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Neuroscientists Declare Animals Have Consciousness

Philip Low, Author of the Declaration, Goes Vegan

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dolphin and mirror

Studies have shown that dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Updated October 19, 2012

On July 7, 2012, an international panel of neuroscientists at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which states that animals have consciousness and that humans are not unique in having consciousness. The Declaration's main author has since gone vegan. The Declaration can be downloaded here.

The Declaration

The Declaration was written by Philip Low, a researcher with dual appointments with Stanford School of Medicine and the MIT Media Lab and founder of Neurovigil. The signing was done in the presence of physicist Stephen Hawking, with whom Low is working to develop iBrain, a device that reads brain waves and would help Hawking communicate. Hawking suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a. ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. Low stated, "Stephen was not physically able to sign it, but I read the last two lines of the Declaration on his behalf."

The main part of the Declaration reads:

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.

While the scientific terminology of the Declaration may be difficult for a lay audience to understand, the scientists' statements surrounding the declaration are clear. When the Declaration was read at the conference, Low prefaced the reading by saying:

We all came to this consensus that in fact now was perhaps the time to make a statement for the public . . . for people who are not neuroscientists but who in fact have an interest in this topic. Because as our tools are evolving very quickly, some of the conclusions we have are changing. Some of the assumptions we have made are being discarded. It might be obvious to everybody in this room that animals have consciousness. It's not obvious to the rest of the world.

Joseph Dial, rancher and former executive director of the Mind Science Foundation (one of the sponsors of the conference) stated after the signing:

This was a very historic evening. What I observed happening tonight over the dinner was Stephen Hawking with you, Philip, having put this dinner together, is that people finally came to the realization that the way in which we have understood animal consciousness was very primitive and very backward. And everyone tonight said what they've always thought, but they've said it now and signed it in a declaration for the public and in front of the 60 Minutes camera saying that animal consciousness and human consciousness are of such similarity that we have to ask ourselves how we treat animals and why we treat them the way that we do. It was historic. It was groundbreaking.

Animal Research

Animal rights activists will notice that the science underlying the Declaration was based on animal experimentation. This was not an animal rights conference. Research presented at the conference was performed on mice, parrots, dolphins, fruit flies, primates and octopi. While the research was not always invasive or fatal, just keeping the animals in captivity violates their right to live free of human use and exploitation.

Which Species have Consciousness?

The Declaration does distinguish between different types of consciousness. One test for self-awareness is mirror self-recognition, in which an individual recognizes himself or herself in a mirror. According to the declaration, magpies, humans, great apes, dolphins and elephants exhibit mirror self-recognition. However, the kind of consciousness required for decision-making has been observed in many more species, including invertebrates such as insects and octopi.

Declaration Author Goes Vegan

In an interview with the Portuguese-language website Veja, Low was asked how the Declaration affected the scientists. He replied, "I think I'll turn vegan. It is impossible not to be touched by this new perception about animals, especially about their experience of suffering. It will be hard, I love cheese."* Low was serious about the issue. Three months after the Declaration, Low commented, "A person's dinner is another person's pet. In the end, animals do not belong to us, and maintaining the light of consciousness throughout our planet may be more noble than sacrificing it for one's own pleasure. I have gone vegan since the conference, run and lift everyday, have lost 14lbs and have become so robust and healthy that I do not recognize myself in the video."

Also in the Veja interview, Low called for an end to invasive animal experiments: "A first step is to develop non-invasive approaches. I do not think need to take lives to study life. I think we need to appeal to our own ingenuity and develop better technologies to respect the lives of animals. We have to put the technology into a position in which it serves our ideals, rather than compete with them."*

What Does This Mean in Terms of Animal Rights?

The fact that nonhuman animals have consciousness is not news to animal rights activists. One of the basic tenets of the modern animal rights movement is that animals are sentient - they are capable of suffering. We even knew already that octopi and insects are sentient.

But the Declaration is hopefully useful for convincing people that animals are sentient and deserving of moral consideration. While most people who have lived with a pet would agree that their cat or dog is capable of feeling pain, fear or joy, there are still some who say that animals do not suffer, or do not suffer in the same way that people suffer.

Still, whether or not an animal suffers in the same exact way that we suffer is irrelevant. If they can feel pain, they are deserving of rights.

* As translated by Google Translate

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