Tag: Christof Koch

The thinking dog

Science embraces what many intuitively know: Animals have consciousness.

This was published on the Big Think website at the end of August.

Scientists Give Animals Consciousness

Nick Clairmont on August 29, 2012, 2:34 PM

What’s The Big Idea?

Scientists have given animals consciousness. Not through complex manipulation of the brain or through genetic manipulation, but by publicly acknowledging the consensus, for the first time in such a straightforward way, that non-human animals, including some of our evolutionarily distant cousins, have awareness and experience like we do.

The declaration, called The Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness, was signed at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference of Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals in the presence of Stephen Hawking in July in Cambridge, U.K. by an international group of scientists including cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists.

What do they mean by consciousness? The Declaration treats it as the same as the phrase, “subjective experience.” Philosophers who share this view of consciousness with the scientists often say that something is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be that thing. So, according to this, a rock is not conscious, because there is nothing “that it is like to be a rock.”

The signing marked the first formalization of the scientific consensus about the consciousness of several non-mammals, including birds, octopuses and even bees.

So if we now turn to that Conference held in Cambridge, England under the subject of Consciousness in Human and and Non Human Animals, we see how that declaration reads,

We declare the following: “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. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

The full document is really worth reading, by the way.

There is much more about the conference including some remarkable videos here, from which I will select two.  The first one, in particular, is very moving, and upsetting!  Be warned!

OK, forgive me but I’m going to state the obvious!  Just read the entry on Wikipedia about Orangutans.

Orangutans are among the most intelligent primates and use a variety of sophisticated tools, also constructing elaborate sleeping nests each night from branches and foliage. The apes have been extensively studied for their learning abilities. There may even be distinctive cultures within populations. Field studies of the apes were pioneered by primatologist Birutė Galdikas. Both orangutan species are considered to be Endangered with the Sumatran orangutan being Critically Endangered. Human activities have decimated the populations and ranges of both species. Threats to wild orangutan populations include poaching, habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade. There are several conservation and rehabilitation organisations dedicated to the survival of orangutans in the wild.

Among the most intelligent primates‘! Yet again, an example of mankind treating the planet as a disposable item!  A quick web search came across the Orangutan Foundation so as well as being saddened and angry, there is something we can do; support them.

The second video from that Conference website is about the intelligence of dolphins – enjoy!

Back to the Big Think article, which concludes,

What’s The Significance?

The signatories have indicated that we cannot, at least certainly not for the reasons we have been giving, ignore the fact that animals have the same type of experiences that gives us a reason to treat other humans humanely.

Beyond the ethical ramifications, this declaration is another step in a long line of conclusions that the animal brain displays remarkable plasticity and is able to accomplish highly complex tasks in multiple ways.

While anyone who has gone to a zoo or owned a pet has at least temporarily thought of animals as conscious, there is still a large contingent that strongly believes that humans are exceptional in some morally and scientifically significant way. But, as Christof Koch, who co-presented the declaration notes, “The belief in human exceptionalism, so strongly rooted in the Judeo-Christian view of the world, flies in the face of all evidence for the structural and behavioral continuity between animals and people.”

Well done those scientists!