Uncovering Animal Consciousness

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Photo: Henry DeMarco

Did you know that when an elephant looks at a human they have the same emotional reaction as we do when we look at a kitten or a puppy? Or that cats have renovated the meow, originally used solely by kittens to communicate with their mothers, as a way to communicate with humans?

Both these instances illuminate a deeper complexity to the animal mind that has since been confirmed by the scientific community, who in 2012 gathered together to create “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.” The document declares that while certain animals may have an absence of a neocortex, a part of the brain responsible for producing consciousness in humans, it does not mean that they do not possess consciousness. For instance, birds have a completely different anatomical makeup yet, some species such as African Grey Parrots have been found to have a similar level of consciousness to that of humans. Their overall findings conclude that consciousness is an evolutionary development that exists on a spectrum that spans across all species.  

Despite these findings legislation regarding animal rights and welfare have not been reformed in light of these discoveries. Animals that are commonly used for experiments, rats, mice and chickens, are known to display empathy yet they are still tested on and kept in inhumane conditions and slaughtered.  The Animal Welfare Act in the United States does not bar types of experiments on animals, no matter how painful. What the Act does do is outline the parameters for amount of food and the cage sizes for the animals. However, mice, rats, birds, and fish, which make up 90% of the animals that are experimented on, are excluded from this protection under the Animal Welfare Act because they fall out of the legislative definition of “animal”.

The arguments surrounding the ethical question of experimentation on animals falls into two general categories. The proponents for animal experimentation reason that it is acceptable when harm is minimized to the animal subject and when there is no other viable alternative. This stance is enforced by rationalization that the test animals do not feel and are under no emotional duress. However, this “take” within the last decade had been increasingly brought under scrutiny as countless studies surrounding the question of animal consciousness have all reached the same affirmative conclusion.

One of the most recent developments broke here, at UC Berkeley, with researchers Mikel Delgado and Frank Sulloway in their study entitled “Attributes of Conscientiousness throughout the Animal Kingdom: An Empirical and Evolutionary Overview”. Released just in May of 2017 Delgado and Sulloway have concluded the presence of consciousness within bees, reptiles, birds,  and fish through pursuing an observational study in which they tracked behavioral patterns through five distinct characteristics including: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness.

What their research has clearly affirmed is the notion that consciousness  is found throughout the animal kingdom and is not a special human attribute. Delgado has stated that the reason that this field of study is just recently gaining real traction is that earlier attempts have been to narrow in focus, basing their parameters on human notions of morality, intentions, and emotions. In order for the further progression into this inquiry Delgado says a more “behaviorally based approach in assessing animal personality”  is crucial.

Victoria Mariolle