Didn't we already know this? Yes we did Published on
August 10, 2012 by
Every now and again I receive an email message I ignore after reading the
subject line. I know I'm not alone in following this rule of thumb, but
today I broke down and opened a message the subject line of which read "Scientists
Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious". I honestly thought it was a
joke, likely from one of my favorite newspapers,
The Onion. However, it wasn't.
My colleague Michael Mountain published a summary of
a recent meeting held in Cambridge, England at which "Science leaders
have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings;
other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too."
At this gathering, called The Francis
Crick Memorial Conference, a number of scientists presented evidence
that led to this self-obvious conclusion. It's difficult to believe that
those who have shared their homes with companion animals didn't already know
this. And, of course,
many renowned and award-winning field researchers had reached the same
conclusion years ago (see
Michael Mountain was as incredulous as I and many others about something
we already knew. It's interesting to note that of the 15 notables who spoke
at this conference only one has actually done studies of wild animals. It
would have been nice to hear from researchers who have conducted long-term
studies of wild animals, including great apes, other nonhuman primates,
social carnivores, cetaceans, rodents, and birds, for example, to add to the
database. Be that as it may, I applaud their not so surprising conclusion
and now I hope it will be used to protect animals from being treated
abusively and inhumanely.
Some might say we didn't really know that
other animals were conscious but this is an incredibly naive view given what
we know about the neurobiology and
emotional lives of other animals. Indeed, it was appeals to these very data
that led to the conclusions of this group of scientists. But did we really
need a group of internationally recognized scientists to tell us that the
data are really okay? Yes and no, but let's thank them for doing this.
agree with Michael Mountain that "It's a really important statement that
will be used as evidence by those who are pushing for scientists to develop
a more humane relationship with animals. It's harder, for example, to
justify experiments on nonhumans when you know that they are conscious
beings and not just biological machines. Some of the conclusions reached in
this declaration are the product of scientists who, to this day, still
conduct experiments on animals in captivity, including dolphins, who are
among the most intelligent species on Earth. Their own declaration will now
be used as evidence that it's time to stop using these animals in captivity
and start finding new ways of making a living."
Declaration on Consciousness
The scientists went as far as to write
up what's called
The Cambridge Decalration on Consciousness that basically declares that
this prominent international group of scientists agree that "Convergent
evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical,
neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along
with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight
of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the
neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals,
including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including
octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates." They could also have
included fish, for whom
the evidence supporting sentience and consciousness is also compelling
So, what are we going to do with what we know (and have
It's fair to ask what are these scientists and others going
to do now that they agree that consciousness is widespread in the animal
kingdom. We know, for example, that
mice, rats, and chickens display empathy but
this knowledge hasn't been factored into the Federal Animal Welfare Act in
the United States.
I'm frankly astounded that these data and many
other findings about animal cognition and animal emotions have been ignored
by those who decide on regulations about the use and abuse of other animals.
of Lisbon, passed by member states of the European Union that went into
force on December 1, 2009, recognizes that "In formulating and implementing
the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and
technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member
States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the
welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or
administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in
religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage."
Let's applaud The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness and The Treaty of
Lisbon and work hard to get animals the protection from invasive research
and other forms of abuse, in many cases horrifically inhumane, they deserve.
Some recent essays I've written point out that there still are some
people who feel comfortable
killing individuals who they call "unneeded" or "surplus" animals and at
least one animal welfarist, Oxford University's Marian Dawkins, continued as
of a few months ago to claim
we still don't know if other animals are conscious and that we should
"remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness] ... Militantly agnostic
if necessary, because this keeps alive the possibility that a large number
of species have some sort of conscious experiences ... For all we know, many
animals, not just the clever ones and not just the overtly emotional ones,
also have conscious experiences."
Perhaps what I call "Dawkins'
Dangerous Idea" will now finally be shelved given the conclusions of the
Cambridge gathering. I frankly don't see how anyone who has worked closely
with any of a wide array of animals or who lives with a companion animal(s)
could remain uncertain and agnostic about whether they are conscious.
It's said that repetition is boring conversation but there's now a
wealth of scientific data that makes skepticism, and surely agnosticism, to
be anti-science and harmful to animals. Now, at last, the prestigious
Cambridge group shows this to be so. Bravo for them! So, let's all work
together to use this information to stop the abuse of millions upon millions
of conscious animals in the name of science,
food, amusement and entertainment, and clothing. We really owe it to them to
use what we know on their behalf and to factor compassion and
empathy into our
treatment of these amazing beings.
The teaser image can be found