Animal awareness: The Big Question of our time?
“Is a whale conscious?” As far as I can determine as a scientist, all the evidence indicates that all vertebrates — fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals — appear almost certainly to be capable of sensory experience. In a word, they are conscious. And beyond vertebrates to squid and octopuses and bees and many other creatures, consciousness appears widespread throughout much of the animal kingdom.
Consciousness might seem like a no-brainer to most pet lovers, but I can almost hear some people say, “Not so fast.” Many researchers and science writers insist that we simply have no way to access the mental experience of animals. I understand where they’re coming from. But I think they’re mistaken. We can look at brains, we can consider evolution, and we can tap half a century of systematic observations of free-living animals.
To establish animal behavior as a science in the mid 20th Century, the pioneering behaviorists such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch had to purge centuries of folklore and superstition (owls presage death, wolves are the devil’s familiars) and fables that posed animals as caricatures of human impulses (grasshoppers are lazy, tortoises persistent, foxes tricky). The new scientists had to prove that watching animals could be objective work. And they succeeded in stripping metaphorical projections that had built up on many animals like old coats of paint.