Animal behaviour is a strange area of science. Although research into genetics and evolution has shown that we are just another species of mammal, there’s still reluctance to give other animals the benefit of the doubt when it comes to things like consciousness. Of course, consciousness is incredibly hard to study (especially because it’s pretty much impossible to define) – but it’s always seemed logical to me to assume that animals similar to humans are likely to have similar types of consciousness.
Scientists aren’t in the business of relying on assumptions. But in the past many have seemed willing to assume that animals are guilty of unconsciousness until proven otherwise. Why that way round, and not vice versa? Why struggle for tortuous explanations of how some animals can make tools to solve complex problems, without being conscious of what they’re doing?
So I was excited to see that a group of neuroscientists have declared their belief that consciousness is unlikely to be unique to humans, at the first Francis Crick Memorial Conference. As the website explains (rather poetically) ‘Until animals have their own storytellers, humans will always have the most glorious part of the story, and with this proverbial concept in mind, the symposium will address the notion that humans do not alone possess the neurological faculties that constitute consciousness as it is presently understood.’Seems sensible to me. If consciousness is a useful adaptation for humans, it might well be equally useful to other animals. So you might expect the wonderful process of evolution to have converged on this solution in other species, not just our own. As the scientists put it:
‘…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.’
(I’m really pleased octopuses got a mention!)
The declaration does of course gloss over the fact that measuring ‘neurological substrates’ isn’t the same as measuring consciousness. But this failure to measure what’s being studied applies to human brains just as much as animal ones – the only difference is that humans can say they’re conscious, and other animals can’t (at least not in language we understand). And as philosophers would point out, just because someone says they’re conscious doesn’t make it so.
I think this declaration is pretty big step. The brain really is one of the great frontiers of science – like a map of a continent where only the coastline has been surveyed, and the interior remains an uncharted mystery. But what we do know shows us huge similarities between the brains and behaviour of humans and certain other animals.
The declaration pulls out birds as a great example – saying they ‘appear to offer… a striking case of the parallel evolution of consciousness’ – with evidence that magpies can recognise themselves in mirrors, and that in some cases sleeping birds show brain activity similar to REM sleep in humans.
We’re still at the beginning of research into consciousness, when it seems like every discovery reveals a thousand more questions. But I think it’s always dangerous to assume humans are ‘more unique’ than any other animal – we have to remember, in the true spirit of science, that we are not unbiased observers of ourselves. We don’t know what it’s like to be a bat – but that doesn’t mean bats don’t know either.