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Think Tank

Scientists Give Animals Consciousness

What's The Big Idea?

Scientists have given animals consciousness. Not through complex manipulation of the brain or through genetic manipulation, but by publicly acknowledging the consensus, for the first time in such a straightforward way, that non-human animals, including some of our evolutionarily distant cousins, have awareness and experience like we do.

The declaration, called The Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness, was signed at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference of Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals in the presence of Stephen Hawking in July in Cambridge, U.K. by an international group of scientists including cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists.

What do they mean by consciousness? The Declaration treats it as the same as the phrase, "subjective experience." Philosophers who share this view of consciousness with the scientists often say that something is conscious if there is "something that it is like" to be that thing. So, according to this, a rock is not conscious, because there is nothing "that it is like to be a rock."

The signing marked the first formalization of the scientific consensus about the consciousness of several non-mammals, including birds, octopuses and even bees.

Octopuses are a remarkable addition to this list, not only because they are the only invertebrate included, but also because the way their brain evolution has progressed is so dissimilar from humans. The most notable dissimilarity is the lack of the neocortex that was long believed to be the biological foundation of human conscious experience.

The bases for the assertions of consciousness are, condensed, that:

1) "The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures." This means that animals with brains which have evolved differently from or less than humans can experience brain states that are "rewarding and punishing."

2) Studies of birds including mirror self-recognition tests indicate that they have a striking neurological similarity to "humans, great apes, dolphins and elephants." Even though their brains evolved parallel to our own, the "neural substrates" of birds appear to grant them the same sort of experience that we have.

3) "Pharmacological interventions in non-human animals with compounds known to affect conscious behavior in humans can lead to similar perturbations in behavior in non-human animals." This is an interesting one. What it means, really, is that animals respond to hallucinogenic and traditionally recreational drugs in the same ways that human do, indicating that their experience is modified, which implies that they have experience at all. (As an aside: Scientists have all the fun. Who else can justify giving monkeys recreational drugs as a noble quest for knowledge?)

What's The Significance?

The signatories have indicated that we cannot, at least certainly not for the reasons we have been giving, ignore the fact that animals have the same type of experiences that gives us a reason to treat other humans humanely. 

Beyond the ethical ramifications, this declaration is another step in a long line of conclusions that the animal brain displays remarkable plasticity and is able to accomplish highly complex tasks in multiple ways. 

While anyone who has gone to a zoo or owned a pet has at least temporarily thought of animals as conscious, there is still a large contingent that strongly believes that humans are exceptional in some morally and scientifically significant way. But, as Christof Koch, who co-presented the declaration notes, "The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioral continuity between animals and people."

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