Animal consciousness, featuring bears and octopuses
July 7, 2019 12:50 PM   Subscribe

The Vivid Inner Worlds Of Animals. "'An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language.' That's from philosopher Martin Buber. If you've ever looked into a dog's eyes, you've seen it. There's something there, whether happy or sad or worried — all part of that something that appears to be consciousness and emotion. Despite groans of anthropomorphism, a growing number of scientists and writers say it's not your imagination. Animals have a far deeper internal life than we've known."
The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, which is signed by a group of scientists, is a starting point. It states: "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." In short: we're in good, conscious company.

Brandon Keim (@9brandon): Does a Bear Think in the Woods? Turns out animal intelligence is not so different from our own.
Kilham thinks these dynamics reflect, and across evolutionary time have shaped, black bear intelligence—an intelligence comparable to that of chimpanzees and other great apes and sharing many properties with our own. "They're like us," he says. "They judge. They punish. They have gratitude and friendship. But because they're bears, people see them in the light of conflict." After a while, Squirty ambles over. "You look pretty good for 22," he murmurs in response to her rumblings.

As I look at Squirty's massive head through Kilham's open door, I think of Flo, matriarch of the chimpanzee clan studied by Goodall when she arrived in Tanzania nearly 60 years ago. At the time, mainstream science mostly denied that animals could think and feel in meaningful ways. Claims of animal intelligence, ethologist Frans de Waal writes in his 2017 best-seller Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, were dismissed as "anthropomorphic, romantic, or unscientific." Goodall's findings of tool-making, alliance-forming, emotionally complicated chimps helped seed a revolution.

Nowadays, science overflows with such findings. A Google Scholar search for "animal" and "cognition" returns more than 190,000 publications in just the past five years as research has illuminated a menagerie of intelligence. Ravens can plan for the future and demonstrate a degree of self-control comparable to great apes'. Sperm whales engage in consensus-based decision-making during the course of their travels. Japanese great tits, songbirds related to chickadees, use syntax—a linguistic property long thought unique to human language—when they communicate. Experiments show that tiny zebra fish, a species used to model basic animal traits, possess detailed memories of events and can learn from one another. Many species possess emotions: Giraffes appear to grieve, bumblebees show signs of happiness, and crayfish can experience anxiety.

On and on the findings go, yet bears have remained in shadow. Though plenty is known about bears' biology and ecological interactions—as well as how to regulate hunting seasons—science is just starting to pay attention to what's going on in their heads. At any given moment, researchers are conducting long-term field studies or experimental tests on primate cognition—but Kilham is almost alone in his studies of bear intelligence. This research highlights an intriguing possibility: Could it be that much of North America is populated by hundreds of thousands of exceptionally intelligent nonhuman beings?
Twitter thread.

Maria Popova (@brainpicker): "7 years ago today, scientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness — a Copernican triumph over our millennia-old species hubris, recognizing the complex sentience of non-human animals. Here is the most beautiful thing I've read on the subject:"

The Soul of an Octopus: How One of Earth’s Most Alien Creatures Illuminates the Wonders of Consciousness
“Despite centuries of investigation by everyone from natural historians, psychologists, and psychiatrists, to ethicists, neuroscientists, and philosophers, there is still no universal definition of emotion or consciousness,” Laurel Braitman wrote in her terrific exploration of the mental lives of animals. Virginia Woolf defined consciousness as “a wave in the mind,” but even if we’re able to ride the wave, we hardly know the ocean out of which it arises.

During my annual visit to NPR’s Science Friday to discuss my choices for the year’s best science books [2015], my co-guest — science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum — mentioned a fascinating book that had slipped my readerly tentacles, one that addresses this abiding question of consciousness with unparalleled rigor and grace: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (public library) by naturalist, writer, and documentary filmmaker Sy Montgomery.

Montgomery begins with a seemingly simple premise. The octopus is a creature magnificently dissimilar to us — it can change shape and color, tastes with its skin, has its mouth in its armpit, and is capable of squeezing its entire body through a hole the size of an apple. And since we humans experience reality in profoundly different ways from one another, based on our individual consciousnesses, then the octopus must be inhabiting an altogether different version of what we call reality.

The constellation of complexities comprising this difference, Montgomery reveals over the course of this miraculously insightful and enchanting book, expands our understanding of consciousness and sheds light on the very notion of what we call a “soul.”
Related post: Scientists Gave MDMA to Octopuses—and What Happened Was Profound
posted by homunculus (29 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing exists except that which is measured by man, it would seen.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:56 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]

>Animals have a far deeper internal life than we've known."

Than who's known? What do you want, a cookie, for realizing something this obvious? I think all we have is oatmeal-raisin. Seriously, we're supposed to have believed up until now that, for instance, dogs are just wind-up mechanisms that only coincidentally behave as if they experience love, happiness, enjoyment of companionship, loyalty, and so on? What evidence is there for consciousness in humans that there isn't for consciousness in dogs? If this is controversial at all I'm even more disappointed in people than I thought I was, which hardly seems possible.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 1:02 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]

What do you want, a cookie, for realizing something this obvious?

Hey now, let's maybe calm down a bit. Yes, unfortunately most humans seem to think that animals might have emotions and such but still have less of a consciousness than humans, and yes that might make you personally even more disappointed in humans than you already were.

And now that we've gotten that out of the way, maybe we can focus on all this fascinating and amazing science that will help all those other people change their minds about animal consciousness?

Thanks for this amazing post, homunculus! I'm looking forward to digging into the links even more.
posted by Dee Grim at 1:18 PM on July 7 [20 favorites]

Nothing exists except that which is measured by man, it would seen.
posted by grumpybear69

Man is the one who measures all those, and only those, who do not measure themselves. Who measures man?
posted by Splunge at 1:52 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]

They feel pain, but they don’t issue declarations.
posted by Segundus at 1:57 PM on July 7

It does make me wonder how many of the scientists working on this question had close personal relationships with animals. I know my dog so well—I know she has a detailed inner life, memories, thoughts, a strong personality, in addition to just animal impulses.
posted by sallybrown at 2:02 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

If you've ever looked into a dog's eyes, you've seen it.
I'm pretty sure that's the retractor anguli oculi lateralis and the levator anguli oculi medialis. (Which are obviously there to express emotion.)
posted by clawsoon at 2:56 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

Before research into corvid cognition came to leak into the edges of public awareness, my Old World farmer father-in-law, now passed, had nuanced relationships with the many crows around our village. It was obvious that they recognized him, and the rest of the family, and that they had detailed memories of past encounters. My daughter and her grandfather used to have squawking, cawing, clicking two-way dialogues with individual crows.

I’m not sure what was said, but my preschool daughter always seemed confident about the subject matter.

When my father-in-law died the crows stopped coming by.
posted by Construction Concern at 3:12 PM on July 7 [18 favorites]

but they don’t issue declarations.

You’ve never lived with a cat?
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:16 PM on July 7 [6 favorites]

It does make me wonder how many of the scientists working on this question had close personal relationships with animals.

In my experience, most of us. And for many of us that includes the very individuals we're studying.

I'm generally happy for the message "Science says animals have consciousness" to be spread, but I do find it frustrating the way that it is often discussed in the popular press. Yes, there was a major scientific school of thought in the mid-20th century that explicitly denied the conscious experience of animals (or at least denied that it could be a proper subject of scientific study). This was Behaviorism, which held that most or all animal (and even human) behavior can be explained with respect to a relatively small number of learning mechanisms (such as classical/Pavlovian conditioning and operant/instrumental conditioning) interacting with the species' complement of sensory and motor capacities. By the latter decades of the 20th century, though, Behaviorism was in decline, and while now what you might call "methodological Behaviorism" remains a useful way of designing studies and interpreting data, "philosophical Behaviorism" has been mostly dead for many decades. Animal behavior is simply too complex to be explained without reference to some kind of model of internal processing that most of us would call a mind. And the reality is that Behaviorism was a relatively brief period in the scientific study of animal behavior and animal consciousness, and one that was not universally accepted even in its own time. (The roughly contemporary school of Ethology had a very different perspective on animal behavior, and one that has fared much better into the modern era, especially with the expansion of neuroethology into the cognitive domain.) Charles Darwin founded the modern study of animal behavior and consciousness with the publication of The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, and I think his general approach is more indicative of the modern thinking on animal cognition than the Behaviorists' is.

The important scientific question now is, and has been for some time, what is the nature of animal consciousness? And there is not going to be a single answer to this question. There isn't even a single nature of human consciousness, as we've learned from various non-neurotypical individuals who have communicated effectively about their experience of the world (e.g., Temple Grandin). A major difficulty with studying consciousness is that we tend to assume that if others are conscious, their consciousness is like our own. This was brought home to me once when I had a conversation about synesthesia with a friend of mine when we were in our early twenties. It was an epiphany for both of us, because she'd never heard of synesthesia but had a strong color-letter and color-number form of it for her whole life. She had assumed that everyone experienced the world that way, and that there was just some weird taboo that kept people from talking about it since whenever she'd obliquely make reference to the color of certain letters, people acted like she was crazy. And for me, learning that someone I'd known since childhood had such a profoundly different experience of something as basic as letters and numbers helped me to understand just how much of our own experiences, even basic-seeming ones like sensory processing, are peculiar to ourselves and not necessarily shared by others.

And so if we look into the eyes of a dog and see something soulful looking back at us, we project our own experiences onto theirs, and construct a whole cognitive edifice upon the few muscles that clawsoon mentioned above. But while we can recognize the consciousness, cognitive complexity, and emotional depth of dogs, the fact is that our own experience of being a conscious human is probably quite unlike our beloved pet's experience of being a conscious dog. But if we can understand how and why human consciousness and canine consciousness are both similar and different from each other, we can also better understand the nature of human consciousness itself, and how and why human consciousnesses may differ from each other as well.

So if researchers find evidence for empathy or judgment or spite in bears, for example, I don't think this is interesting because "science proves bears are conscious!" I think it's interesting because it shows they possess certain specific cognitive traits that we may not have expected, which should lead us to ask whether these traits are specific adaptations, or maybe some kind of spandrel (a trait which evolves as a necessary consequence of some other trait or traits rather than as a specific adaptation, even if it has adaptive significance once evolved). This has implications for understanding when and how these traits appeared in human evolution, and where and how they are supported by our neurobiology.
posted by biogeo at 5:25 PM on July 7 [20 favorites]

If this is controversial at all I'm even more disappointed in people than I thought I was, which hardly seems possible.

Then do some research and prepare to be extremely disappointed. Not only has consciousness in animals been denied by science, we pretty much live in a world created by our ability to explain away and pretend that animals are not conscious, including that hey feel no pain, etc. Science has failed dismally in this regard, and that, to me, is very interesting, and informs much of my skeptical reads in regards to the popular notion that scientific viewpoints are not tainted by social values.
posted by xammerboy at 5:55 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]

It's pretty interesting to me that one of the theories for octopi developing conscious intelligence is as a defense mechanism. Humans also have always seems to me uniquely vulnerable to vicissitudes of natural living. How many other animals need to manipulate or otherwise change so much of their food to eat it? Our small mouths, naked skin, etc. do not make us an obvious choice as being apex predators. There's even an interesting theory that our consciousness is the result of a damaged set of DNA that resulted in smaller jaw bones which also resulted in larger skulls and therefore larger brains. This theory suggests that our intelligence is not the result of evolution as it's normally thought of, as much as a genetic accident that should have proved fatal.
posted by xammerboy at 6:05 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]

Some words from a thinker on this subject:
The Absolute is absolute thought, existence is thought, the realities of existence are forms of thought, and we are only a form of thought. Thought can comprehend thought. When the philosophers and the scientists will realize this, they will no longer raise any objection against anthropomorphism. The truth that thought is the substance of all realities was perceived by profound thinkers long ago, but it took science a long time to perceive this truth.--Harry Waton / A true monistic philosophy, v. 1, p.54
Waton was an early twentieth-century Jewish disciple of the renegade Jew, Benedict Spinoza, whose philosophy espoused the principle that mind is the omnipresent core of all being. This principle is destined to constitute the foundation of all science.

Another early twentieth-century Jewish Spinozist, Constantin Brunner, developed an approach to biology based on this principle, writing:
Each genus is thinking its world image, hence, has a world, of a specific kind, according to the specificity of its organization, according to its morphological structure and its care for life, according to the biological center of its interests and relations. An infinite diversity--how divergent from our kind of thinking the Arthropoda with their exoskeleton, chitin coat of mail, which, so far as we know, can experience only few outer stimuli, and, much less yet are experiencing those sessile animals with rigid cellulose sheathing, or the encapsulated endoparasites. However, we might and must assume that each animal possesses its awareness of the world and not simply a consciousness of its own particularity.--The Attributes (unpublished translation from the German by Henri Lurié)
Our scientists would be well-advised to take a look at the work that these thinkers have done in this area.
posted by No Robots at 6:15 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]

Ecologist and Philosopher David Abram on the Language of Nature and the Secret Wisdom of the More-Than-Human World: “We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”
As we learn to translate the language of nature, there is more than mere astonishment at what we uncover; at the knowledge — nascent to science, ancient to native cultures the world over — of what trees feel and how they communicate, or of how other animal consciousnesses experience the world. There is magic — the realest, rawest form of magic we can access in an unsuperstitious world grounded in science but willing to soar beyond it, into other, non-materialist modes of perception.

That is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores with equal parts scientific curiosity and reverence for native wisdom in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library).
posted by homunculus at 8:45 PM on July 7

An anecdote: In the late 80s, early 90s, I was talking to a fellow college student who was the daughter of cattle ranchers, when I made the (what I thought was totally innocuous statement) that cows feel pain. I meant physical pain, as in, they have nerves and have a pain response, though I didn't say that. She became so enraged at that, I was truly shocked. My point being, if there is a financial or self-justifying reason to other a group, humans surely will do it, especially if their livelihood is build on it. Or their power.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 11:39 PM on July 7 [13 favorites]

This theory suggests that our intelligence is not the result of evolution as it's normally thought of, as much as a genetic accident that should have proved fatal.

It still might, at this rate.
posted by webmutant at 12:25 AM on July 8 [4 favorites]

"Seriously, we're supposed to have believed up until now that, for instance, dogs are just wind-up mechanisms that only coincidentally behave as if they experience love, happiness, enjoyment of companionship, loyalty, and so on? What evidence is there for consciousness in humans that there isn't for consciousness in dogs? "

What evidence is there that consciousness isn't a wind-up mechanism to behave as if they experience those things even in human beings? Consciousness is a model we use to explain our bodies actions to ourselves. While I assume organisms related to me, that is, literally all of them, share a great deal of qualities in common for obvious evolutionary reasons. Wherever you draw the line for consciousness and which organisms qualify, I resent the implication that people or consciousness are some kind of magical state separate from the natural physical and chemical processes going on in the universe. Everything is on a wind-up mechanism started heck of billions of years ago.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:07 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]

I'm believe that Sing or Swim's argument is against a separate model for humans and dogs, GoblinHoney. I'm not sure why you chose their quote to use for your orthogonal argument that one of the models is wrong and one is right.
posted by Quonab at 9:14 AM on July 8

Peter Watts: Conscious Ants and Human Hives.
posted by Splunge at 3:25 PM on July 8

Here's another good piece on animal consciousness: A Journey Into the Animal Mind: What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world

The above was posted previously: Rethinking Animals
posted by homunculus at 6:24 PM on July 8

Sam Mickey (@doctormickey) on the Mirror Self-Recognition test (MSR): Of Selves and Mirrors
Mainstream philosophy of mind and cognitive science still rely far too much on a modern concept of self, a kind of Cartesian ego or Kantian will, but reinscribed in complex networks of material and semiotic flows (NB: complexity is the Cartesian certainty of the 21st century). This mainstream myopia is indicated by a reliance on mirror metaphors. The mirror is not a good model for subjectivity. Peter Sloterdijk explains this point in his analysis of intimate relations (bubbles) constituted in human inhabitations of space (being-in-spheres).

Aside from the rather vague reflections found in streams and lakes or polished stones and metal (e.g., obsidian and bronze), mirrors are a relatively recent invention: “the self-encounter of human faces in mirror images is a very late addition to primary interfacial reality”; for people today, “living in apartments covered in mirrors, it would be asking the unimaginable if one expected them to realize the meaning of a central fact: that until recently, the quasi-totality of the human race consisted of individuals who never, or only in highly exceptional situations, saw their own faces” (Bubbles 192).
Glass mirrors of the type common today have only existed since c. 1500—and initially only in Venice. Supplying large parts of populations with mirrors only really began in the nineteenth century, and process would not have been complete in the First World until the middle of the twentieth. Only in a mirror-saturated culture could people have believed that for each individual, looking into one’s own mirror image realized a primal form of self-relation. (197)
posted by homunculus at 9:38 AM on July 12

What I always point out is that Descartes believed animals were simple machines with no feelings, so live vivisection of a dog was fine. David Hume, on the other hand, said it was so obvious from mere observation that dogs had the same emotions and feelings as human beings that he was slightly embarrassed to present an argument for the evident fact. From this I deduce two things.

A. British empiricism is better than Continental rationalism, and
B. Hume actually owned a dog.
posted by Segundus at 6:53 AM on July 13

How your brain invents morality: Neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland explains her theory of how we evolved a conscience.
Sigal Samuel

Speaking of the animal kingdom, in your book you mention another experiment with prairie voles, which I found touching, in a weird way. Can you describe it?

Patricia Churchland

I think it’s a beautiful experiment! You have a pair of prairie voles that are mated to each other. You take one of them out of the cage and stress it out, measure its levels of stress hormone, then put it back in. The other one rushes toward it and immediately grooms and licks it. If you measure its stress hormones, you see that they’ve risen to match those of the stressed mate, which suggests a mechanism for empathy. The [originally relaxed] vole grooms and licks the mate because that produces oxytocin, which lowers the level of stress hormone.

Sigal Samuel

So in your view, do animals possess morality and conscience?

Patricia Churchland

Absolutely. I think there’s no doubt. The work that animal behavior experts like Frans de Waal have done has made it very obvious that animals have feelings of empathy, they grieve, they come to the defense of others, they console others after a defeat. We see one chimp put his arm around the other. We see one rodent help a pal get out of a trap or share food with a pal.

We don’t have anything they don’t have — just more neurons. The precursors of morality are there in all mammals.
posted by homunculus at 11:40 AM on July 14

Something from a scientist:
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ —a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.--Albert Einstein
A mole is made to suffer in a "beautiful experiment" to prove that moles will attempt to alleviate suffering. How much meaningless suffering do we inflict on other life-forms by denying the obvious: they are like us. Empathy now!
posted by No Robots at 3:52 PM on July 15

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