Where is Our Place in the Animal Kingdom?

We have a strained relationship with other animals. We’ve worshipped them, cooperated with them, molded them, and farmed them. While some are the subjects of our love and affection, others are subjected to horrendous treatment in the name of tasty meals, fashionable clothes, cosmetics, and science.

Do we have the right to shove pigs and chickens into tiny metal cages in which they will spend their entire lives, getting just enough to survive, grow fat, and reproduce, at the expensive of their social and emotional needs? What is it that separates us from these other creatures? Are other animals conscious—and if so, should we not treat them as ethically as we do other people?

“A sharp distinction between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if we are to bend them to our will, make them work for us, wear them, eat them—without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret. With untroubled consciences, we can render whole species extinct—for our perceived short-term benefit, or even through simple carelessness. Their loss is of little import: Those beings, we tell ourselves, are not like us.” —Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

From side by side to sitting on top

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari writes that at one point in time we did respect and value the lives of animals. This is reflected in early animist religions, that assigned souls to people, animals, natural events, and some inanimate objects.

But as time went by our equal footing with animals eroded into a hierarchy, our animist beliefs dissolved into theist beliefs, placing humans above all other creatures, and God above us. More recently still, as science and technology have given us the ability to bend nature to our will, we have come to supersede God.

“The rise of modern science and industry brought about the next revolution in human–animal relations. During the Agricultural Revolution humankind silenced animals and plants, and turned the animist grand opera into a dialogue between man and gods. During the Scientific Revolution humankind silenced the gods too,” writes Harari.

Now we sit atop the pyramid of most powerful beings on Earth. We have used our superior cognitive capabilities to take control of the world. Many animals were sacrificed in the making, but given what we’ve accomplished, can we be blamed for that? Is it the price to pay for better living?

From us and them to altogether

Is human life more valuable than other forms of life? It has often been thought that humans belong to some other category than that which other animals occupy. Sure we might share hearts and brains, but people have morals, they can think rationally, we can use language and compose symphonies.

We share a great deal more with the rest of the animal kingdom than many of us are aware. We are not the only creatures that sing, have social hierarchies, build tools, or plan for the future—even though we may perform these functions with greater effect. What’s more, some of us are more intelligent than others, so if intellect equates to value, we face the sensitive issue of differing the value of human lives.

One pernicious belief easing the minds of many animal-abusers is the notion they have no consciousness. They might run when approached and scream when shot, but these creatures don’t actually experience fear or pain, they are just reactions. Their minds are empty, unlike people.

Anyone that’s owned a dog has probably been convinced they’re conscious, yet it’s still a contested point. It can, and will probably always be, argued that it is possible that every behavior is simply a complex reaction. Some external stimulus has impinged upon the nerves of an animal, a complex network of fibers then burst into action and the animal turns its head and runs off into the distance. There’s no specific need for any awareness to make this happen. So can we prove that it exists?

Is there anybody in there?

Proving that animals do or don’t have a conscious experience is a difficult if not impossible proposition. In fact, it is not easy determining that another human has consciousness. We do so only because they walk, talk, and act like us, and we have an inner experience, so assume they must have one too.

“It is the greatest lacuna in our understanding of life. Humans have feet, because for millions of generations feet enabled our ancestors to chase rabbits and escape lions. Humans have eyes, because for countless millennia eyes enabled our forebears to see whither the rabbit was heading and whence the lion was coming. But why do humans have subjective experiences of hunger and fear?” Yuval Noah Harari

When we go looking for consciousness, we don’t seem to come up with a great deal. We can correlate certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to the brain regions and neural networks that seem responsible for them, but we are stuck when it comes to explaining why these things come with a subjective experience of them. Couldn’t it all be done without any awareness?

“…what happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? If nothing happens in the mind except what happens in our massive network of neurons – then why do we need the mind?”

While it is not easy answering the hard problem of consciousness, society nonetheless respects and relies upon it. We empathize with other people, we feel bad when they cry, and we don’t hurt them because we know that inner experience of pain is, well, painful.

“Most modern people have ethical qualms about torture and rape because of the subjective experiences involved. If any scientist wants to argue that subjective experiences are irrelevant, their challenge is to explain why torture or rape are wrong without reference to any subjective experience.” 

If we grant consciousness and inner experiences to other people, why don’t we grant them to animals? Is it simply because such a mind would seem so foreign to us? We can relate to the conscious experience of another human, but our experience likely doesn’t map so well onto that of an elephant or snake.

Putting yourself in someone else’s hooves

In his article What Is It Like to Be a Bat? Thomas Nagel writes that “an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.”

But will we ever know what that experience is like? Do we need to know what it’s like in order to grant that it exists? Can we bridge the gap between objective and subjective phenomena?

“Insofar as I can imagine [what it’s like to be a bat], it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task.”

Without becoming a bat in both body and mind, we cannot know what it’s like to be a bat. What’s more, Nagel argues, any attempt at an objective account of a bat’s subjective experience is likely to come at the expense of the thing we want to find:

“If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: It takes us farther away from it.”

Where does that leave us regarding animal consciousness? We cannot prove that other creatures have subjective experiences, but we suffer from the same conundrum regarding other people. If we grant consciousness to people simply because we can imagine more easily what it is like to be them, we must admit that it is only a lack of imagination—a deficit we are unlikely to fill—that keeps us from animal experience.

Something about the brain

One argument regarding consciousness in other creatures asserts that in order to have consciousness you must have a neocortex. That’s the wrinkly outer layer of the brain, where we consider most of the higher cognitive stuff to happen. The neocortex is only found in mammals, so such a theory would permit consciousness in dogs and cats but not lizards and sparrows.

But this idea hasn’t held up well. While birds and fish lack a neocortex, they make up for it in their own neuronal developments. As Jonathan Balcombe writes in What a Fish Knows:

“[W]hile there is less computational power in the average fish pallium than in the average primate neocortex, it is increasingly apparent that the pallium serves functions for fishes that the neocortex does for mammals and the paleocortex for birds.”

Supporting the notion that many brains are capable of housing conscious ‘beings,’ in 2012 a group of neuroscientists convened to sign the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. In it they declared many creatures shared the neurological components required:

“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. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Animal consciousness may be far different from our own, and indeed perhaps we cannot conclusively prove that they have inner experiences at all. But given the evidence, we might want to lean in favor of assuming they do. Wouldn’t it be better to be kind to creatures that lack a consciousness than to do harm to those that do?

Perhaps we need to reverse the ascent of the human ego. To put ourselves back on an even ethical playing field. Not to say we cannot benefit from the tender, succulent food they provide, but to do so in exchange for treating them with dignity and acknowledgment of sapience.

I’ll end with a slightly humbling thought—Balcombe writes that for all we know, fish were conscious before we were:

“Not only is scientific consensus squarely behind consciousness and pain in fishes, consciousness probably evolved first in fishes. Why? Because fishes were the first vertebrates, because they had been evolving for well over 100 million years before the ancestors of today’s mammals and birds set foot on land, and because those ancestors would have greatly benefited from having some modicum of wherewithal by the time they started colonizing such dramatically new terrain.”

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