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Science mistaken to dismiss animal consciousness?

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blue-eyed cockatoo/Tobias

Further to “Cockatoo cracks lock unassisted” and Vince Torley’s skeptical response, “How clever is that cockatoo?”, followed by “Bird Brains: An ID definition of intelligence”, a recent article in Aeon Magazine provides some background to questions re animal intelligence:

By emphasising the kinship between animals and human beings, Darwinian taxonomy could have opened the door to thinking about the consciousness of individual animals. But, instead, the opposite happened. Even as evolution’s mechanics were accepted and expanded, the views of Darwin and Romanes on individual animal consciousness were rejected, consigned to cautionary tales of how even the most brilliant scientists can get things wrong. By the 1940s, when the great systematist Ernst Mayr settled on a fuzzy but useful standard definition of a species — as a population with a common reproductive lineage that could interbreed — the possibility of animal consciousness and individuality, so evident to anyone with a pet dog or cat, was largely eliminated from mainstream science. We could accept our animal bodies, and classify ourselves on that basis, yet had to avoid the implication that animals might have human-like minds.

A new age of machines and industry spawned the behaviourism of the psychologist B F Skinner who, echoing Aristotle and Descartes, proposed that animals were nothing but conduits of stimulus and response (as were humans). Seeming evidence of higher thought was an illusion produced by some simpler mechanism. It’s true that behaviourism helped to establish protocols by which animal cognition could eventually be studied in rigorous, scientifically acceptable fashion. But the price was steep: decades would pass before scientists began to allow that some animals might be more than biological automata.

Indeed, author Brandon Keim argues for consciousness in animals.

Unfortunately, all such claims tend to become anthropomorphic (a risk the author prefers to the alternative). The consciousness of a dog or cockatoo is probably not at all like human consciousness. We need to reread Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”

 

3 Replies to “Science mistaken to dismiss animal consciousness?

  1. 1
    Proton says:

    The consciousness of a dog or cockatoo is probably not at all like human consciousness.

    The difference may only be in intelligence, not in in consciousness. After all, when we’re a few months old babies we are less smart than a chimp or a dolphin. Do such animals have a higher conciousness than a baby human because of that? If those animals could increase their intelligence, would they develop self-consciousness?

    Look at this.

    Watch dolphins playing with “silver- coloured rings” which they have the ability to make under water to play with. It isn’t known how they learn this, or if they’re born with the ability.

    As if by magic, the dolphin does a quick flip of its head and a silver ring appears in front of its beak. The ring is a solid, donut shaped bubble about 5/8 metres (2ft) across, yet it doesn’t rise to the surface of the water. It stands upright in the water like a magic doorway to an unseen dimension. The dolphin then pulls a small silver donut from the larger one. Looking at the twisting ring for one last time, a bite is taken from it, causing the small ring to collapse into thousands of tiny bubbles which head upward towards the water’s surface. After a few moments the dolphin creates another ring to play with.

    Animals definitely have creativity and intelligence, things we often attribute only to humans, and can use it to generate games for themselves!

    It seems to me that a leap in intelligence could be enough to give rise to self-awareness and even a soul.

  2. 2
    News says:

    from O’Leary: I recommend Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” If sensory input is very different, the type of consciousness experienced probably will be too.

    A beagle expert explained beagles’ notorious (for a variety of dog) disobedience that way: He simply doesn’t understand that you can’t smell what he does (6000 times better than your or my sense of smell). He doesn’t know why you aren’t out there on your hands and knees sniffing alongside him…

    Even if the beagle were more intelligent, these facts would not change.

  3. 3
    keiths says:

    Denyse,

    The issue isn’t whether consciousness differs among different animals. The issue, as the title of your post makes clear, is whether animals are conscious at all.

    We can never be sure of that, just as we can never be sure that our fellow humans are conscious. But we have pretty good reasons to believe both!

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