Monday, August 16, 2010

Our Planetary Companions Are Very Like Us

Darwin's theory sparked a revolution in how we look at ourselves and our world. A key contention is that human and animal intelligence vary in degree, rather than in kind. Anyone who lives with a cat, a dog or some other kind of animal must surely be convinced that animals are conscious, and no-one can have any doubts that our closest relative, the great apes, are conscious. Canadian journalist Dan Falk looks at what consciousness means in this context.
Dan Falk: I visited the Toronto Zoo last summer soon after they opened their new gorilla rain forest exhibit. The main attraction is a group of 8 western lowland gorillas including a hefty male named Charles who weighs in at nearly 200 kgs. Of course the zoo is full of wonderful creatures from around the world but the apes and chimps seem to hold a special appeal and I think that’s because they remind us so much of ourselves. After all, they are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom.

When you watch the younger apes running and jumping, climbing trees and swinging on ropes you can’t help thinking how similar they are to children. When you look at their faces you see expressions that seem to match our facial expressions. Behind all of those similarities in behaviour is there also a similarity of mind? How close is the mind of an animal to the mind of a human being? With humans we like to use the word consciousness to describe our complex mental world. Now not everyone agrees on exactly how to define consciousness but most scientists would agree that it goes beyond just responding to our environment, that it involves more than just acting by instinct on what we take in with our senses.

We also have memories and emotions, we can form images in our minds, we can even form abstract concepts and communicate them using language - but can animals do some of those things? What degree of consciousness do they have? John Sorrell is a philosopher at the University of California in Berkeley, he’s written several influential books on the science of consciousness. He says the evidence for animal consciousness is all around us.

John Sorrell: There’s always some philosopher who says that animals can’t have consciousness. Well he hasn’t met my dog Ludwig. I mean, there just isn’t any doubt that Ludwig is conscious. Not just because he behaves in a conscious kind of way, but because I can see that his behaviour is connected to a machinery that’s relatively like mine: those are his eyes, that’s his ears, that’s his nose.
So the reason I’m so confident that some animals at least have consciousness is not just because they have similar behaviour but because I can see they’ve got a relevantly similar causal mechanism. Now, how far down the phylogentic scale does it go? We don’t know. I don’t think it’s useful right now to worry about are snails conscious, we just don’t know enough. But there isn’t any doubt that primates are conscious, go to any zoo. 

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