is a moment when we are stunned. Then, two characteristics of awareness help us be self poking as it were. We either react with anger, gol’darn that hurt, or laughter, bumped our noggins, did we?

So perhaps it is that consciousness, self-awareness, humour, anger, are evolved characteristics to help us best the complex and unforeseen circumstance of life. Certainly problems not unique to man.

Evolution must have gifted consciousness to many in many ways

We too are mammals who have been entered on the path of evolution. We may be at the height of some kinds of intelligence, most obviously ennobled with mechanical aptitude, but are we any more conscious than the other great mammals of the world? Are we poets to equal the great whales? There is a wonderful story of a sperm whale male whom every year travels to a specific underwater canyon and there facing the great chasm walls sings an hours long song. The sound is thought to travel to other whales many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles away. How tremendous are the epic lines of that poem? Recently scientists have found whales’ brains, like ours, contain spindle cells, complex neurons which some scientists have dubbed “the cell that makes us human.” So, if the very biological building blocks are the same, why wouldn’t the ability to perceive, laugh, cry, feel remorse and so on be shared as well?

In humour are we as given to the heights of joy and enthusiasm a pod of porpoise displays playing in the great blue ocean? Scientists have discovered some dolphins actually spend more time playing games than human children. Do we have the memory and the depth of feeling given to the elephant at their graveyard?

This question too, if we apply Occam’s razor, says no, we are not likely to be the most conscious being on earth. Do we have the eyesight of an eagle? Are we gifted with the athleticism of a cat? If we are weaker in these areas it would appear that we must expect that there are among us, fellow beings who have, at least in some part, greater intellectual and emotional gifts than even our own.

I leave this question and many more to the brilliant scientists and researchers working with animals and exploring the natural world. I merely ask you to release yourself from the shackles of faith and illusion and join me in saying out loud, “we are not unique.”

We are not unique

Let us say out loud, “all creatures share, at least in part, our consciousness.” Descartes, whether he spoke from religious pressure or erroneous deduction, was wrong. The bible, a wonderful guide to human morality and justice, is yet built on the simplicity of an earlier age. So welcome to liberation; welcome to a richer observation of all of nature’s wonder; welcome too, your new conscious friends.


Please remember, this article is copyright of the author. If you enjoyed his treatise might I suggest you buy him a beer? I personally will take him to the pub. Thank you dear reader.

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