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Further Reading

Column: Deprogram

Self Containers

Do Animals Really Know Themselves?

by Denyse O'Leary

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 34

Do animals have a sense of self? Or is selfhood unique to humans? That's a trickier question than we might at first suppose. In recent issues of Salvo, we looked at problem-solving intelligence in animals. Recapping: Claims for chimpanzee intelligence are generally overrated; on some tests, birds or dogs do as well as or better than chimps. And yes, bonobos use tools, but then so do birds, crocodiles, some fish, and octopuses. But only some species in all these vast animal divisions do so. We don't know why they do and others don't.

Nonetheless, popular science literature routinely claims that apes and humans behave similarly. Apes are said to, among other things, mourn their dead, suffer self-doubt, make dolls, have police, and use innovative, foresighted methods to accomplish goals. The take-home point of all such claims is not that apes think like people, but that people really don't. Hence, brainless jellyfish are said to have purpose, and plants and rocks to have minds.1 Even the internet is said to be on the verge of becoming conscious.2

The culture wars have left common sense on life support. In the 1970s, chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky was raised from infancy as a human child and was even breastfed by a woman. And in the 1990s, celebrity skeptic Carl Sagan was confident that a future Nim would, with assistance, write a memoir recounting such an experience. Nim actually ended up, speechless, in an animal sanctuary. But Sagan, it turned out, had been learning dolphin language in 1961, to talk to ET.

Except, as it happens, Flipper does not speak Dolphinese.3 There is no Dolphinese.

Moreover, problem-solving intelligence and sensory abilities do not constitute a sense of self. If problem-solving ability were all it took, computers would have selves. But they don't. Similarly, a reaction to pain does not show that a life form is even conscious; unconscious humans can react to pain, but as long as they're unconscious, they probably don't experience a sense of self.

A Multi-Layered Concept

So I turned to Australian philosopher Vincent Torley, whose 2007 University of Melbourne thesis, The Anatomy of a Minimal Mind, addressed these questions. He told me:

Neurologists commonly distinguish between primary consciousness (for which the currently accepted indicator is accurate report) and higher-order consciousness, which involves self-awareness. A strong case can be made that mammals and birds possess primary consciousness, and it is possible that some reptiles possess it, too. Cephalopods would also be candidates for this kind of consciousness. Sensitivity to noxious stimuli, learning through conditioning, and the ability to categorize stimuli are found in almost all animals, but these do not necessarily require consciousness.

Higher-order consciousness is commonly thought to be unique to man and perhaps a handful of other animals (apes, elephants, dolphins and crows).

So then I asked him about cats (I have three):

Although cats fail Gallup's mirror test [they don't recognize themselves in a mirror], it may be the case that they possess a rudimentary concept of self. "Self" turns out to be a multi-layered concept. It may mean: (1) this body that moves when I want it to, and that feels my pain and pleasure; (2) this agent with these intentions, as distinct from other agents, who are above or below me in the social hierarchy, and who may have contrary intentions; (3) this thinker of these thoughts, which can be expressed in language. I think a cat certainly has (1) and probably (2), but
not (3).

I think cats probably do have a rudimentary concept of self: My crowd of neutered tomcats live together in a cat gym, fed, amused, and vetted. Freed from the dull distractions of raw survival of the fittest, they frequently quarrel over status issues. Each cat pictures himself as "distinct from other agents, who are above or below me in the social hierarchy."

The Human Factor

But the entire situation in which these cats live is created and maintained by humans. That fact may prove significant. Much natural cat behavior—for example, neurologically triggered self-defense mechanisms—does not require conscious awareness.

But is it possible that the cat that is exempt from the struggle for survival develops, over time, more selfhood in sense (2)? He can safely spend all his energy on a "political" issue: all seek to be Top Cat, but only one can be. An animal with no sense of self in Torley's sense (2) is not likely to seek to change its status, as, for instance, bees and ants do not. I asked Dr. Torley about this, and he replied,

Re a cat's having a sense of self in the second sense that I mentioned: I should mention that C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, was prepared to grant a form of immortality to certain animals such as dogs and cats—but interestingly, he seemed to think that the main beneficiaries would be pets, whose cognitive capacities were somehow enhanced by their interactions with humans—which means that Fido might be immortal but his lupine and vulpine cousins might miss out on the hereafter.

One wonders whether such a resurrected cat would envision justice or humility as an alternative to constant social wars. But that takes us far outside the realm of animal cognition science.

And we need to keep in mind that an underlying motive for all claims about animal "self" is to deny any distinction to the human self. In reality, there is a vast gulf fixed between us that busy researchers cannot begin to bridge. 

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