Archive for the ‘Consciousness’ Category

The Elephants In The Room

» July 12th, 2014


My apologies for the long absence. The site experienced ongoing technical problems while my web man was on vacation. But the good news is that we all got a rest. That said, matters are in order and I’m back to work.

Over the break I became intrigued by the current outrage against ivory. Just the other day, Ricky Gervais, the English comedic actor, called on the public to “turn in” their ivory products as an act of public absolution. It’s curious, but all of sudden the media is all about elephants. Will ivory trinkets become targets of public attack such as fur coats once were? Why are we currently confronting the elephants in the room?

As usual, I’ve no idea. But in and of itself, the public/media outcry against ivory is a praiseworthy response to the gross atrocities committed against elephants. Interestingly, though, nothing of the sort is happening with respect to, say, the tens of millions of cattle we slaughter every year. This kind of inconsistency is common when it comes to the way humans treat animals. And it cuts both ways. I recall commenters on this site advocating the death of elephant poachers. But would they advocate the death of slaughterhouse workers? Either way, this paradox bears some consideration.

One obvious reason for the disparity—aside from the fact that we eat one product and not the other—is that elephants are going extinct whereas cattle, whose genetics are controlled by humans, proliferate at whatever rate we want them to proliferate. In essence, elephants are wild creatures who matter collectively whereas cattle are factory products who do not. The terms of their reproduction have illogically determined the terms of their extermination. How that happened is a historical/cultural question that somebody should explore.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a collective focus on a species, of course. But the current “save the elephant” gambit rests on a false—or at least conflicted—sense of what’s considered “natural.” That is to say, what bothers environmentalists isn’t the death of individual elephants for their tusks. It’s the fact that their death is denuding the landscape of the elephant’s presence, a diminution that’s perceived to be out of sync with what nature intended—whatever that may be. But who ever said scarcity, even anthropogenic-determined scarcity, was unnatural?

It’s more that scarcity can be unjust. But even if this kind of human-driven ecological change is unjust, the same kind of ecological logic would have to be applied to cattle. Cattle may not be going extinct, but the resources used to ensure their proliferation most certainly are in grave danger of depletion: arable land and water most notably. If conservationists and environmentalists are truly committed to the ecological logic of scarcity, then consistency would require them to wring their hands just as earnestly about the consumption of beef as the consumption of ivory. But don’t hold your breath on that one.

What’s lost in the failure to do so, however, is an opportunity to incorporate animal sentience into an increasingly cynical environmental lexicon.

PS: Speaking of which, if you’d like to send me your critical thoughts about the documentary Cowspiracy, please email them to I’m hoping to do a post that incorporates readers’ thoughts on the film.


Crawfish Have Anxiety (And That’s No Joking Matter)

» June 14th, 2014

Here’s a nugget of advice for writers covering stories about the largely hidden emotional lives of animals: as you document nonhuman sentience don’t mention how delectable the animals are to eat. That’s bad form. It’s like writing about war and cracking jokes, or covering a house fire and joshing about all those zany! pyromaniacs.

In a way, it’s remarkable that one has to even note such an obvious point of writerly etiquette. But when it comes to journalism and animals, there are no codified rules, no standards that journalists need follow. So, when tasked with writing about a serious discovery bearing on animal cognition, journalists too often resort to inane attempts at cute humor in an effort to make the piece “entertaining.”  This is especially the case when the topic is technical in nature.

But for anyone who knows anything about animal ethics, it’s not entertaining. It’s offensive. A recent article at reiterates why. The writer, a freelancer and Smithsonian contributor named Rachel Numer, opened with the news that crawfish—invertebrates—turn out to experience anxiety. That’s cool, and important. The author rightly notes that the conventional wisdom was once that only vertebrates worried. She suggests that the kind of anxiety under discussion is the kind that humans experience. In any other realm, this kind of connection would warrant a tone of gravitas, especially given the seriousness with which the scientists undertook their work (described quite well by Nuwer).

But animals don’t get the gravitas treatment. Nuwer, after reporting the critical kernel of news, somehow feels compelled to pepper her report with fluffy and whimsical asides, as if she were writing for fifth graders. She refers to “those delectable freshwater crustaceans,” which is a ridiculous thing to say about an animal upon whom you’re reporting news about its sophisticated intelligence. (Plus, it’s subjective. When I ate animals I found crawfish disgusting to eat.) Dumbing down the matter to an unprecedented degree, the author next includes a recipe for cooking crawfish, noting that “those [crawfish] that come with a boiling cauldron of Cajun spices, corn and potatoes (mmmm delicious)” will have undergone especially high levels of anxiety. Well, yeah.

Articles in which the writer clearly knows nothing about animal ethics typically include an unintentional contradiction—done by way of evasion—regarding the moral implications of the scientific discovery being described. Numar scores big in this front. She ignores several hundred years of ethical thinking about animals when she blithely assumes that human emotions are “more sophisticated.” She writes, “Crawfish, the team thinks, could serve as excellent study subjects for future anxiety research, as well as for exploring the evolutionary origins of more sophisticated (read: more distressing) forms of anxiety that occur in humans.” More sophisticated? How? What do we mean by sophistication? Has this writer heard the word “speciesist”? Comments such as these are understandable, given the peripheral nature of so much work being on animal ethics and behavior. But they scream for a corrective.

Proof that the author has no idea of her own complicity in fostering attitudes inimical to the findings she writes about, Nuwar concludes, “Unfortunately for the crustaceans, crawfish’s status as invertebrates means that many of the ethical protections their rodent counterparts enjoy are not extended to them.” With articles like this one, it’s not hard to see why.

Update: Please do not post comments personally lambasting the writer mentioned in this post. The Pitchfork is better than that! The point of this piece is to educate, not to insult. Calling the writer names will hardly initiate a change in her perspective. Thank you.  -jm

Ants In The Pasture

» June 13th, 2014

“When it comes to restoring grasslands, ecologists may have another way to evaluate their progress — ants.” So begins Science Daily‘s recently featured research on the ecological impact of ants. Maybe the organizers of Slow Meat 2014—dedicated as they all are to restoring grasslands—should have invited the great myrmecologist E. O. Wilson to discuss pasture restoration rather than Allan Savory, who wants to stack global deserts cheek to jowl with cattle in order to make the dry lands bloom. As the lead researcher involved in the ant study, Laura Winkler, said, the impact of ants–who aerate the oil, protect plants, and attract wildlife—is “like having dairy cattle.” And, if we are carnivorously intent on taking a pound or two of flesh from the pasture, ants don’t have to go to the slaughterhouse. Plus, they do better in a drought.  Read more about it here.

(Thanks to Mary Finelli for the tip.)




Noodling for Plant Intelligence

» April 5th, 2014

Oliver Sacks has an important article out in the most recent New York Review of Books. In it, he explores the extensive literature—contemporary and historical—on the mental lives of plants and animals. The gist of his piece is that the plant and animal kingdoms, despite similarities on the cellular level, “evolved along two profoundly different paths.” This divergence culminated in “wholly different . . .  modes of life.” The central implication of this divergence is that only animals  ”learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.” Plants, in other words, are not intelligent—at least not in the way that would warrant our consideration of them as individual subjects with moral standing.

It’s worth delving a little deeper into the issue to grasp the bio-mechanical basis of this distinction. Sacks writes, “Plants depend largely on calcium ion channels, which suit their relatively slow lives perfectly. As Daniel Chamovitz argues in his book What a Plant Knows (2012), plants are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more. Plants know what to do, and they ‘remember.’”

But don’t start caressing your rhododendrons just yet.  As the piece’s most important paragraph explains: “The calcium ion channels that plants rely on do not support rapid or repetitive signaling between cells; once a plant action potential is generated, it cannot be repeated at a fast enough rate to allow, for example, the speed with which a worm ‘dashes…into its burrow.’ Speed requires ions and ion channels that can open and close in a matter of milliseconds, allowing hundreds of action potentials to be generated in a second. The magic ions, here, are sodium and potassium ions, which enabled the development of rapidly reacting muscle cells, nerve cells, and neuromodulation at synapses. These made possible organisms that could learn, profit by experience, judge, act, and finally think.”

In other words, they made animals possible. And, as Sacks’ worm reference suggests, the mental lives of these creatures happen to be far more complicated than many of us ever imagined. Having dismissed the notion that plants and animals share mental real estate, Sacks offers an elegant overview of the hidden state of being among murky animals ranging from insects to jellyfish to amoeba to cuttlefish. My favorite quote: “But if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too.” Go octopus.

If the information presented here undergirds the obvious, recall the rearguard efforts by writers of a certain persuasion who cherry-pick the evolutionary past to suggest that “plant intelligence” justifies the “humane” consumption of animals. Recently, Michael Pollan—it’s always Pollan!—wrote a New Yorker piece in which he took seriously “the possibility that plants are much more intelligent and much more like us than most people think—capable of cognition, communication, information processing, computation, learning, and memory.” The implication through it all was that plants have mental lives akin to animals. Thanks to Sacks for burying this mystical, pseudo-scientific suggestion in the same grave with rotting companions such as phrenology, eugenics, and the flying spaghetti monster.

What’s On Your Mind?

» February 23rd, 2014

There’s no doubt that a lot of animals can safely be called fully conscious and self-aware beings. Sentient. Elaborate tests really aren’t required to make this assessment. It takes little more than momentary observation of wild and domesticated animals to recognize their obvious sense of self. It doesn’t require much to see that they understand place within space and, possibly, in time. This ability to recognize animal sentience holds true for children and adults, animal experts and laypeople.

But to what extent are certain animals, mostly mammalian and avian, self-aware? In an important sense, the answer doesn’t matter. That is, the answer in no way shifts the criteria upon which we rightfully choose not to exploit animals unnecessarily. That criteria, of course, is the ability to suffer. The prospect of suffering, no matter what the depth of an animal’s consciousness, no matter how similar or dissimilar that consciousness appears to be from our own (whatever that is), requires that we treat animals with the same moral consideration we’d grant to humans–creatures whom morally literate citizens also aim to avoid causing unnecessary suffering.

In other ways–more tertiary ways–the question of animal consciousness does matter. Animal ethologists should keep striving to understand the deeper nature of an animal’s self-awareness because that understanding helps us think about the fairest ways to integrate animals into human culture. Should animals be allowed to offer testimony (non-verbal) in court? Should we hold animals accountable for dastardly deeds done to each other for seemingly “senseless” reasons, such as when one dog rips into another at the dog park? If a human claims to love his companion animal in a romantic way do we take that claim seriously? Do we entertain the notion that an animal, which some studies have shown are capable of romantic love, might love a human back?  Are there other ways for animals to consent without grammar and syntax? These questions are more complex than they might at first seem. We need to know more about the nature of animal self-awareness before we can responsibly develop answers.

Inevitably, it will be the case that we’ll make these explorations through human categories, biases, and presuppositions. Chances are slim, I imagine, that we’ll ever “get” the consciousness of a dog from a a dog’s perspective (or, as Thomas Nagel famously argued, a bat from the bat’s perspective). Even thinking we can do so is a logical contradiction. But that limitation should not inhibit our investigations. Imagine what we could discover if we took the resources we waste on vivisection and put them towards research into mammalian and avian consciousness?

There are many specific aspects of consciousness we might explore, but one that strikes me as especially important is this: the nature of an animal’s grasp of the past. Of course animals recollect. Squirrels know where they’ve stashed their cache, elephants remember where poachers hid, ants know where to go in that crazy maze, and chickens recall dozens of human faces. But recollection and memory are different. Recollection directs behavioral survival–where are those nuts?–but memory enables narration, and the control of narration allows us to weave more nuanced meaning into life. It’s perfectly possible that animals, most likely primates and whales, possess a consciousness that allows them to grasp their past as an abstraction that lends present existence, as well as future expectations, with continuity. Avery meaningful continuity.

Perhaps I’m drifting into dangerous waters with this claim, but I do wonder to what extent memory, and the life-affirming narration it allows, bears on the quality and meaning of life. Does a creature with a consciousness capable of arranging webs of memories into stories and myths and tall tales have a more meaningful life than a creature who lives life largely in the present but is able to poke into the past for isolated bits of survival data? And if so, does this distinction impact their moral standing in human society?

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