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Absence of Evidence, or Evidence of Absence; a Paper on Animal Consciousness

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Absence of Evidence, or Evidence of Absence; a Paper on Animal Consciousness

Absence of Evidence, or Evidence of Absence?

A paper on Animal Consciousness

December 15, 2004


Consciousness is a difficult term to grasp; so much so, that many scientists will not even attempt to define the term, much less search for it’s evidence. Most however, do agree that consciousness must include certain aspects; specifically cognition, self-awareness, memory, and abstract thought.

Lesley J. Rogers describes consciousness as, “related to awareness, intelligence, and complex cognition, as well as language. Consciousness may be manifested in self-awareness, awareness of others, intentional behavior, including intentional communication, deception of others, and in the ability to make mental and symbolic representations (13).”

There is no question that humans carry these attributes, but what about animals? Some philosophers, including Descartes, claimed that while humans are conscious, animals are like machines, with no thought process or sentience. Others claim that animals are very capable of consciousness, and that we just have not had the capabilities to test the aspects of it through the scientific method. As Donald R. Griffin expressed:

Conscious thinking may well be a core function of central nervous systems. For conscious animals enjoy the advantage of being able to think about alternative actions and select behavior they believe will get them what they want or help them avoid what they dislike or fear. Of course human consciousness is astronomically more complex and versatile than any conceivable animal thinking, but the basic question addressed…is whether the difference is qualitative and absolute, or whether animals are conscious even though the content of their consciousness is undoubtedly limited and very likely quite different of ours. (3)

This paper will look at what evidence there is that may imply that some, if not all, vertebrate animals may have the capacity for conscious thinking. Cognition, for example is something that animals may require in order to adapt to their changing environments so quickly. Cognition is an animal’s ability to make a decision by evaluating or processing current information based on some representation of prior experience (Kamil in Pepperberg 127). Some animal studies, such as Francine Patterson’s study on Koko the gorilla, and Irene Pepperberg’s study with Alex, an African gray parrot, have shown that some animals can be made to memorize symbols and their meanings, and then apply them to objects.

In Dr. Pepperberg’s book, The Alex Studies, she taught the parrot to be able to recognize different objects by color, shape, and material. He was even able to eventually distinguish between concepts such as “bigger,” “smaller,” “same,” “different,” “over,” and “under.” When asked to identify objects, Alex correctly identified, on first try, 80% of all objects presented in over 200 tests (45). He was also able to correctly pair different labels together to fit a certain object; for example color and material. After only two years of training, Alex was able to communicate with contextual and conceptual use of human speech. He could identify, request, and refuse a set of objects for play or food (50). Dr. Pepperberg also took precautions to ensure that she had not allowed for any “cues” to tip off Alex to a correct answer, as in the case of “Clever Hans.”

These animals also demonstrated memory, another of the aspects of consciousness. Many behaviorists believe that animals act only on instinct, or on conditioned responses to stimuli. Others, like Lesley J. Rogers, believe that memories actually play an important part in an animal’s behavior. “The uniqueness of an individual is not simply encoded in the enormous diversity of our genetic code (our inheritance) but is established by our unique experiences encoded in our memories. It is the collection of memories that becomes part of the self” (20). She is not saying that all animals are aware of the memories they form, and gives the example that even cockroaches can learn and form memories, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are self-aware.

Pigeons have a surprisingly developed memory system, and have been able to remember and distinguish hundreds of different patterns on a conditioning box out of a series of six hundred other patterns that offered no reward when pecked. The same test was very difficult for humans to accomplish, but pigeons were able to maintain 88% accuracy after seven months (Rogers 71).


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