Animal consciousness occurs, [Thomas] Nagel wrote, when “there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that.~ John Jeremiah Sullivan is the author of Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son and, most recently, Pulphead: Essays. He is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, the Southern editor of The Paris Review, and a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine.
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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 oftrue suffering and pleasure. Needing their bodies, we killed them in spite of those things.
Only with the Greeks does there enter the notion of a formal divide between our species, our animal, and every other on earth. Today in Greece you can walk by a field and hear two farmers talking about an alogo, a horse. An a-logos. No logos, no language. That’s where one of their words for horse comes from. The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech. Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equaled brute. As time went by, the word for speech became the very word for rationality, the logos, an identification taken up by the early Christians, with fateful results. For them the matter was even simpler. The animals lack souls. They are all animal, whereas we are part divine.
And yet, if you put aside church dogma, and lean in to look at the Bible itself, or at the Christian tradition, the picture is more complicated. In the Book of Isaiah, God says that the day will come when the beasts of the field will “honor” Him. If there’s a characteristic of personal identity more defining than the capacity to honor, it’s hard to come up with. We remember St. Francis, going aside to preach to the little birds, his “sisters.” Needless to say he represented a radical extreme, conclusions of which regarding the right way of being in the world would not seem reasonable to most of the people who have his statue in their gardens. In one of his salutations, that of virtues, he goes as far as to say that human beings desiring true holiness should make themselves “subject” to the animals, “and not to men alone, but also to all beasts.” If God grants that wild animals eat you, lie down, let them do “whatsoever they will,” it’s what He wanted.
Deeper than that, though, in the New Testament, in the Gospel According to Luke, there’s that exquisite verse, one of the most beautiful in the Bible, the one that says if God cares deeply about sparrows, don’t you think He cares about you? One is so accustomed to dwelling on the second, human, half of the equation, the comforting part, but when you put your hand over that and consider only the first, it’s a little startling: God cares deeply about the sparrows. Not just that, He cares about them individually. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus says. “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.” Sparrows are an important animal for Jesus. In the so-calledInfancy Gospel of Thomas, a boy Jesus, playing in mud by the river, fashions twelve sparrows out of clay—again the number is mentioned—until a fellow Jew, happening to pass, rebukes him for breaking the Sabbath laws (against “smoothing,” perhaps), at which point Jesus claps and says, “Go!”, and the sparrows fly away chirping. They are not, He says, forgotten. So Godremembers them, bears them in mind. Stranger still, He cares about their deaths. In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29. The passage may make no sense anyway. The sparrow population shows little sign of divine ministrations: two years ago the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds placed house sparrows on its “Red List” of globally threatened species. Charles Darwin supposedly said that the suffering of the lower animals throughout time was more than he could bear to think of. That feels, if slightly neurotic, more scrupulously observed.