The debate over whether or not animals have “consciousness” is one that has raged for decades, if not centuries, and has encompassed everything from an absolute definition of what consciousness is, to whether or not animals display any traits that comprise it. Critics often argue that it is impossible to tell whether or not animals have consciousness, because we are not animals, and therefore will never be able to resolve the question due to lack of objectivity. I would argue, however, that subjective evidence points to an animal consciousness far more advanced than we believe, at least in the certain species. While there is no specific litmus test to determine consciousness, animals have shown, from displays of emotion to intelligence, some cognitive abilities and self-awareness, that they clearly meet the attributes most people would associate with it. Subjectively speaking, based on our own standards, many species of animals must be considered to have consciousness.
Of course, defining what consciousness actually constitutes is what guides this discussion. Many scientists cannot give a singular definition of consciousness, but most of them argue that a certain number of traits comprise it such as cognition, memory, social behavior, and self-awareness. Martin Schoenfeld, in his article “Animal Consciousness: Paradigm Change in the Life Sciences,” says that “consciousness is a state of awareness [in which] the “experiencing subject is aware of itself as well as its environment” (Schoenfeld 1). Lesley Rogers goes further, stating that it is "related to awareness, intelligence, and complex cognition, as well as language, and may be manifested in self-awareness, awareness of others, intentional behavior, including intentional communication, deception of others, and in the ability to make mental and symbolic representations” (Rogers 13). Humans unarguably manifest all of these characteristics, but the question relating to animals is more complex. In order to answer the question, we must examine the traits one by one and determine whether or not animals possess them.
Cognition is a trait that animals express to adapt to the environment which surrounds them. According to Rogers, in order to demonstrate cognition, “an animal must show the ability to make a decision by evaluating or processing current information based on some representation of prior experience” (27). In scenarios such as avoiding forest fires, eluding hunters, and seeking available water and food in times of drought or temperature extremities, animals have shown the ability to adapt to their environment in changing circumstances on a regular basis. A monkey may use a stone it found several days prior to crack and open a nut, and “Making and using basic devices to perform tasks such as collecting or preparing food is incontrovertible evidence for nonhuman tool use” (Schoenfeld 4). Beavers build dams to plug holes and reach food, and big cats will lure a prey toward waiting companions. Chimpanzees and orcas have been shown to use recalled symbols in order to communicate. In “Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness,” Donald Griffin points out that even honeybees “employ symbolic gestures to communicate the direction and distance their sisters must fly to reach food...” (11). He believes that the use of past events and anticipation of the future play an important role in an animal’s everyday life (Griffin 12). Studies on animals such as parrots and gorillas have shown that they have the ability to memorize symbols and shapes and then apply them to a situation in their environment (Rogers 35). These studies also demonstrate that animals have the ability to use their memories to recall things they have previously seen. It is another important attribute in the definition of consciousness. Even pigeons, a species of bird not normally associated with cognitive brilliance, have shown the ability to memorize hundreds of different patterns and recall them with stunning accuracy after a period of months (Rogers 71).
Of course, the ability to memorize objects and apply them to the environment then raises the question of self-awareness. According to Rogers, “self-awareness means to be aware of one’s own feelings or emotions and to be conscious of pain, but self-awareness also includes awareness of one’s body, one’s state of mind, one’s self in social context, and numerous other, ill-defined attributes that we would assign to ourselves” (15). Of course, animals don’t have the ability to express such complexities, though they arguably have shown some measure of self-awareness through studies such as the Gallup mirror test. In this test, an animal sees its reflection in a mirror and is subsequently placed under anesthesia. A spot or mark is painted somewhere on its body. Then the animal is t awakened and put again before the mirror. Scholars observe and try to determine whether it recognizes the spot as belonging to its own being. The test, originally developed for children, has been passed by a number of species, notably dolphins, apes and pigeons (Rogers 78). The test is not without controversy. Griffin suggests that the test relies too much on introspection, something that is not necessarily associated with self-awareness (23). Rogers also points out that many species, such as water fowl, see their reflection on a regular basis but do not display signs of self-recognition (23). Regardless, self-awareness is the most difficult attribute of consciousness to determine, and the ability to recognize oneself amongst some species is obviously an important factor in weighing that possibility.
The ability to express emotion is another important question. While it’s inarguable that animals often display emotions such as love, fear and anger, many believe that more complex feelings are also common. “Grief and jealousy have been shown in apes and monkeys, and there also exists an extensive record of pranks, humor, cheating and reflection in primates” (Schoenfeld 5). In studies of monkeys, it was shown that they “refused to participate if they witnessed a conspecific obtain a more attractive reward for equal effort. These reactions support an early evolutionary origin of inequity aversion” (Schoenfeld 5). Deception is also a more developed emotion, and examples such as anomalous lighting patterns in fireflies have been used to show that animals employ it. One complex example involves observation of baboons. In one instance, a youthful baboon encountered a more dominant one with a piece of food he had found in the ground. The youthful baboon screamed in pretended terror for his mother to come and attack the older baboon, which in turn dropped the food in order to avoid her. The youthful baboon then enjoyed the food and employed the trick several times to a variety of different baboons (Rogers 23). One final area of consciousness involves the use of language. Schonfield points out that different animals use everything from motions, binary strings, and words to communicate. For instance, bees dance to communicate with each other to reveal sources of food. “They have a semantic organization...; they convey social information...; and all languages refer to objects or events distant in time or space” (Schoenfeld 3).
In the course of research, I found that detractors of the concept of animal consciousness relied directly upon the idea that because we cannot objectively ascertain whether animals are conscious beings, we cannot ever know with 100% certainty, and it is therefore a waste of time to debate over it. This is undoubtedly true, but as Griffin says, “Perhaps we can never discover precisely what the content of nonhuman experiences is, because scientific understanding is seldom complete and perfect. But it seems probable that we can gradually reduce our current ignorance about this significant aspect of life” (15). Of course, there are other arguments that oppose the existence of an animal consciousness, such as the Law of Morgan’s Cannon. It states that “In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher physical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale” (Rogers 64). I find this a flawed statement because it argues that if you cannot prove something with 100% certainty, then it must not be true. Scientifically of course, this is a standard that is held in high regard. Yet there are many segments of the human society that rely upon things that cannot be absolutely proven, and we still take as a fact. The vast majority of people believe in religion or spirituality, yet it is something that cannot be definitively proven. Many scientific theories that are widely regarded as a fact within the scientific community, such as the Big Bang theory and evolution cannot be narrowed down and stated with 100% accuracy, because an objective view of these events is impossible. Therefore, a law that purports that animal consciousness must be held to a higher standard for an inexplicable reason such as the point of view seems to be fallacious, especially in the light of what seems to be substantial subjective evidence to the contrary.
It seems difficult, given that animals meet so many standards of the traditional human view of consciousness, to argue that they do not meet the overall standard. Itis impossible to argue that animals do not use their brains to communicate, forage, recall, recognize, and create a shelter. Perhaps the superficial differences between animals and people make it more difficult to believe or accept that they share characteristics similar to our own. The ability to empathize with the members of our own species certainly makes it easier to be able to instantly accept that humans are a consciously living species. While we cannot yet ask what other animals want, feel, or think, further tests and observations will be developed that will begin to lead mankind to a closer comprehending of the animal mind. Until then, it is important to believe in the possibility that animals do have consciousness, that it is not a resource or tool used solely for human consumption, labor or entertainment. This recognition, after all, is part of what defines consciousness in our own species, as well as, perhaps, animals.