Did David Graybeard, the chimpanzee who was first observed
to use a tool by Jane Goodall, have any idea of who he was? Do elephants,
dolphins, cats, magpies, mice, salmon, ants or bees know who they are? Was
Jethro, my late companion dog, a self-conscious being? Do any of these
animals have a sense of self? What do these animals make of themselves
when they look in a mirror, see their reflection in water, hear their own
or another's song or howl, or smell themselves and others? Is it possible
that self-awareness "Wow that's me!" is a uniquely human trait ?
Because there's much interest and much exciting work to be
done concerning what animals know about themselves, it's worth reflecting
on what we do and don't know about animal selves. There are academic and
practical reasons to do so.
In his book, "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation
to Sex," Charles Darwin pondered what animals might know about themselves.
He wrote: "It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if
by this term it is implied that he reflects on such points, as whence he
comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth."
Darwin also championed the notion of evolutionary
continuity and believed that animals had some sense of self. In the same
book, he wrote, "Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the
higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of
kind." Thus, there are shades of gray and not black-and-white differences
between humans and other animals in cognitive abilities. So, while animals
might not ponder life and death the way humans do, they still may have
some sense of self.
After decades of studying animals ranging from coyotes,
gray wolves, domestic dogs, and Adlie penguins and other birds, I've come
to the conclusion that not only are some animals self-aware, but also that
there are degrees of self-awareness. Combined with studies by my
colleagues, it's wholly plausible to suggest that many animals have a
sense of "mine-ness" or "body-ness." So, for example, when an experimental
treatment, an object, or another individual affects an individual, he or
she experiences that "something is happening to this body." Many primates
relax when being groomed and individuals of many species actively seek
pleasure and avoid pain. There's no need to associate "this body" with "my
body" or with "me" (or "I"). Many animals also know the placement in space
of parts of their body as they run, jump, perform acrobatics, or move as a
coordinated hunting unit or flock without running into one another. They
know their body isn't someone else's body.
In my book, "Minding animals: Awareness, Emotions, and
Heart," I argued that a sense of body-ness is necessary and sufficient for
most animals to engage in social activities that are needed in the social
milieus in which they live. But, while a sense of body-ness is necessary
for humans to get along in many of the situations they encounter, it's
often not sufficient for them to function as they need to. A human
typically knows who he or she is, say by name, and knows that "this body"
is his, Marc's, or him, Marc. There's a sense of "I-ness" that's an
extension of "body-ness" or "mine-ness."
So, my take on animal selves means that David Graybeard
and Jethro knew they weren't one of their buddies. Many animals know such
facts as "this is my tail," "this is my territory," "this is my bone or my
piece of elk," "this is my mate," and "this is my urine." Their sense of
"mine-ness" or "body-ness" is their sense of "self."
How do animals differentiate themselves from others? Many
studies of self-awareness have used mirrors to assess how visual cues are
used. They've been effective for captive primates, dolphins and elephants.
Although mirror-like visual images are absent in most field situations,
it's possible that individuals learn something about themselves from their
reflections in water. But we also need to know more about the role of
senses other than vision in studies of self-awareness because some animals
for example, rodents who can distinguish among individuals don't seem to
respond to visual images. Odors and sounds are very important in the
worlds of many animals. Many mammals differentiate between their own and
others' urine and glandular secretions, and many birds know their own and
others' songs. Moving Jethro's "yellow snow" from place to place allowed
me to learn that Jethro made fine discriminations between his own and
others' urine. Perhaps a sense of self relies on a composite signal that
results from integrating information from different senses .
While there are "academic" questions about animal
self-awareness, there also are some very important practical reasons to
learn about animal selves. Achieving reliable answers to questions about
animal selves is very important because they're often used to defend the
sorts of treatment to which individuals can be ethically subjected.
However, even if an animal doesn't know "who" she is, this doesn't mean
she can't feel that something painful is happening to her body.
Self-awareness may not be a
reliable test for an objective assessment of well-being.
So, do any animals, when looking at themselves, hearing
themselves, or smelling themselves, exclaim "Wow, that's me"? Do they have
a sense of "I-ness?" We really don't know, especially for wild animals.
It's time to get out of the armchair and into the field. Speculation
doesn't substitute for careful studies of behavior.
Some people don't want to acknowledge the possibility of
self-awareness in animals because if they do, the borders between humans
and other animals become blurred and their narrow, hierarchical,
anthropocentric view of the world would be toppled. But Darwin's ideas
about continuity, along with empirical data and common sense, caution
against the unyielding claim that humans and perhaps a few other animals
such as other great apes and cetaceans are the only species in which some
sense of self has evolved.
Marc Bekoff is professor of biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder
and the author of many books, including "The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do
to Care for the Animals We Love," with Jane Goodall.
Go on to University of
Rhode Island Animal Rights Conference
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