I am late in recieving the news that on July 7, 2012 a series of neuro-experts from the field of cognitive studies gathered together in order to announce that
The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from
experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the
neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with
the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, 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.
That consciousness is not confined to humanity won’t shock most people (any pet owner for instance will be entirely unsuprised). This declaration is important though in that it marks that the evolution of consciousness, with all its affective states, is nothing unique to human animals as a peice of scientific truth. From now on, those who speak of conscious beings can’t confine themselves in all good faith to speaking about that mammal that builds cathedrals and crafts pop songs. If ti is the case, as I contend in agreement with the pessimists, that consciousness is a disease, an aberration that was once a useful adaptation which, in developing surplus to environmental needs and in part thanks to its guiding ability in humans to help sculpt environment and be sculpted through it in return, then we must acknowledge our fellowship with other mammalian, avian and cephalopod life. The question of suffering is no longer theoretical, as the animal studies have always maintained, and it is undeniable now that such nonhuman lives be recognised as suffering lives. Again, for a good deal of people this is not a revelation.
But it prompts certain questions. That human and nonhuman lives share ‘primal affective qualia’ tends towards asking after the emotional life of nonhumans. I wonder at the idea of activities of practical necessity, like nest building, being or becoming (at least in possibility) a way of coping, a way of surviving. It makes me want to think of the maybe not so remote possibility of a cephalopod ethics and a form of life, a particular coalition against death, arising in an animal less evolutionarily biased toward developing an ocularcentric culture. Is it the case that more or less developed (from whose perspective?) nonhuman cultures abound around us, cultures that are radically nothing like our own. I remember being present at a horse being euthanised (he had a neurological problem that meant he had gradually become unable to swallow) and how in the blaze of the high Andalucian sun the vet had depressed a peice of plastic and a poison had inocuously flowed into the circulatory system of that horse. He stood upright for a moment, seized and then fell. He lay dead as the vet cut into his throat to examine the mechanics of the problem, a biological engineeer examining a poorly constructed machine, as the lorry backed up on the blood stained dust to whinch and carry the corpse away. The other horses, gathered in a lower paddock of soft sand transported from beaches, had stood in a silent circle. At the time I had wondered if they knew what death was, what it failed to mean, whether they were huddled in fear or a more blunt sense that this wasn’t normal, wasn’t right. Do nonhuman animals shudder at abjection? Might the activity of ants building colonies be aesthetic as well as pragmatic? Is it possible to imagine a psychiatry for nonhuman lives? Why not? After all, psychiatry deals with problems with living…and the problem is living itself.
Of course the scientists haven’t declared that these other animals have this kind of consciousness. There isn’t any reason to think that sharing the material substrate for consciousness means developing the same form of consciousness. That said, what it does do is show the unhuman nature of consciousness. Thomas Ligotti in The conspiracy against the human race (p.79):
One would think that nature was trying to kill us off or get us to suicide ourselves once the blunder of consciousness came upon us. What was nature thinking? We tried to anthropomorphize it, to romanticize it, to let it into our hearts.
We would have to generalise this state of affairs to those nonhuman animal lives that this declaration has deemed to share consciousness with us. Consciousness exists across the old distinction of nature/culture, of animal/man, and obliterates that mark. If specuations about existential horses or artist ants and a psychiatry for octopus seem ridiculous it is perhaps only because of the desire to keep the anthropic machine productive of that cleavage between man and beast. The point of such speculation is to go against the idea that we again find expressed in Ligotti that aside from man, who is the conscious animal, ‘[f]or the rest of earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. They live- they reproduce- they stop living’ (p.8). The idea of a psychiatry for nonhumans is silly (even though the use of psychopharmacology to prove the existence of the substrates of consciousness is in a direct and banal sense the everyday practice of psychiatry). Ligotti’s insistence that it is only we humans that can grasp life and death- his rearticulation of the problem of Dasein– has the power of an intuitive truth for us. Yet this intuition is the very product of our consciousness without any material evidential support; it is precisely the superstition that scientific truth either confirms or denies. If we are going to stay faithful to Ligotti’s line then we have to extend it to humans as well…why not? We too are uncomplicated animals who live, reproduce and stop living. This is factually accurate, even if it seems to us to leave a lot out of the picture…how dare this idea not delight in the complexity of my mood swings during football matches, my fear that if I ask that question in that auditorium I’ll look like a moron. Even Ligotti can’t allow for the notion that these intricacies of character and life story (that I once sat next to Kevin Keegan at a wedding and that he gave me a garish pink tie that for some reason I still keep hold of) are irrelevant differences that make no difference. That would be nihilistic.
So we have that option. And it is powerful. Or, we have the option to believe that other animals don’t live utterly uncomplicated lives. That is the Cartesian picture of the soft machine. But if nonhumans have consciousness then it is at least possible that they too can enjoy all the glory of Daseinification; of being beings that fail to cope, that fail to survive. Yet that these are nonhuman animals that in some instances have no relation to the kind of being that Heidegger describes in Being and Time means that we ought to be cautious to run to familiar themes. In the end Heidegger seeks to domesticate death. The domestication of death renders the concept of death sterile and clean or personal and possessive, small and somehow intimate. Death domesticated is death as it is concieved in the romance of existentialism. It is my death…full of pomp and sense and purpose. That consciousness is unhuman means that death is never mine alone, that the thought of death is never the thought of my death.
The question of whether those horses in the sand paddock understood death, whether they were existentialists, is a nonsense in precisely the same way that asking whether we understand death is nonsense. Making meaning out of death is precisely what we do in order to domesticate it. What is to understand? Isn’t that why we have psychiatry, clinical psychology, rituals of grief and mourning…why we make arbitrary decision about what lives are injurable and mournable? It is because there is no meaning that meaning has to be made…even though its absence haunts its presence. Marc Bekoff, ‘the emotional lives of animals’ here
Sea lion mothers wail when watching their babies being eaten by killer whales. People have reported dolphins struggling to save a dead calf by pushing its body to the surface of the water. Chimpanzees and elephants grieve the loss of family and friends, and gorillas hold wakes for the dead. Donna Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo, witnessed a wake for a female gorilla, Babs, who had died of cancer at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. She says the gorilla’s longtime mate howled and banged his chest; picked up a piece of celery, Babs’ favorite food; put it in her hand; and tried to get her to wake up.
I once happened upon what seemed to be a magpie funeral service. A magpie had been hit by a car. Four of his flock mates stood around him silently and pecked gently at his body. One, then another, flew off and brought back pine needles and twigs and laid them by his body. They all stood vigil for a time, nodded their heads, and flew off.
What is new in the declaration isn’t what it declares but that it has been declared by this group of people as such, that it is a declaration- with all the linguistic-political tones and shades that that brings.
All of this begs a question. Let me rehearse some conclusions already reached on this blog. Being alive is a problem because it is generative of suffering. Consciousness is a problem because it is through consciousness that we come to suffer. All life on earth faces extinction (entropy, solar catastrophe etc), and many species, including our own, face extinction due to climate change (for one example among many, see here). It is better that we do not continue procreating (the anti-natalist proposition) and that our projects for the future- whatever political orientation we prefer- must involve the self-management of extinction, a kind of palliative care of the planet. Given these conditions what possible animal rights emerge? What animal politics? Would practices of conservation not paradoxically become modes of prolonging the suffering of conscious beings? Or would it be the opposite tyhat conservationism becomes an ethical injunction…that we extend a kind of protection of nonhuman lives from pets and zoo animals to those in the wild?
Of course, that nonhuman animals have consciousness isn’t really established by this declaration. The authors do not define consciousness at all, and they also posit proof of consciousness in the form of an assertion regarding what they consider to be the ‘material substrates’ of that consciousness, but it is glaringly obvious that a substrate of a thing is not that thing entire. They also state that this substrate, already conflated with the thing, is generative of the thing without explaining how. Thus, they posit a physical material that somehow produces a nonphysical thing…as if there were some ghost in the Cartesian machine.