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Scientists Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious

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Scientists Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious

From Earth In Transition
August 2012

So, is this something more than a bunch of theoreticians telling us what we already know? Yes. 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.

Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.

It may have seemed obvious to you and me that Fluffy and Fido are aware of their own existence and are not simply biological machines. You may also take it for granted, when you stare into the eyes of a chimpanzee, that you’re seeing a self-aware being. And that when the whale you helped to free from being tangled in fishing gear proceeded to swim around the boat giving you high fives, she was saying thank-you. But scientists (especially those who make money through experimenting on captive animals) have been very cautious in coming to this conclusion.

Finally, however, the official decision was reached in late night discussions two weeks ago during the prestigious annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference. This year’s conference was entitled “Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” and included presentations by neuroscientists and experts in the fields of marine mammals, birds and cephalopods (octopus etc.). [Read the full declaration here.] The conference issued this announcement:

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals was publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the conclusion of the Conference, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, by Philip Low, David Edelman and Christof Koch. … The Declaration was signed by the conference participants that very evening, in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK. The signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes.

The group didn’t attempt to define what consciousness actually is. That’s a very complex questions and no one really has a clue. But the full declaration includes statements like:

Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition.

… The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. 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. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

So, is this something more than a bunch of theoreticians telling us what we already know? Yes. 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.

Read the full declaration here.