Sentient beings

Animals “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” – French rationalist Nicolas Malebranche, The Search After Truth and Elucidations (1674)

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It felt like things couldn’t get much worse: a business venture had gone belly-up, a relationship had disintegrated, I was being thrown out of my flat, and I’d caught the flu. With the Holden loaded for a journey south to a new start, I lay on the floor (all the furniture was gone) and wept for all that had gone awry. My Labrador, Floyd, walked over to me, peered into my face and, perceiving, put one paw on me. Then he lay down beside me and rested his head on my chest.

Most people who have shared any of their life with an animal will assure you that they “know what’s going on”—in other words, they exhibit consciousness. They feel.

But the majority of scientists still consider the notion taboo. For one, we’re still shaking off centuries of dogma. The French philosopher René Descartes argued in the 17th century that animals could not experience pain or suffering because they have no cognisance, reinforcing a reduc­tionist view of nature already imposed by the Church, which pointed to passages in the Bible suggesting that animals were merely slaves or fodder.

For all the brilliant work of taxonomists such as Linnaeus and Cuvier, who brought order to a chaotic bestiary, it told us nothing about the inner lives of animals. It did, however, show Charles Darwin our common similarities, and led to theories of evolution. When he placed us among the animals, you’d have thought Darwin might have awak­ened a new curiosity around their psyches. “Thought and feeling in animals [is] an inevitable consequence of phylogenic continuity,” he wrote. “If morphological and physiological traits are evolutionarily contin­uous, so, too, are psychological ones.” But we ignored the sentiment. Even as we embraced our physical commonality, we firmly rejected any shared emotional condition.

So it is that scientists have for decades huddled behind the shield of objectivity: if they so much as insinuate that animals might be sentient, they risk being accused of that cardinal lapse, anthropomorphism. (Jane Goodall was pilloried when she ascribed “personalities” to her study troop of chimps at Gombe. Nature editors stripped out any reference to “he” and “she” in her first paper, changing them to “it”.)

Few scientists have been courageous enough to root for consciousness, but some who have were giants in the discipline: Darwin wrote fearlessly in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and the Animals: “Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy, and love.” The father of modern ethology, Konrad Lorenz, had no qualms about invoking emotions and self-awareness in his observa­tions of animal behaviour, talking openly about study subjects mourning, or feeling demoralised, or loving one another.

In July 2012, a group of neuroscientists nailed their colours to the mast, issuing the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. “The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” it read. “Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

The understanding of animal cognition is advancing rapidly, with scientists now broadly identifying nine levels, each associated with identifiable and measurable behaviour, mental skills, self-awareness and cognition. A jellyfish doesn’t technically have a brain, but exhibits reflex mechanisms triggered by a relatively advanced nervous system. Social communication and planning require higher thought, and tool-use—once a primary indicator of intelligence—has now been witnessed in primates, birds, some fish and most recently crocodiles; the first reptiles to make such a mental leap. Parrots exhibit remarkable capacity for language and understanding the desires of others; dolphins, whales and elephants show evidence of self-awareness; but only humans can conceive of their own mind or think about thinking.

Outside the literature, anecdotal accounts abound of animals acting as though compelled by something uncannily close to conscious­ness—sometimes defined as the quality or  state of being aware of an external object or being, or of something within oneself. Every farmer knows that certain individuals display very distinct personalities—animal psycholo­gists make a living from that very reality. A mahout would warn you of the sheer folly of ignoring an elephant’s mood that morning.

But what we know has been damnably hard to prove. Intelligence, thought by many to be a prerequisite for consciousness, is an easy test. Episodic memory—retaining parcels of information and remembering their significance—is the cognitive root of what might be conscious behaviour. We once thought it was confined to ‘higher’ creatures such as cetaceans, canids and primates, but new revelations of tool-use among the ‘lower’ orders are coming in almost monthly: octo­puses have been recorded stacking stones to conceal the entrances of their dens; Prionyx hunting wasps smooth the sand around their nest burrows with small stones; wrasses have been seen using regular stone ‘anvils’ against which they smash shells; I’ve watched black-backed gulls drop mussels on Wellington’s Evans Bay Parade and wait for cars to drive by and smash them open. But is tool-use proof of essence? Or a simple association of cause and effect? All these examples can tell us for sure is that they demand expanded cogni­sance and judgment, both vital ingredients of consciousness.

The leap from cognisance to self-aware­ness, however, may be too great for many creatures. The standard experiment, the mirror test, evaluates subjects’ responses to their mirror image as a measure of self-consciousness. If a creature investigates the being revealed in the mirror, it is considered to have understood that the image is indeed itself. Dolphins, orcas, the great apes and a solitary elephant have all passed it. But many more species have failed—notably dogs, drawing the criticism that they rely instead on olfactory cues, not the entirely visual medium of the mirror test. To warp the bell curve still more, European magpies have passed it without possessing a neocortex, that part of the mammal brain that handles sensory perception, spatial reasoning and conscious thought. Recently, some robots technically passed the mirror test.

Nonetheless, the harder we look, the more signs of consciousness we find: dolphins exhibit manifestations of grief; elephant conversations have been decoded, showing that they may be able to pick one another’s identity 150 kilometres away.

The waggle dance of bees has been interpreted. Parrots have been taught a basic human vocabulary of around 2000 words, and apes have been taught to sign, then questioned about what it’s like to be them. The answers are still inconclusive. We have allowed that animals think, but we knew that anyway. We’re no closer to knowing whether they feel than Darwin got, and we may never know how they feel. That’s because we can interpret their actions only in our own language, in the context of our own experience. Does a mother elephant linger beside her baby’s corpse because she is ‘mourning’, or because maternal instinct simply takes time to switch off?

The African grey parrot is regarded as one of the most intelligent birds in the world, not least because of their facility to mimic human speech and associate those words with their meanings. Alex was the subject of animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg for 30 years, and dramatically extended expectations of avian cognition. He could recognise letters and numbers, could add and describe objects by colour, shape or material— intelligence, according to Pepperberg, on a par with dolphins and apes.

We cannot step outside our own consciousness in order to understand another creature’s. As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in the literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly: “The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.”

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