Animal Emotions

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Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings

Didn't we already know this? Yes, we did.

Every now and again I receive an email message I ignore after reading the subject line. I know I'm not alone in following this rule of thumb, but today I broke down and opened a message the subject line of which read "Scientists Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious". I honestly thought it was a joke, likely from one of my favorite newspapers, The Onion. However, it wasn't.

My colleague Michael Mountain published a summary of a recent meeting held in Cambridge, England at which "Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too." At this gathering, called The Francis Crick Memorial Conference, a number of scientists presented evidence that led to this self-obvious conclusion. It's difficult to believe that those who have shared their homes with companion animals didn't already know this. And, of course, many renowned and award-winning field researchers had reached the same conclusion years ago (see also). 

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Michael Mountain was as incredulous as I and many others about something we already knew. It's interesting to note that of the 15 notables who spoke at this conference only one has actually done studies of wild animals. It would have been nice to hear from researchers who have conducted long-term studies of wild animals, including great apes, other nonhuman primates, social carnivores, cetaceans, rodents, and birds, for example, to add to the database. Be that as it may, I applaud their not so surprising conclusion and now I hope it will be used to protect animals from being treated abusively and inhumanely. 

Some might say we didn't really know that other animals were conscious but this is an incredibly naive view given what we know about the neurobiology and cognitive and emotional lives of other animals. Indeed, it was appeals to these very data that led to the conclusions of this group of scientists. But did we really need a group of internationally recognized scientists to tell us that the data are really okay?  Yes and no, but let's thank them for doing this. 

I agree with Michael Mountain that "It’s a really important statement that 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."

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

The scientists went as far as to write up what's called The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness that basically declares that this prominent international group of scientists agree that "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates." They could also have included fish, for whom the evidence supporting sentience and consciousness is also compelling (see also).  

So, what are we going to do with what we know (and have known)?

It's fair to ask what are these scientists and others going to do now that they agree that consciousness is widespread in the animal kingdom. We know, for example, that mice, rats, and chickens display empathy but this knowledge hasn't been factored into the Federal Animal Welfare Act in the United States.

I'm frankly astounded that these data and many other findings about animal cognition and animal emotions have been ignored by those who decide on regulations about the use and abuse of other animals. However, the Treaty of Lisbon, passed by member states of the European Union that went into force on December 1, 2009, recognizes that "In formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage."

Let's applaud The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness and The Treaty of Lisbon and work hard to get animals the protection from invasive research and other forms of abuse, in many cases horrifically inhumane, they deserve.

Some recent essays I've written point out that there still are some people who feel comfortable killing individuals who they call "unneeded" or "surplus" animals and at least one animal welfarist, Oxford University's Marian Dawkins, continued as of a few months ago to claim we still don't know if other animals are conscious and that we should "remain skeptical and agnostic [about consciousness] ... Militantly agnostic if necessary, because this keeps alive the possibility that a large number of species have some sort of conscious experiences ... For all we know, many animals, not just the clever ones and not just the overtly emotional ones, also have conscious experiences."

Perhaps what I call "Dawkins' Dangerous Idea" will now finally be shelved given the conclusions of the Cambridge gathering. I frankly don't see how anyone who has worked closely with any of a wide array of animals or who lives with a companion animal(s) could remain uncertain and agnostic about whether they are conscious. 

It's said that repetition is boring conversation but there's now a wealth of scientific data that makes skepticism, and surely agnosticism, to be anti-science and harmful to animals. Now, at last, the prestigious Cambridge group shows this to be so. Bravo for them! So, let's all work together to use this information to stop the abuse of millions upon millions of conscious animals in the name of science, education, food, amusement and entertainment, and clothing. We really owe it to them to use what we know on their behalf and to factor compassion and empathy into our treatment of these amazing beings. 

The teaser image can be found here.






Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


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