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Legitimated by Lapham

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Legitimated by Lapham

From James McWilliams
March 2013

When a mind such as Sullivan’s seizes on an issue such as animal consciousness in the pages of a publication such as Lapham’s Quarterly, there’s cause for at least momentary celebration

Vegan advocates are accustomed to the mainstream media giving short shrift (at best) to the cause of animal rights. Perhaps even more indifferent to animal issues are literary venues, an unfortunate indifference given that literary magazines tend to be more thoughtful and introspective than the typically superficial daily/hourly/A.D.D.-inducing news cycle.

It is thus with hedged optimism (what other kind is there?) that I draw your attention to the recent issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, the highbrow (what else to call it?) journal that offers erudite if esoteric treatments of a wide variety of serious issues. The current issue is dedicated to animals. The piece that caught my eye (and the only one that I’ve read thus far) was written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Sullivan, an instinctive writer with associations at Harper’s and The Paris Review, offers a more than competent and admirably accessible history of animal consciousness. The piece hinges appropriately enough on Darwin.

Sullivan writes of the recent research on animal consciousness:

If we put aside the self-awareness standard—and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)—it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed. This was made boldly clear when the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” pointed out that those “neurological substrates” necessary for consciousness (whatever “consciousness” is) belong to “all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses.” The animal kingdom is symphonic with mental activity, and of its millions of wavelengths, we’re born able to understand the minutest sliver. The least we can do is have a proper respect for our ignorance.

Maybe I’m naive. Or maybe I’m overly impressed with thinkers and writers such as Sullivan. But I don’t think so. When a mind such as Sullivan’s seizes on an issue such as animal consciousness in the pages of a publication such as Lapham’s Quarterly, there’s cause for at least momentary celebration, which (high from a sweet 30K trail race this morning) is exactly what I’m going to do.