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January 08, 2013

Pivotal Declaration in Debate Over Animal Consciousness

If you’ve ever rubbed a dog’s belly, met a parrot, or even sprinkled food on the water’s surface in a fish tank, you probably don’t need convincing that animals are conscious beings. Common sense demands recognition of these characteristics.

MacawsatProjectPerry
Rescued Macaws at Project Perry in Virginia
But too many scientists, through the decades, have been reluctant to accept these self-evident truths. In the 1600s, French philosopher Rene Descartes asserted that only humans had souls and that all other animals were unfeeling brutes unworthy of moral consideration. Today Cartesian thinking is rightly viewed as an example of human denial, but the question of animal consciousness has remained scientifically contested up to the present time. This lingering doubt is fueled by the difficulty of trying to interpret the internal states of other beings.

Since the 1970s, however, that doubt has been melting away in the face of remarkable discoveries about animals’ brains, feelings and behavior. So compelling is this accumulation of understanding that on July 7, 2012, an international group of prominent neuroscientists gathered at Cambridge University to hammer out The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. Intended to “reevaluate previously held preconceptions,” the declaration includes the following key points:

  • animals possess the same brain circuits associated with conscious experience and perception as we do.
  • emotions arise from older areas of the brain shared widely in the animal kingdom.
  • attentiveness, sleep, and decision making probably evolved before vertebrates, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus and squid).
  • birds have cognitive skills rivaling mammals, despite their brains lacking a neocortex previously thought indispensable for such abilities.

The declaration concludes that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” That may not sound like earth-shattering news, but it is significant given that these observations come from scientists at the top of their field.

This information should amount to more than just a scientific observation. It must have real-world consequences, since so many people still act as if animals don’t have feelings or needs. We can no longer, in good conscience, accept cruelty of any kind.   

P.S. Shortly before the Cambridge Declaration, Humane Society University finished developing the world’s first course on animal sentience. Scheduled to debut in the 2013-2014 academic year, Animal Sentience will explore exciting recent discoveries on animal feelings and the implications for our evolving relationship to animals. Plans are also afoot for a conference on animal sentience, organized by HSU’s Center for Animal Thinking and Emotion, in late 2013.

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