People with pets find it hard to believe, but scientists continue to debate whether or not animals are conscious–that is, whether they’re aware of themselves as individuals.
Some still claim that anything animals do is strictly the result of conditioning. Others are willing to grant animals a certain amount of intelligence, but argue that animals are no more self-aware than computers, which, after all, are also capable of complex, seemingly conscious behavior.
Such critics are getting fewer in number, however, thanks to research at places like Ohio State University, where the first colony of college-educated apes can count, add and subtract, understand fractions on a computer and even match a quantity of objects to its correct Arabic number.
Sarah Boysen, a psychology professor, began trying to teach arithmetic to chimpanzees in the 1970s. By 1991, a chimp named Sheba had figured it out. Once one chimp learned it, others followed.
Now Boysen is trying to teach two four-year-old chimps, Keeli and Ivy, printed language, using videos in which, a la Sesame Street, colorful letters dance across a video screen, and a computer touch screen (chimp fingers can’t use a regular keyboard or grip a pencil). She’s also studying chimp vocalizations; she’s think they may have specific sounds for specific things–a rudimentary spoken language.
Mark Bowdamer, another professor of psychology, currently at John Carroll University in Cleveland, has worked with chimps for years, teaching them American Sign Language, then holding conversations with them.
And what do chimps talk about? Primarily “things in their everyday lives,” Bowdamer says. If they want food, they’ll sign, “Time eat.” When asked what they want to eat, they’ll sign, “Apple, apple, apple. Hurry.” They’ll flip through picture books and sign comments to each other when they see something they recognize, like a bird.
One sign of intelligence, if not necessarily consciousness, is tool use. Chimpanzees use sticks to reach for things and fish for termites; they’ve even been seen to attach two sticks together to make a longer stick. Non-primates can be just as ingenious. One scientist had a crow living in his laboratory who was fed dry mash that had to be moistened before it could be eaten. Occasionally the keepers forgot to moisten it. The crow used a cup he had been given as a toy to get his own water and moisten the mash himself!
Egyptian vultures throw rocks at ostrich eggs to break them open; the woodpecker finch, of the Galapagos islands, uses a cactus spine to pry grubs out of tree branches; some green herons will drop small objects onto the surface of the water to lure fish to the surface.
Dolphins have no hands, but they’ve learned to carry rocks around by sucking them into their blowholes. Dolphins will also blow bubble rings, then play with them as they rise to the surface. Sometimes they’ll drop bits of fish or seaweed into the center of a bubble ring just to see what happens.
Nevertheles, many scientists still think that animals are basically sleepwalkers, carrying out complex actions but completely unaware they are doing so.
This notion only dates back to the1920s, when the psychological theory known as behaviorism took hold. Behaviorists said that any animal behavior, no matter how complex, could be explained in terms of the interaction of learned responses to stimuli. Behaviorism made it possible for psychologists to carry out rigorous experiments, and so it became very popular.
The problem with animal consciousness is that it’s almost impossible to prove rigorously. Still, there is evidence: not only the common-sense evidence pet-owners provide, but experimental evidence (i.e., “if rats and humans react in exactly the same way to certain situations, and humans are aware of why they’re acting that way, maybe rats are too”) and indirect evidence (certain brain waves that seem to be linked to conscious thoughts in humans occur in animals, too).
Consciousness, argue the scientists who believe animals possess it, is too important to survival for animals not to possess it. When something unusual or unexpected happens, an organism needs figure out how to escape or otherwise cope. That’s when consciousness swings into action, and any animal without it is at a terrible disadvantage.
To me it makes perfect sense to believe that animals have consciousness–as much sense as two plus two equals four; and, as the chimps of Ohio State University could tell you, that’s an equation anyone can understand.