Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Animal Consciousness Matters: Dawkins' Dangerous Idea Redux

Marian Dawkins claims we need to focus on what animals can do for us

In previous essays I've noted that Oxford University's Professor Marian Dawkins claims we really are in a fog concerning human and nonhuman animal (animal) consciousness. For example, she has written, "... it is much, much better for animals if we 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." (p. 177 of her 2012 book Why Animals Matter). I disagree and frankly don't see how anyone who has worked with any of a wide array of animals or shared their lives or home with them could remain skeptical and agnostic about whether they are conscious beings. I really don't know anyone else who does.

Animals matter because they are useful to us

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Professor Dawkins claims, "to make sure animal welfare stays on the agenda, we need to focus on the argument that animals provide a service to humans rather than that animals are conscious, intelligent beings." She goes on to say, “Animals matter because they are useful to us" and “To convince the unconvinced we need to stress the service value of animal welfare.”

They say repetition is boring conversation but there really is a wealth of comparative scientific data that makes skepticism, and surely agnosticism, about animal consciousness, to be anti-science and harmful to animals. Consider, for example, The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which world-renowned scientists concluded 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).  

Arrogant and misguided anthropocentrism

I've been hoping that "Dawkins' Dangerous Idea" would be shelved given the conclusions of the Cambridge gathering and a solid database, but I was clearly misguided. She is as well. Animals are conscious, we know it, and we should use this well-demonstrated scientific fact to protect them rather than cashing out their value in terms what they can do for us. The latter view is a case of arrogant and misguided anthropocentrism that demeans innumerable other animals and who they are -- conscious, intelligent, and emotional beings. Even if we're not sure about whether some animals are conscious, intelligent, and emotional beings, they also matter because they exist, not because of their service value to us. 

How arrogant it is to claim that animals are our servants and that's why they matter. 

 

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

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