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?

 I’m tweeting these days @the_pitchfork 

26 Responses to What’s On Your Mind?

  1. John T. Maher says:

    I say such a discussion of memory is no surprise from a historian (as they are devoted to ritualized memory but that animals have history as well. Why equate moral status with anything viewed from an anthropocentric perspective? Decenter the human and the inquiry is less (con)strained. First define memory not in human terms but of a qualitative amalgam of all sensory experiences, many of which humans can not sense. Ritual and myth and politics need not be excluded as they are found in animals in different degrees. Even some microorganisms have politics.

    This started with Plato who excluded animals from moral consideration on the [assumed] basis that they lacked memory. [There is more in other classical writers on the distinction of man and animal as the former is presumed possessed of a finite body an an eternal soul while the latter is considered to have an finite body only] so I do not want to imply Plato is the only one who got this wrong correlation of soul to reason and awareness of mortality. Derrida would reject this, following along his idea of the ‘trace’ and develop an inquiry of ‘iterability’ and Agamben would expand on this concept in a way which his audience will agree with and others not. What JMC proposes is closer to the Nietzschean concept of intertwined memory and sense and rejects the human so-called mnemetic abilities to consider abstractions of reality and re conceptualize them as technology. I could go on for pages on this particular point but would rather restrict my own pedantry to just this amount and instead hear different and more creative interpretations from any Nietzchean or anti-Nietzchean readers.

    For any of you who wish to take up Stiegler on his differentiation between human and animals, he is incorrect and it is not worth the keystrokes to dispute his neo-classical distinction of genetic/epigenetic exclusivity. Anyone who has seen a mother dog correct puppies would laugh.

    • James says:

      Just to clarify, I’m not excluding animals from moral consideration based on their different mode of memory. Also, “decentering” is an easy claim to make but, may I suggest, a nearly impossible quality to attain, as we’d have to erase the human self, which would leave us dead.

      • John T. Maher says:

        As to your first point, I wrote that Plato excluded animals from moral consideration — not JMAC. Instead, I commend you for raising the issue of whether the Platonic ideal should be reconsidered and animals should be entitled to the the same or other degrees of moral consideration and suggest your posit is cogent with Nietzsche’s work.

        As to ‘decentering’, I should not get started here, but, viz, being dead as a species is a great option but killing off the human sense of exceptionalism and redefining the human animal relationship is even better. As you imply decentering the human is a developing field and goes firmly contra- humanism and all its tropes and structures of power and there is resistance to it in both practice and conception and the human sense of entitlement. I am going to a talk in March given by Frederic Jameson, not an animal studies person, and will ask him certain questions directed at any insights he might offer concerning the temporal hierarchies of memory and reconstructed time in non humans.

        I regret any inarticulate expression of ideas on my part, but for a topic of this great magnitude, which opens so many doors of inquiry and rabbitholes of perception, I am trying to spot the issues for discussion raised by the post ‘What’s On Your Mind?’ and not write a 300 page reply comment. I hope others will offer some insights.

  2. Elaine Brown says:

    Wow! Where to begin? May I just opine that there is much about our lives on earth that goes unknown. I may be a nut or not, but I definitely as an animal guardian believe that animals reincarnate. I presently have two perhaps three that have done so. One, a dog, is a he that was a he before and prior to that a she all within the last 25 years. And were I more trusting of my early life’s experiences, I might recognize him as living other lives earlier with me as well.

    If animals reincarnate, then we obviously know little or nothing about the other side of life and therefore, likely know little about this side.

    I have had several experiences as one who is constantly around animals in which I believe that emotion and love are certainly expressed including unrequited but sexual love.

    In recent times there is a story about a number of elephants who marched for two or three days in Africa upon discerning that their human advocate had died. They stayed for two days mourning their friend and then likely hungry returned from whence they came. How did they know their advocate had died. Did someone tell them?

    We could go on and on with stories, but to find answers or even agreement is a bit advanced for our lowly life-bound mentality at this time, IMHO.

    • Tina Eden says:

      Interesting experience you have had with reincarnation. I’ve had them too, and one has to do with lives between an animal and a human. It’s long to explain, so I won’t go into the details, just wanted to mention you are not the only one who has had this experience.

      • Elaine Brown says:

        Yes, Tina, I agree that it has to do with lives between an animal and a human and it is book material or at the least a long article. And I know many who believe as we do. Unfortunately, until we experience death in this lifetime, we will not know much more than we do. Some perhaps are able to travel into other realms and may know more than I do, but i will be clued but really clueless until I travel across.
        I also believe that the reincarnated animals in my life have come to me as more than one species. In one case once a human and a horse and later a human and a dog.

  3. John T. Maher says:


    Can you please post the details of this vignette?

    In recent times there is a story about a number of elephants who marched for two or three days in Africa upon discerning that their human advocate had died. They stayed for two days mourning their friend and then likely hungry returned from whence they came. How did they know their advocate had died.

    I am interested in the implications of this in terms of multiplicity and (Bergsonian) time.



  4. Aquila says:

    If animals do live in the present, I think it makes their suffering in the factory farms worse. A human imprisoned under such horrible circumstances could reminisce about a better past and think about a better future. If animals can’t do that, they feel that their suffering is eternal. And if they are not aware of death, they don’t even have the solace the most destitute humans have – that their suffering will inevitably end one day along with their lives.

    It’s like how we imagine Hell.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Sarah Franklin’s highly controversial work involves a concept of “ethical biocapital” which considers the ‘ethical’ use of technology to essentially subtract natural sensory qualities through the creation of genetically recombinant life forms in order to minimize suffering. Certainly raising chickens or pigs with no brain or a only a partial brain and therefore no concept of time or memory of abuse and deprivation might be way to do this and , of course, recalls, at one extreme, Margaret Atwood’s fictional chickie-nibbies or attempts to breed blind chickens unable to recall circadian rhythms a ‘natural’ patterns of behavior and sensory response. Richard Twine and Neil Stephens touch upon this in a slightly different way in their amazing “Introduction to Special Issue on Animal Biotechnology: Do Animal Biotechnologies Have a Latent Liberatory Imaginary?” and specifically reference Franklin. Configurations, Volume 21, Number 2, Spring 2013.

      So to respond, I paraphrase Sarte in Huis Clos, a place where time collapsed, as “Hell is [other] people”.

  5. Elaine Brown says:


  6. Robert Grillo says:

    Hi James,

    I just published a pretty in-depth article on what recent science tells us about chicken behavior in which, among many other faculties, I cover memory which has been demonstrated by some of the top avian researchers in chickens. An excerpt from my article on memory:

    “Recent science tell us that chickens recognize over 100 individual faces even after several months of separation. They also confirm that chickens consider the future and practice self-restraint for the benefit of some later reward, something previously believed to be exclusive to humans and other primates.

    As stated earlier, chickens do not just learn through trial and error. They retain what they’ve learned from past experiences, then recall and apply what they’ve learned in future situations. Researcher Andy Lamey of Monash University in Australia released the findings of his study of chicken behavior in May of 2012. An important part of this study involved the observation of mother hens and their chicks, specifically, how and what the mother hens taught their young about edible food items, what and how the chicks learned (and retained what they learned), and how the mother hens then modified their teaching based on the progress of their chicks’ learning.

    Chickens exhibit behavioral flexibility, the ability to deviate from established routines to solve novel problems, including innovation (i.e., novel solutions to environmental or social problems), social learning (the acquisition of information from others), and tool use long-term relationship-building that requires long term memory

    For sources and the complete article, see http://freefromharm.org/chicken-behavior-an-overview-of-recent-science/#sthash.i97v4Vb4.dpuf

  7. Robert Grillo says:

    Hi James,

    One more thought. For me, the most revolutionary finding that science tells us about avian brain and specifically chickens in this case is that they are individuals. While popular culture continues to portray chickens as masses of anonymous “clone-like” objects, science and personal observation clearly indicate that chickens are — not only individuals — but that they actually recognize themselves as individuals in a larger group, comparing themselves with others and understanding how they fit in to the complex hierarchal structure of that group. My in-depth article on what science tells us about chicken behavior was an eye-opener even for me, who spends a lot of time around them. See http://freefromharm.org/chicken-behavior-an-overview-of-recent-science/.

    • Mountain says:

      It amazes me that these are revolutionary findings, since they’ve all become obvious to me from my few years of observing chickens. Were people it’s not paying attention now? Maybe growing up in the city, rather than on a farm, actually helped me by letting me approach farming with fresh eyes, rather than just seeing way a farm is “supposed” to be.

      • Robert Grillo says:

        I only say revolutionary in that what we’ve learned about the avian brain and behavior in just the last 15 years contradicts hundreds of years of misinformed views about chickens and other birds. Much of what was previously thought to be the exclusive domain of human / primate communication, brain and cognitive function and social behavior is now being discovered in chickens and other birds.

        • Mountain says:

          I completely that it’s revolutionary, I’m just amazed at what the previous mindset was among experts, and still is among the population at large.

          Chickens are amazing creatures. It seems to me that every social creature– every species that evolved to live in social networks– evolved these relatively complicated intellectual and emotional processes in order to navigate social interaction with their group.

  8. Jennifer Mora says:

    A few years ago, a dog was taken from a cage in a high kill shelter in South Carolina to be euthanized, and his shelter mate in the neighboring crate, I believe, understood what was going on and defended himself when the shelter worker came to his crate. He lunged at the worker and bit down hard into his leg. The shelter worker did not intend on euthanizing the neighboring dog that day, only to move him to another area. Instead, this dog attacked the shelter worker and was deemed aggressive and euthanized. He was previously graded with a stable and “happy” temperament. I believe that this tragedy would not have happened if the shelter workers had credited dogs with understanding the circumstances they are in and being able to make decisions that impact their future.

    If any of the shelter workers who deal with shelter animals as objects were to look at dogs and cats as persons, I believe it would creep them out and they could not do their jobs effectively. It is a human shift in consciousness. I believe that the dogs, cats and all other animals are fully aware that in their dealings with human beings, that human beings are the unaware individuals.

    • Mountain says:

      Interesting that so much of our interaction with social animals involves disrupting their social networks. Whether it’s farm animals, dogs in shelters, or even well-cared-for pets who are isolated from the pack life that is natural for them.

  9. Mountain says:

    “That criteria, of course, is the ability to suffer.”

    This is a pet peeve, but I hate seeing sentience defined this way. Of course, it involves the ability to suffer, but it also involves the ability to experience pleasure or enjoyment. If it just about suffering, there would be nothing wrong with killing an animal as long as s/he didn’t suffer during death (or life).

    It’s the ability to experience pleasure or enjoyment that makes the “death is just one day” approach problematic. Even if an animal lives a life on a wonderful farm, free of suffering; even if s/he receives a painless death, free of suffering; even then, s/he has been robbed of the ability to enjoy the future.

    • mynamefluffy says:

      I agree. In terms of each individual being, they are being robbed of a future, even if all is good and death is painless. The other thing that bothers me immensely is that eating/experimenting on/whatever nonhuman animals allows us to create a utilitarian view of them. They are worth something because they taste good (for some)/are fun (for some) to watch at circuses, etc. It takes away from the dignity and importance of each being. They are worthwhile beings because they exist – not because they are useful to some people as a tool to make their lives more pleasurable. ~Linda

    • mynamefluffy says:

      I also wanted to add that exploiting other creatures is a stain on humanity. Even if one does not care about nonhuman animals, they should care that their own species is being degraded by the exploitation they inflict on others. It is one of the reasons I am against the death penalty. It turns us all into killers. So even if one has no sympathy for the condemned, one can care about what taking a life does to US. ~Linda

  10. Mountain says:

    Finally, I have to disagree with the implication that memory and narrative are more meaningful than recollection. Memory is just recollection strung together with narrative, making it easier to recall in the future. Typically, this involves attaching emotions to certain sensory data. It’s no less survival-driven than the squirrel’s recollection of where he hid his stash. It seems likely that squirrels actually use narrative to help them achieve their prodigious feats of recollection– but we can’t see the internal life of a squirrel, just its actions.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Depends by what valence once attaches to the freight comprising ‘meaningful’. Although I come out rather more on your side, I value memory as reconstructed time and adhere to your calculating tie via non-clock means such as attaching emotions and add the full range of sensory experiences which the individual life presents.

      Dogma holds that humans are alone among animal in the ability to meditate or consider (the words work better in Greek or German) their own individual mortality as well as a global end of all life. How can we reject speciesism and yet reconcile this with the allegedly unique human capacity to create concepts such as atoms, time, dimensionality, infinity (I don’t agree with that one), apoptosis? I am re-looking at Quine’s work and reading through him to Fodor’s ‘continuity theory’ challenges to cognitive science, which is sort of where James’ blog post started. So much here James. let me point you toward an anthology book proposal!

      Matt Cole of course is the authority (reading through Foucault) on Happy Meat and links to his timeless work has been posted here months ago. I am going to a cello-thingy at Scandinavia House and the bar there advertises that the kitchen has its own 160 acre happy meat killing field in upstate new york. i will stick to the salad with walnuts and “attach my [experiental] emotions” to the sensory data of looking at the wine list which is “no less survival-driven than the squirrel’s recollection of where he hid his stash” joy.

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