A Few Reasons Science Is Afraid of Animal Consciousness

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Photo: GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

Slowly, slowly, animal cognition — or, gasp, consciousness! — is becoming a valid, fruitful scientific pursuit: over the past year, scientists have studied crows wielding tools, dogs reading faces, chimps getting PTSD, and octopi revealing themselves to be ancient aliens.

This is new. As Science of Us has noted, animal cognition used to be a forbidden pursuit: Jane Goodall was slapped on the wrist for giving names to the chimps she studied, thereby committing anthropomorphism, or imputing a humanlike experience onto that of a nonhuman animal. Donald Griffin, the dude who discovered bats’ use of echolocation, published The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience in 1970, and it cratered his reputation. Given the flood of findings around nonhuman intelligence and feelings, many of which feel deeply intuitive, one wonders why the scientific establishment has resisted it for so long.

Maybe it’s built into the structure of science itself. Oxford zoologist Antone Martinho makes the case in a new essay for Aeon. Martinho’s lab studies ducklings, while at home, he’s just adopted a pair of “celestial parrotlets,” a sublimely named species of mini-parrot indigenous to South America and suitable for a professorial apartment. As a pet owner, Martinho thinks that his new companions think, but he’d never say that as a scientist, even as his ducklings crane their necks at a new stimulus, in the classic body language of a confused dog.

Why the resistance? Martinho argues that it’s baked into the scientific method, which draws from the empiricist school of philosophy: The only real knowledge, according to this line of thinking, is that which is observable and testable. (The Royal Society, the British collection of “natural philosophers” who begat modern science, had it right in their slogan Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it.) “The scientific method demands testable hypotheses and, to be testable, they must concern only the physical world and its interactions,” Martinho writes. Anthropomorphism “becomes a problem here because it inevitably calls upon the idea that animals are conscious, which is a hypothesis that cannot be tested.” Case in point: Martinho can observe the behavior that a duckling is discriminating between two objects, but it’s a reach to say the cute little bird thinks in a way that people do. That’s an extra step, one beyond the strictures of empiricism.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Science can’t infer much about animal consciousness — if it’s there — since it hasn’t yet gotten to the core of the human correlate, what brain scientists and philosophers call the Hard Problem of Consciousness (the capitals denote the gravitas), coined by the philosopher David Chalmers in the 1990s. It’s the modern framing of a question that’s beguiled sages for a couple thousand years: how does a thoughtful, self-reflective experience arise from this physical form? Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman describes it thus:

Why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? Why aren’t we just brilliant robots, capable of retaining information, of responding to noises and smells and hot saucepans, but dark inside, lacking an inner life? And how does the brain manage it? How could the 1.4kg lump of moist, pinkish-beige tissue inside your skull give rise to something as mysterious as the experience of being that pinkish-beige lump, and the body to which it is attached?

Indeed, Burkeman reports, to even study consciousness sounded woo-woo and New Age-y for serious-minded scientists, up to the time Chalmers proposed the problem. Since then, models of consciousness have been further complicated, with the field of embodied cognition arguing that maybe the brain isn’t the sole protagonist in the story of human thought —that people think and perceive with their bodies, too. In short, this thing we’ve been stuck with the whole time — human consciousness — we’re only beginning to understand.

To grasp the challenge of expanding that inquiry to animal minds, It may be helpful here to take a page from organizational psychology: Left to their own devices, hiring managers hire people who remind them of themselves, since they take their identity to be a proxy for fitness. It sure looks like something similar is happening when tests of human intelligence are used as tests of animal intelligence, when in reality, different species have evolved to fit different niches, especially if you’re an octopus.

Indeed, given the staggering array of species out there, saying there’s only one form of consciousness sounds awfully reductive. Like the philosopher Daniel Dennett told The New Yorker in 2013, “the idea that there is a bright line, with real comprehension and real minds on the far side of the chasm, and animals or plants on the other—that’s an archaic myth.” Taken together, the pursuit of understanding animal intelligence is immensely humbling: It exposes how much there’s left to learn about human consciousness, and how, beyond that, animal minds may be profoundly different.

A Few Reasons Science Is Afraid of Animal Consciousness