These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”
That is technical language, but it speaks to a riddle age-old and instinctive. These thoughts begin, for most of us, typically, in childhood, when we are making eye contact with a pet or wild animal. I go back to our first family dog, a preternaturally intelligent-seeming Labrador mix, the kind of dog who herds playing children away from the street at birthday parties, an animal who could sense if you were down and would nuzzle against you for hours, as if actually sharing your pain. I can still hear people, guests and relatives, talking about how smart she was. “Smarter than some people I know!” But when you looked into her eyes—mahogany discs set back in the grizzled black of her face—what was there? I remember the question forming in my mind: can she think? The way my own brain felt to me, the sensation of existing inside a consciousness, was it like that in there?
For most of the history of our species, we seem to have assumed it was. Trying to recapture the thought life of prehistoric peoples is a game wise heads tend to leave alone, but if there’s a consistent motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago, it’s animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear. Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom. They were beings in a world of countless beings. Taking their lives was a meaningful act, to be prayed for beforehand and atoned for afterward, suggesting that beasts were allowed some kind of right. We used our power over them constantly and violently, but stopped short of telling ourselves that creatures of alien biology could not be sentient or that they were incapable of true suffering and pleasure. Needing their bodies, we killed them in spite of those things.