Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness: A step in the right direction
- Published: 25 August 2012
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In a world that is built on the exploitation of animals, it has served our purpose to regard and treat them as incapable of intelligence and awareness. The recent declaration by a group of scientists acknowledging that animals are conscious beings is a significant and important step for a more compassionate world, writes Ruby Hamad.
25 August 2012
For most of our history, humans have looked down on non-human animals as little more than animated machines. It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that scientists began examining the cognitive abilities of non-human animals. The comparatively advanced intelligence of dolphins, whales and our closest relatives the primates is now common knowledge and has many questioning their continued use in medical research and marine amusement parks.
Most people would now also accept that there is far more to our ‘companion’ animals than we previously cared to admit. For proof, look no further than this dog that, in true Lassie style, guided a fire truck to a secluded burning house inside of which his ‘owners’ were trapped.
The past decade or so has also seen an increase in studies focusing on those animals we think least of: the animals we eat. Pigs, in particular, have been grossly underestimated with various studies revealing that pigs have the ability to play video games (using their snouts to move joysticks and hit targets on the computer screen with a cursor) and recognise themselves in a mirror. According to animal behaviour expert, Donald Broom, using a mirror is both a sign of complex cognitive processing and an indication of assessment awareness, meaning pigs at least have a certain level of awareness, if not a sense of self.
Other studies have found that pigs can remember where caches of food are stored, master the art of circus and ‘dog’ tricks, open and close cages, turn lights on and off, and, in true Babe style, herd sheep. These research findings have led scientists to declare pigs the fourth most intelligent species.
While not in the same category as pigs, other farmed animals have also exhibited signs of the intelligence that has so long been denied them. Sheep, for instance can recognise and remember human faces for up to two years, cows can learn to unlock and open gates, and even the lowly ‘bird-brained’ chickens have exhibited signs of empathy.
Given all this evidence, it comes as something of a surprise to learn of a declaration made last month at a conference of some of the world’s leading brain researchers. According to its website, the first annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference, “focussing on ‘Consciousness in Humans and Non-Human Animals”, aims to provide a purely data-driven perspective on the neural correlates of consciousness.”
The statement, known as The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, was signed by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists, including Diana Reiss and Christof Koch, in the presence of Stephen Hawking no less, and its conclusion has many in the science world talking:
“The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
As this Psychology Today blogger notes, the idea that animals have some sort of thought process and are aware of their surroundings isn’t really news to many of us, which brings up two pertinent questions: 1) Why has it taken so long for science to officially recognise the consciousness of other species? And 2) What is the significance of this declaration?
The first question is easy to answer. In a world that is built on the exploitation of animals, it has served our purpose to regard and treat them as incapable of intelligence and awareness. Throughout history we have taunted them, ridiculed them and convinced ourselves that, as our obvious inferiors, they deserve the lives we give them. That sadly, is the nature of human society; it favours the strong at the expense of the weak.
Unlike other historically ‘weak’ groups that were oppressed, such as women, that eventually fought back, animals are unable to mobilise and communicate their displeasure with their treatment. This inability to fight their own oppression has been used mercilessly against them.
With three words, 17th-century French philosopher Rene Descartes drew a line in the sand between human and non-human animals with his famous statement, Cogito ergo sum -‘I think therefore I am’ (known as the Cogito).
In its simplest form, the Cogito holds that the ability to think is in itself proof of existence. Descartes dualistic philosophy separates the mind from the body, comparing the body to a machine whilst describing the mind as non-material and outside the laws of nature. Animals, he declared lacked a mind were simply automata or mindless machines. The anguished squeal of an animal in pain was likened to the screech of malfunctioning equipment.
Descartes, along with other philosophers and scientists of his era used this mind-body dichotomy as justification to use live animals in medical research. Dogs and other mammals were tied down and, without anaesthetic, had the most horrific experiments performed on them such as the examination and removal of their living heart. Any anguished squeal emitted by the unfortunate animal was laughed off as the screech of a malfunctioning machine.
Descartes’ perception was challenged by Enlightenment-era philosophers such as Voltaire, who observed in animals “the different voices of need, of suffering, of joy, of pain, of love, of anger, and of all their affections. It would be very strange that they should express so well what they could not feel.” Likewise, Jeremy Bentham's response was simply, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?”
Which brings us to question 2. The significance of this declaration at this point in time lies in the very fact that animals can, and do, suffer greatly. And once we acknowledge this, we are ethically bound to act on that knowledge. As one science blogger puts it, this declaration: “will be used as evidence by those who are pushing for scientists to develop a more humane relationship with animals. It’s harder, for example, to justify experiments on nonhumans when you know that they are conscious beings and not just biological machines. Some of the conclusions reached in this declaration are the product of scientists who, to this day, still conduct experiments on animals in captivity, including dolphins, who are among the most intelligent species on Earth. Their own declaration will now be used as evidence that it’s time to stop using these animals in captivity and start finding new ways of making a living.”
For centuries, we have refused to take note of the ample clues animals have given us into the workings of their minds, choosing instead, to regard them as lesser beings that have no rights.
Now that science has officially stated the blatantly obvious, how much longer can we go on excusing our inhumane and unjust treatment of our conscious, non-human animal cousins?
Ruby Hamad is a Sydney-based writer. She has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC Unleashed, Crikey, and New Matilda. Her passion is pursuing social justice, including justice for the most vulnerable amongst us, non-human animals.