What defines the boundary between humans and animals? The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness states that “comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states.” The Declaration was signed on July 7, 2012 by a group of prominent neuroscientists. It states that animals are just as capable as we are of conscious states, intentional behavior, and affection (a fact crystal clear to anyone who has a pet). The Declaration finds that animal brains can do all the things scientists and philosophers long considered unique to humans. This sure was news: after centuries of thinkers declaring humanity to be unique—the image of God, or the sole lucky instance in which evolution produced consciousness—there is a shift.

I think we can go further. Even the Declaration’s argument is anthropocentric. Moreover, it favors the point of view of so-called Euro-American science, which Sandra Harding, a philosopher of science, has criticized for its roots in colonialism. Think about it: What is clear about the writings of science to my cat? Or to the sparrows that inhabit the trees at the back of my house?

Scientific research understands as little about my cat’s knowledge of the world as she understands about scientific research on her species. Miscommunication runs both ways. I remember listening for some time to some birds in a one of Eifel’s forests in Germany—a rural place where birds can be heard very well. After about half an hour, I walked on, but their complicated conversations were not finished. It was clear to me there was more to their communication than the simplistic conception we were taught in school: the idea that their primitive signs convey no more than the presence of danger, a need to mate, or the availability of food. I felt humbled at that moment, not understanding a word of the song above my head.

As much as the Declaration is a sign of change, its focus on consciousness leaves many questions unasked. For example, when one is unconscious—anesthetized for an operation, say—does one’s humanity come to a halt? Doesn’t the fact that we feel refreshed when we wake up mean that significant things happen while we aren’t conscious?

We might also ask about unconscious decision making—a recent topic of interest in psychology. Dutch researcher Ap Dijksterhuis has argued that in many cases unconscious decision making is more effective and rational than its conscious version. Isn’t that kind of unconscious thought comparable to the intuition we observe in animals—the dog who holds a vigil with his dying owner, or the cat who comes to sit with someone who is sad?

What do animals feel and know about their selves, about us, about the world? We hardly know. They may well be more intelligent than humans. With our current knowledge, it’s impossible to come to definite conclusions.

In the meantime, we seem to have a growing awareness that the gap between man and beast might not be as wide as we presumed (if it exists at all). For example, there have been court cases arguing that great apes should have rights—like Chimpanzee Tommy and Orangutan Sandra. These cases built on what philosophers call “rights of non-human persons.” However, even these examples reflect the limited ideas modern science and philosophy have concerning our own humanity. Even as we let more animals enter the “in-group” of rights-holders, we fail to question why consciousness and rational communication should determine who belongs and who doesn’t.

What would happen if we dared to take other criteria into account? What about caution, affection, persistence, gentleness, or fierceness? Were we to consider them, might not a whole menagerie of creatures pass the test?


Image credit: Wikipedia

About The Author

Angela Roothaan
PhD in Philosophy from University of Amsterdam

Angela Roothaan received her Masters in Philosophy at Leiden University and her PhD at the University of Amsterdam. After several temporary positions as a teacher and researcher of philosophy, she was awarded tenure as assistant professor at VU University Amsterdam in 2002. A passionate writer, she has published five philosophy books in Dutch and many academic articles, which always probe the intersections of science, ethics, spirituality and politics. She also writes a blog with the aim to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower.