Being a sandpiper

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Being a sandpiper

'A strangely affecting parade'. Semipalmated sandpipers at Jamaica Bay, Long Island, NY. All photos by the author

Animals have thoughts, feelings and personality. Why have we taken so long to catch up with animal consciousness?

Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specialising in science, nature and technology. His work has appeared in Wired, Nautilus and Scientific American Mind. He lives in Brooklyn.

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I met my first semipalmated sandpiper in a crook of Jamaica Bay, an overlooked shore strewn with broken bottles and religious offerings at the edge of New York City. I didn’t know what it was called, this small, dun-and-white bird running the flats like a wind-up toy, stopping to peck mud and racing to join another bird like itself, and then more. Soon a flock formed, several hundred fast-trotting feeders that at some secret signal took flight, wheeling with the flashing synchronisation that researchers observing starlings have mathematically likened to avalanche formation and liquids turning to gas.

Entranced, I spent the afternoon watching them. The birds were too wary to approach, but if I stayed in one spot they would eventually come to me. They followed the tideline, retreating when waves arrived, and rushing forward as they receded, a strangely affecting parade. When they came very close, their soft, peeping vocalisations enveloped me. That night I looked at photographs I’d taken, marvelling as the birds’ beauty emerged from stillness and enlargement, each tiny feather on their backs a masterpiece of browns. I looked up their scientific classification, Calidris pusilla, conversationally known as the semipalmated sandpiper — a name derived from a combination of their piping signal calls and the partially webbed feet that keep them from sinking in the tidal sand flats of their habitat, where they eat molluscs, insect larvae and diatom algae growing in shallow, sun-heated seawater.

I learned that semipalmated sandpipers are the most common shorebird in North America, with an estimated population around 1.9 million. My copy of Lives of North American Birds (1996) described them as ‘small and plain in appearance’, which seemed unappreciative, especially in light of their migratory habits. Small enough to fit in my hand, they breed in the Arctic and winter on South America’s northern coasts, flying several thousand miles each spring and fall, stopping just once or twice. The flock I’d watched was a thread in a string of globe-encircling energy and life, fragile yet ancient, linking my afternoon to Suriname and the tundra. At that fact, I felt the sense of wonder and connection that all migratory birds inspire. Yet not once did I wonder what they thought and felt along the way. How did they experience their own lives, not just as members of a species, but as individuals?

‘A strangely affecting parade’. Semi-palmated sandpipers at Jamaica Bay, Long Island NY. Photo by Brandon Keim

It was a question outside my habits of thought, and occurred to me only months later, when I interviewed the American artist James Prosek. His compendium Trout: An Illustrated History (1996) had earned comparisons to the great American ornithologist and painter John James Audubon. Prosek’s paintings are indeed beautiful and his book, published while he was still an undergraduate, was shaped by a tradition of field guides and natural histories.

Prosek had not personally encountered many of the trout and salmon species that he painted. Instead, he accepted on faith their place within established taxonomic classifications. But those classifications would soon be rearranged by the application of molecular genetics to the taxonomy of the salmonids, a rearrangement that encouraged Prosek’s deepening appreciation for how varied fish of the same species or subspecies, or even the same watershed, could be. The field guide notion of a species ‘type’ felt inadequate, even misleading. Prosek’s contemplations culminated in the glorious paintings of his latest book, Ocean Fishes (2012): he made a simple but profound decision to paint the specific, individual fishes he encountered. The Linnaean system of classification — a hierarchical naming structure introduced by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1735 — might describe the world and its generalities, implied Prosek, but it could not capture the richness of an individual life.

Several months after meeting Prosek, I was walking in Jamaica Bay on a bitterly cold and cloudless day when I saw semipalmated sandpipers again, running ahead of a pounding surf that caught the afternoon sun and sprayed their retreats with prisms. As Elizabeth Bishop observed in her poem ‘Sandpiper’ (1955): ‘The roaring alongside he takes for granted,/and that every so often the world is bound to shake.’ I wondered what it would be like to be one of them, to run with the flock and feed in the surf, to experience life at their scale and society. Simply put, did they enjoy it? Were they cold? Did they remember their journeys, feel a connection to individuals with whom they’d flown, a concern for compatriots and mates?

Asking those questions made me appreciate just how deeply I’d internalised the taxonomic system against which Prosek strained, as well as the habit of explaining animal behaviour in mechanical terms. I’d regarded the sandpipers as embodiments of their species and life history, but not as individuals, much less as selves. This oversight was not coincidental. The very history of taxonomy and attendant studies of animal behaviour is intertwined with a denial of individual animal consciousness.

Scientific taxonomy began not in the 18th century with Carl Linnaeus but some 2,000 years earlier in ancient Greece, with philosophers who venerated rationality and the power of language. Before them, and especially during humankind’s long prehistory, animal deaths at our hands might have been necessary or justifiable, but they were also seen as unfortunate, and we offered thanks and apologies, as evidenced in paintings, artifacts and ritual.

The most rationalistic of Greek thinkers washed their hands of such sentiments. Aristotle introduced the notion of binomial nomenclature, grouping animals by whether or not they had blood, and whether they lived on land or in water, in a hierarchy with humans at the top. In his view, animals were incapable of any sensations but pain and hunger. Brutal as this sounds, Aristotle was practically an ancient Peter Singer compared with the Stoics such as Zeno of Citium, who insisted that animals felt nothing at all. This view influenced early Christian thought and, eventually, René Descartes, according to whom animals were all body and no mind, no different from the lifelike mechanical toys popular in 17th-century France.

Descartes’ influence is manifest in the infamous words of the French rationalist Nicolas Malebranche, who said in The Search After Truth and Elucidations (1674) that animals ‘eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.’ Not everyone agreed. Notable critics included Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza and Voltaire, but their objections held little sway in an era of triumph for mathematics and the physical sciences. It was an intellectual moment most unfavourable to what could be felt but not quantified. Thus beliefs about animals that would be considered psychopathic if acted out by a 21st-century child became tenets of Western scientific thought and, in this milieu, taxonomy as we know it took form.

The science of taxonomy was driven by wonder and new discoveries in faraway lands, but this was not the whole of it. As Michel Foucault notes in The Order of Things (1966), people had always been interested in plants and animals. What taxonomy satisfied was not simply curiosity but a desire for an overarching order to the world. Linnaean classification was triumphant among dozens of competing, lesser taxonomical schemes, but they all served a common project of bringing nature’s wild diversity to Enlightenment heel, of putting the messy living world in tabular form.

The great beauty of evolution, its essential profundity, is in placing humans among animals, not only in body but in mind

Linnaeus did have an extraordinary eye for detail, and combined his supreme ambition with a simple and powerful system for classification. It worked by comparing a few clearly visible, easily measurable anatomical traits: his natural history was based purely on surfaces. A century later, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier revolutionised taxonomy by introducing comparisons of internal anatomy, but, as far as the inner lives of animals went, this too was a superficial revolution. It was a science of gross anatomy, not of minds, reflecting Descartes’s mechanistic image of animals as assemblages of pieces. By the time of Cuvier, science had an entrenched species-first filter through which nature would be scientifically and culturally apprehended.

‘A strangely affecting parade’. Semi-palmated sandpipers at Jamaica Bay, Long Island NY. Photo by Brandon Keim

Taxonomic science was far, however, from arbitrary. It was, and is, a wonderful means of describing the variations that do exist in the natural world. Taxonomy – or modern-day systematics – provides a language with which it is possible to understand the sandpipers in that crook of Jamaica Bay as being part of a related group including oystercatchers and common terns. With that language, it’s also possible to note that semipalmated sandpipers can live for more than a decade, take mates in monogamous relationships that may persist for years, eat a lot of horseshoe crab larvae while migrating, and have declined in population by roughly one-third since the 1980s.

Most importantly, taxonomy was a scaffold upon which evolutionary theory could be built. Although Linnaeus had believed the variation among animals was an immutable arrangement and divinely apportioned, evolutionary thinkers realised that these were family resemblances, to be elucidated more than a century later by Charles Darwin. And the great beauty of evolution, its essential profundity, is in placing humans among animals, not only in body but in mind.

Just as humans shared physical traits with other creatures, Darwin argued, so we also shared mental traits. The ability to think and feel was just another adaptation to life’s uncertainties and hazards, and, given our evolutionary relatedness to all other living things, it made no sense for them to be unique to us. ‘Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy, and love,’ he wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871). His protégé George Romanes, who was an avid collector of anecdotes about intelligent cats and dogs, thought that animal behaviour should be interpreted in light of our own capacities. ‘Whenever we see a living organism apparently exerting an intentional choice,’ wrote Romanes in Animal Intelligence (1884), ‘we might infer that it is a conscious choice.’

Intelligence is ubiquitous, not just in chimpanzees, dolphins and parrots, but in octopuses, archerfish, prairie dogs and honeybees — a veritable Noah’s Ark of braininess

By emphasising the kinship between animals and human beings, Darwinian taxonomy could have opened the door to thinking about the consciousness of individual animals. But, instead, the opposite happened. Even as evolution’s mechanics were accepted and expanded, the views of Darwin and Romanes on individual animal consciousness were rejected, consigned to cautionary tales of how even the most brilliant scientists can get things wrong. By the 1940s, when the great systematist Ernst Mayr settled on a fuzzy but useful standard definition of a species — as a population with a common reproductive lineage that could interbreed — the possibility of animal consciousness and individuality, so evident to anyone with a pet dog or cat, was largely eliminated from mainstream science. We could accept our animal bodies, and classify ourselves on that basis, yet had to avoid the implication that animals might have human-like minds.

A new age of machines and industry spawned the behaviourism of the psychologist B F Skinner who, echoing Aristotle and Descartes, proposed that animals were nothing but conduits of stimulus and response (as were humans). Seeming evidence of higher thought was an illusion produced by some simpler mechanism. It’s true that behaviourism helped to establish protocols by which animal cognition could eventually be studied in rigorous, scientifically acceptable fashion. But the price was steep: decades would pass before scientists began to allow that some animals might be more than biological automata.

In the 1960s, Jane Goodall was mocked by her primatologist peers for speaking of chimpanzee emotions, such as a mother grieving for her dead infant. Even her use of gender-specific terms for individual chimpanzees was seen as anthropomorphic and unscientific. As the journalist Virginia Morell recounts in Animal Wise (2013), Goodall’s editor at the prestigious journal Nature tried to replace ‘he’ and ‘she’ with ‘it’ in her first manuscript. When the zoologist Donald Griffin wrote in The Question of Animal Awareness (1976) that biologists should investigate ‘the possibility that mental experiences occur in animals and have important impacts on their behaviours’, it was still a radical suggestion.

These days, Goodall is a hero, Griffin a prophet, and studies of animal intelligence ubiquitous: not just in chimpanzees, dolphins and parrots, but in octopuses, archerfish, prairie dogs and honeybees — a veritable Noah’s Ark of braininess. Caveats remain, of course. Intelligence is relatively easy to study, but it isn’t quite the same thing as consciousness, nor emotional life. It’s been less controversial to ask whether rats remember where they stored food than whether one rat cares for another.

Yet even rats, it turns out, feel some empathy for one another. A team at the University of Chicago found that rats became agitated when seeing surgery performed on other rats, and a follow-up study in 2011 found that, when presented with a trapped labmate and a piece of chocolate, rats free their caged brethren before eating. Those who study animal behaviour are still careful when talking about subjective experience — sure, Eurasian jays can guess what their mates want to eat, but who knows if they like each other? — but they’re being professionally cautious rather than dismissive. The average person can safely speculate away: animal consciousness is a reasonable default assumption, at least for vertebrates, and not just in some dim sense of the word, but possessing forms of self-awareness, empathy, emotion, memory, and an internal representation of reality.

Many of the characteristics thought to be important for higher consciousness (such as brain size) and a sense of individuality (in humans and — maybe, just maybe — a few other great apes and cetaceans) aren’t so unique anymore, or are no longer considered very important. Features such as working memory and episodic memory — keeping multiple pieces of information in mind and remembering what has happened, the cognitive fundaments of conscious experience — appear to be widespread. And the environmental challenges that might prompt the evolution of consciousness are widespread, too. Among these is sociality: if you’re going to live with others, it’s very useful to be conscious of them. And the distinction between cognition and emotion is increasingly seen as a false one: certainly in humans, they are more or less inseparable systems.

In July last year, a group of high-profile neuroscientists signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness with the announcement that:
The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

Those other creatures likely include a great many reptiles, amphibians and fish. They tend to be underappreciated because they’re even harder to study than mammals, birds and octopuses, and seem, well, a bit inscrutable. Consciousness is necessary to be an individual, to have unique thoughts and feelings rooted in one’s own experience of life — and the animal kingdom teems with it.

Many scientists still don’t know this, or don’t accept it. The whale biologist Shane Gero is part of a research team that has conducted long-term sperm-whale studies off the island of Domenica in the Caribbean. These studies describe the dynamics of whale families in which children are, in a very real sense, the centre of their lives. Yet Gero told me of being chastised by colleagues for referring to animals by name rather than number. Pressure still exists to think not of individuals, but of general species traits that happen to be manifested in a particular animal. Gero has helped to decode the vocalisations that sperm whales might use as names, something that’s also been observed in dolphins, but this remains controversial. That’s why a visitor to the ‘Whales: Giants of the Deep’ exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York can learn a lot about their skeletons, heart capacity and navigational abilities, but barely anything about their intelligence and social lives — arguably the most dynamic area of contemporary cetacean research.

All those cute cat videos, reliably mocked as a symptom of our unintellectual internet habits, bespeak our era’s willingness to acknowledge the inner lives of companion animals

Not surprisingly, the science of animal personality is still young. Recognition of animal consciousness might be just a first step. Individual differences based on temperament and experience, again so obvious to pet owners, is a new idea in science. For sperm whales, says Gero, such differences were once dismissed as statistical noise or evidence of behavioural maladaptation. The blind spot is hardly restricted to whales. The article ‘Energy metabolism and animal personality’ published in the journal Oikos in 2008 pointed out that ‘personality will introduce variability in resting metabolic rate measures because individuals consistently differ in their stress response, exploration or activity levels….’ Animals that have ‘frozen’ with fear during capture might be misclassified as having high resting metabolic rates, when in fact a motionless rabbit with his heart racing might simply be scared.

This seems like common sense, and in some respects the general public outpaces much of the scientific community, at least when it comes to the familiar animals we live with and know well. All those cute cat videos, reliably mocked as a symptom of our unintellectual internet habits, bespeak our era’s willingness to acknowledge the inner lives of companion animals. Not that they’re tiny humans in kitten suits, of course — indeed, part of the fun in knowing a cat (not to mention watching those videos) is the obvious disparity between their view of the world and our own. But neither are they entirely incomprehensible, per Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enigmatic statement: ‘If a lion could speak, we would not understand him.’ Wittgenstein probably never saw a pair of lion cubs at play

What might it mean to treat all vertebrates as having some form of consciousness and individuality? Animal welfare advocates campaign for the better treatment of companion and farm animals, which is a noble cause. But I am more interested in wild animals, our neighbours in nature. To the painter James Prosek, seeing wild animals as individuals offers a new and sorely needed conservation ethos. Biodiversity and ecosystem services make for well-meaning but often uninspiring rhetoric; they value nature generally, but provide little reason to care for actual creatures in a nearby forest or your backyard. Acknowledged as individuals, those sparrows, salamanders and squirrels are not interchangeable parts of a species machine. They are beings with their own inner lives and experiences.

Does this mean we should never eat a salmon, or cut down a tree to build a house? Not necessarily. We might simply acknowledge the consequences of our actions, and offer apologies and thanks to those creatures we affect. It’s the sort of ethical equation people need to solve for themselves.

For myself, I’d be happy to see a revival of naturalist language, the sort of charming, unapologetically anthropomorphic descriptions one finds in old field guides, written before the ascendance of the 20th century’s airless, specialist vernacular. It’s a voice heard in The Birds of Essex County, Massachusetts (1905) in which Charles Wendell Townsend described a ‘low, rolling gossipy note’ voiced by semipalmated sandpipers approaching other birds. He waxed eloquent about their courtship, the male ‘pouring forth a succession of musical notes, continuous wavering trill, and ending with a few very sweet notes that recall those of a goldfinch… one may be lucky enough, if near at hand, to hear a low musical cluck from the excited bird. This is, I suppose, the full love flight-song.’ It is the language of a man who cares.

I’m happy to know simply that the birds I’ve seen have their own private worlds, their own sense of light and companionship

And what of the semipalmated sandpiper, a few of which I last saw at low tide on Labor Day? Is it appropriate to use words such as gossip and love, to think of their self-awareness? I put the question to the British ornithologist Tim Birkhead, whose latest book is Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2012). He told me he couldn’t recall any behavioural tests of sandpipers, nor rigorous comparisons to crows or parrots, but still, he said: ‘You can guess that they have more sophisticated cognitive abilities than most people would give them credit for.’ Given everything we know about animal consciousness, and the primal nature of both our own emotions and our social bonds, it certainly seems reasonable to err on the side of personalising the birds.

Birkhead told me an anecdote about a red knot — Calidris canutus, a close relative of the semipalmated sandpiper — found injured in 1980 on the north Dutch coast by a middle-aged couple. Jaap and Map Brasser named him Peter and nursed him to health. Peter never flew again, and lived with the Brassers and their dog Bolletje for nearly 20 years. Each afternoon he received half a loaf of bread, not so much to eat as to peck; Peter felt an instinctive need to forage, and became agitated if he couldn’t. At night he rested quietly at their feet, stirring when wildlife shows came on television. He and the dog became companions. Years after Bolletje died, recordings of his barks brought Peter running.

That Peter would bond with a dog isn’t so unusual. Red knots are social birds and, as we’ve seen, sociality is a great evolutionary driver of consciousness. What was unusual was a change in Peter’s internal clock, which naturally guided his migratory transformation. Rather than following the seasons, it became synchronised to his new family. Ornithologist Theunis Piersma speculated that Peter ‘developed his own personal cycle and … stayed red as long as possible hoping that Jaap, Map and the dog would also become fat and change colour, after which they would all depart for Greenland.’

Of course, the Brassers knew Peter well, whereas I’ve only glimpsed semipalmated sandpipers. I can’t truly know what goes on their heads. Yet at some point this becomes irrelevant: we can’t ever really know what goes on in another person’s mind, but we manage all the same. I’m happy to know simply that the birds I’ve seen have their own private worlds, their own sense of light and companionship. They go to sleep expecting to wake again. Perhaps they have names for each other. I just don’t know what they are.

Read more essays on bioethics, consciousness & altered states and ethics


  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Animal s have consciousness but not fully developed just like men.I had seen tears in she Buffalo when her calf died.They did not speak that why we don't understand their sorrow their joy.I guess their consciousness is same as ours only gap is we can speak they don't. Might is always right this principal is only reason men killed them,eat them destroy them.This is a law of nature may be animals unconsciously know that is why they never protest

  • ArchiesBoy

    Beautifully written; the man has a way with words, all right! However, I would be very wary of a serious discussion of the inner lives of other creatures. Whatever they feel and however they think — even though it may seem to approach something like human thought and emotion at times — we'll never really know their creaturely concerns. Let's not do anthropomorphic projections.

    • mijnheer

      At the same time we should avoid what primatologist Frans de
      Waal calls "anthropodenial" – that is, "a blindness to the
      humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics
      of ourselves." Anthropodenial, far more than anthropomorphism, has
      hindered progress in our understanding of other animals, both scientifically
      and ethically.

      • paul wright

        Cats, dogs, monkeys etc have frontal cortexs and act in a way similar to human beings. Therefore there is reason to believe their experience may be similar to ours.
        Birds have developed intelligence without a frontal cortex - there is no reason to believe that we have similar experiences.
        Snakes have no frontal cortex nor any intelligent behaviour. There is reason to believe the do not experience what we do.

        • G

          None the less, snakes experience _something_, otherwise they would not be able to find food, reproduce, and avoid predators. What it is that they do experience, is an interesting question for science, that will not remain inaccessible forever.

          The Big Unspoken Thing, the proverbial elephant in the room, is that neural computation _within the neurons_ is likely to be far more complex than the chripy advocates of artificial intelligence would like to believe. This is how we end up with some kind of consciousness in snakes, and even free will in fruit flies (Brembs, Maye, et. al., "Order in Spontaneous Behavior", PLoS One).

      • Al_de_Baran

        Your evidence for that last statement, other than mere personal assertion?

        • Carol Woodson

          Negative reaction to Clever Hans hampered for years until overcome finally by researchers like Goodall.

        • mijnheer

          This may not satisfy you, but here's de Waal on the negatives and positives of anthropomorphism:

        • Rona

          A simple reason for the claim of ethical hampering is to consider what is at stake: if we overestimate some animal's capacities and thereby limit our exploitation of that animal we may lose out on some potential gain for us. That is a serious loss in some cases but most animal usages are not like that, because most uses are today in the rich world a pure luxury: someone preferring the taste of fried animal over other food, someone preferring a coat or shoes made out of the skin of a killed animal rather than some other material. Compare this to the other possibility - that we seriously underestimate animal's capacities and so exploit them in ways that in fact are tortureous, degrading and deeply morally wrong. Millions or billions of animals oppressed! That amounts to an enormous risk and that is why we should err strongly on the side of animals. Unless we are absolutely certain that an animal isn't sentient and doesn't have some capacitites that, if present, would make our use of the animal wrong then we should indeed assume that it has those capacities.

          • G

            Thus, a scientifically supportable concept of Original Sin is that animals must kill other living organisms (plants and other animals) in order to live.

            Animals that are insufficiently developed to have any awareness of the suffering of the animals they eat, are absolved by way of structural incapacity.

            Absolution for humans entails a) reducing cruelty to other animals as far as possible, including in our slaughter of them for food, b) reducing the consumption of animal products as far as reasonably possible, which for some individuals may entail vegitarianism or veganism, and c) developing synthetic means of producing "meat."

            However, even vegans kill plants in order to live, unless they rely solely on fruit, nuts, and the like, that are "shed" by plants. And while we know of no mechanism by which plants could have anything approaching self-reflective awareness, we do know that plants use chemical means of communication with each other, which entails collection and storage of information in order to communicate.

            In the unlikely event that it was found that plants have some way of experiencing their own existence, and experiencing pleasure and pain, we would face the moral issue of developing artificial food sources that do not have these characteristics.

    • M Collings

      Totally agree. Lets focus on trying to understand ourselves first. There is still so much we dont know about ourselves.

      • willbm

        The argument would be that a simpler consciousness is easier to study, the complexity of ours vastly out weighs our technology. After all we're monkeys with upgrades!

        • Dagwood

          Not sure about our "grades" being "up" compared to monkeys, but your point is right. An old psychology professor of mine, who'd studied dolphins before he studied human cognition, used to say something like, "we shouldn't anthropomorphize about humans so much". Brilliant. As this article argues, animals are likely more like us than we think. But we are also much more like them than we like to think.

      • Coma

        There are valid arguments that no system can describe itself accurately, theoretically making it flat-out impossible to truly understand ourselves.

        • M Collings

          I agree with this. Analysis can deconstruct elements and moving parts in a small sense. We would need some form of omniscient synthesis ability (godlike in a sense) to understand it all and its questionable whether with the our limited minds and senses we could ever even being to attempt such a thing.

      • Richard Morris

        But might not the study of other animals actually help us to understand ourselves? We tend to think of ourselves as something special, the progress of science has tended to defuse that idea. Just as flocking behaviour in animals can be modeled by mathematics so can the behaviour of crowds of humans. We like to think we are special with emotions and intellect but the more we study we find that we are just another animal species that has specialised certain aspects.

    • G

      Never say never.

      At this very moment, astronomers are looking for evidence of other life-bearing planets, and some are engaged in the question of how to communicate with other civilisations in our galaxy. Some of the latter have from time to time made the point that what we learn from studies of communication with other species on Earth will have direct relevance for approaches to communicating with other intelligent species in the universe at-large.

      Think of your cat, and those birds on the beach, and marine mammals, and great apes, etc., as quasi-alien minds.

  • Kathy K.

    Thanks Brandon for an absolutely beautiful and soulful analysis of the inner lives of birds and other animals.

  • Mikal Deese

    It has been my privilege to spend time with many individual wild birds through my work as a wild bird rehabilitator. They have taught me that while each species has it's own general view of the world, each individual is unique. I observe that the individual differences are influenced by inborn personality as well as by life experience, just as is true with human animals. We understand that we humans have differences in bravery, curiosity, adaptability, sociability, and talents, just to name a few traits. The diversity of our reactions to life events makes us more able to cope as a species. Why would we imagine that such diversity would not be present between individuals of other species? We're all just trying to get along, to find something to eat, to reproduce, to live another day.

  • Ralf Funke

    The article describes how the view on whether animals possess something like consciousness changed back and forth in history. Right now as the Cambridge declaration and most comments show most people seem to favor a "they are basically the same as us" view. But that does not make it a fact.

    I happen to agree with thinkers like Julian Jaynes or Daniel Dennett that consciousness is a) vastly overrated, b) based on language, c) not even necessary to define a human being, d) totally absent in animals (or children until the age of 5 or 6).

    That might be wrong but there is certainly some good evidence to it.

    And just like a belief in God in not required to lead a moral life, belief in animal consciousness is not necessary to treat animals with respect as fellow creatures.

    Like Burns says to the mouse: "Still thou are blest, compared wi' me! The present only toucheth thee:"

    • Tedd

      I don't want the thread to get sidetracked into religion, but:

      "...just like a belief in God in not required to lead a moral life..."

      The problem isn't that that statement's not true, but that it's beside the point. Without God, is it possible to explain why it matters if you lead a moral life? That's the really interesting question.

      • scott

        Tedd, I don't think you undestood what he was saying at all.

        • Tedd

          Perhaps you're right, because I can't even understand why you would have said that, so one of us has definitely missed something. Can you elaborate?

          • scott

            Gimme a sec to get on Skype

      • Renzo Bruni

        Yes Todd there is morality without theism, and its "usefulness" is very much more immediately demonstrable. It matters that you lead a moral life because, if the morality is humanistic, you can live more peacefully with other humans.

        If the morality is theistic or traditionally karmic (as in the Bhagavad Gita) the well being of the living, embodied humans involved becomes secondary to imaginary (hearsay, faith based, divine, scriptural) goals.

        • Tedd


          Thank you for your reply.

          The nub of the issue I was trying to get at is: Why does it matter if you live more peacefully with others? The same question can be applied to any reason one might give for living a moral life.

          Before replying, you should know that, while not a humanist, I am an atheist. I'm an atheist who has spent decades looking for an answer to the question I posed. Many other atheists I've spoken to claim to have the answer, but upon further investigation I discover that, like you, they simply have not understood the question, or have opted for a non-answer.

          For example, some atheists believe that it simply doesn't matter. There's no objective measure of what is good or bad, or even better or worse, it's just what we agree on collectively. I have no counter argument to that; it may well be true. But it destroys morality in the process of answering the question. Which is okay if it's true, but a bit of a disaster if it's turns out not to be true!

          Others take a more utilitarian approach: Morality doesn't "matter" in any objective sense, but we can define "better" or "worse" in human terms, by figuring out what "works" -- for example, by figuring out what enables people to live together more peacefully. The problem here is that we still haven't addressed the question of why it matters if people live together more peacefully. Does it matter to nature if humans live together peacefully? I'd like to think that it does, but I know of no evidence to support that assertion. And I'm not even sure what "matters to nature" would mean outside of a God-like concept.

          If you step back and try to take a truly rational, atheist perspective, you'll find that this question is not easily answered. Many people much smarter than I am have tried, but it doesn't appear to me that anyone has succeeded. (Although I admit that I have not yet read, much less understood, every philosopher who has dealt with it.) Every other atheist I know either doesn't bother to even ask the question, or simply gives up and accepts on faith that it somehow matters that we live moral lives.

          • Renzo Bruni

            Any human judgment of us humans is limited by 1) our humanity (psychology, education, sensoria, culture, prejudices, mentation, etc) and 2) our being the subject and the operator of the evaluation (as opposed to totally beings other, different, alien, better or smarter than us. I know you know this. It also addresses why all religious, divine or sacred teachings sound like the same kinds of judgments we humans make about other humans outside our tribe, religion, skin color or economic stratum.

            The practical effect of 1 & 2 above (being humans looking at humans) is that any measuring stick we choose to measure ourselves is invariably flattering and sympathetic; we can’t imagine otherwise. There are many rulers: nature, god, history, the future, peacefulness, harmony, ecology, the children, quality of life, wealth, et et et etc. All are of necessity human constructs. If you are asking what is the most exhalted, refined or accurate measuring stick to use – it depends...

            Why does morality matter? It doesn’t unless we decide collectively that it does, and overwhelmingly, although clearly with great fallibility and variation, humans have said over and over and over again that it matters. And they have used many measuring sticks to validate their imaginations, prove their inventions, and propagate their convictions.

            So…. it does clearly matter to humans as a species. Imagining that morality really doesn’t matter, is the same kind of imagining as imagining that it does matter.
            This is the answer then - that there is no absolute, unmistakable, objectively valid, undeniable answer to your question. It simply does matter to us, doesn’t it? Otherwise you wouldn’t think so hard about why it matters at all?

          • G

            At risk of jumping into the fool pool, I'll offer the following:

            Morality can be measured objectively by observing the behaviours of humans and other animals, and deriving normative generalisations from those observations. For example all organisms seek to preserve their own lives (counterexamples such as altruistic self-sacrifice don't invalidate the generality), therefore wanton killing is wrong, but killing for food or individual/collective defense is acceptable. There are more examples of this type, involving pleasure vs. pain, freedom vs. enslavement, etc.

            "Humans living peaceably" is morally correct because it promotes the darwinian success of our species: such as by enabling the development of science, medicine, and so on that prolong life and prevent extinction. Ultimately, by enabling migration to other star systems so that the lineage of Earth-originated life will continue after the Sun has increased in luminosity to the point where life on Earth is no longer possible. Interstellar migration depends on an absence of global conflict and sustainability crises, for the duration of time needed to succeed (thousands of years to tens of thousands of years). If we crash the Earth's biosphere or engage in world wars with modern weaponry, we will destroy the basis of our science and technology that could enable us to migrate: thereby becoming a cosmic Darwinian failure. This is merely an extension of the generalisation that "life seeks to live," where the Golden Rule is applied to our relationship to our distant descendants.

            I could go on if you're interested; and I'll be publishing this stuff at length elsewhere later this year.

          • Tedd


            Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

            Your "darwinian success" argument begs the question of why it matters that we follow a path that leads to "darwinian success." Nothing in nature "cares" whether our species survives. (Absent a God.) Nor, presumably, does any other species (except perhaps domestic dogs). So the value of "darwinian success" is purely subjective, unless there is some as-yet unidentified principle that it serves.

            And, frankly, we have no way of knowing whether peaceful coexistence will be essential to our next evolutionary step anyway or if, like sharks, it would slow our evolution for lack of environmental stresses.

            I actually believe that there may well be an as-yet unidentified principle that our continued development as a self-aware, self-willing, intellectual species serves. But it remains unidentified. (Absent a God.)

          • G

            Subjectivity is a property of minds, and minds exist in nature; therefore subjectivity exists in nature. (That or Cartesian dualism is true and we are souls that have only a tenuous relationship to anything physical.)

            Something in nature does care about whether our species survives: that "something" is humanity or post-humanity, and all of Earth life, at the point where the increase in solar luminosity threatens to sterilise the planet.

            Hypothetically, other intelligent species in our galaxy, who may be aware of Earth, may also have a philosophical stake in Earth life, on the basis that propagating life and intelligence in the universe is an inherent good.

            Do you know of even one long-lasting civilisation whose collective mythos concluded with "and then we all chose to perish"...? Do you know of even one species whose members make no effort to preserve their own existences?

            Life seeks to live; and given the choice, those who are living a half billion years from now will, if they have the means, choose to seek other planets with stable stars. They will take with them other Earth life as needed, and thereby preserve the lineage of Earth.

            Our task is to not cheat our descendants of their choice to live. And, proactively, to continue the progress in science and space exploration that will enable humanity to exercise the choice as soon as in a few thousand years.

            The history of humanity shows that peaceful coexistence produces progress in the physical and cultural wellbeing of humans. The fact that we have also made leaps in technology and culture during and as a result of periods of global conflict, reached its logical limit with the hydrogen bomb, whose very existence has demanded peace between the major powers.

            At risk of another leap into the fool pool, I think I've identified the natural principle that underlies the development of increasing complexity and diversity of organisms, thus the cause of "our continued development as a self-aware, self-willing, intelligent species." The key distinction between nonlife and life, is that nonlife is entropic and life is syntropic. That is, organisms are dissipative structures that convert ambient entropy-flows into metabolism, reproduction, and stored information. This is universal and inexorable. At some point on the phylogenetic scale, the thresholds are crossed to consciousness, intelligence, and culture. Culture produces science and technology, that one day will enable us to transcend extinction by making the cosmos our home.

            So another task we face today is to develop "cosmic consciousness," the real and compelling recognition of our place in the universe at-large. That will be a major step forward for human cultures, and when it fully takes root, it will also spell the end of global conflict, because we will recognise that the key distinction is between life and nonlife, that life in the cosmos is precious, and that intelligence is all the more so.

            As for the existence of deities, that's an empirically undecidable question; but we know that human brains vary widely in traits that correlate with a wide range of beliefs about deities. The outcome of those two points is that freedom of beliefs with regard to deities is an inherent property of humans that should be respected by human cultures, in the same manner as other aspects of personal autonomy that are based in our physical existence.

      • ABK

        Tedd, it matters because we are social animals and we are happier when we are helping others. It's how we're wired. A human doesn't thrive in isolation. None of us got here alone. This is a fact of biology and religion is not needed to explain it.

      • G

        Theists, atheists, and agnostics, each may lead moral or immoral lives, depending on their own individual nature (personality, brain-wiring). If a person is motivated to do good, they will do good and find an explanation. If a person is motivated to do harm, they will do harm and find an explanation. The explanations may or may not invoke something greater than self (deity, philosophical principle, nation, etc.).

        An individual whose morality is truly internally motivated will tend to act morally with greater consistency than someone who is merely seeking to gain rewards and avoid punishments. By comparison, the subtle distinction between "be a law-abiding citizen" vs. "avoid getting caught."

        For this reason, in the spectrum of religion, "God-loving" beliefs produce better attitudes and behaviours than "God-fearing" beliefs, and in the secular spectrum, love and compassion for others produce better attitudes and behaviours than fear of punishment.

        The common ground between religious and non-religious sources of morality has to do with deeply-felt concern for the wellbeing of others and for the consistency of one's own actions.

    • Eamon Caddigan

      If consciousness is based on language, then most social animals WOULD have some form of it. Even animal societies are reliant upon communication. Sure, it's not as sophisticated as human language, but that's a matter of degree -- not kind.

      • Ralf Funke

        Having a language is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. According the Jaynes’s theory people developed a consciousness only about 3000 years ago but had a language (and culture) many thousands of years before that.

        • Eamon Caddigan

          Ah, but Janes's bicameralism clearly comes out of the tradition that views consciousness as a uniquely human thing. This article is about how the scientific mainstream has been abandoning that position in recent years.

      • Mark

        Jaynes would call these "communication systems." It's a very different thing from human language and insufficient in his view for developing an introspectible mind-space. For a related discussion that dovetails with Jaynes's ideas see the chapter "The Limits on Thinking Without Words" in Bermudez's book "Thinking Without Words."

    • G

      If you define consciousness as awareness of one's own existence, children have it well before age 5 or 6, speaking from experience and clearly-recalled memories back to at least age 3. The plural of anecdote != data, but early childhood consciousness is a testable hypothesis via communicative and related behaviours matched with brain imaging, correlated with similar behaviours and brain activity in older humans. Failure to find consciousness in children in prior experiments is almost certainly a result of poor operationalizations of variables.

      Clearly animal consciousness is not the same as human consciousness: a cat has what it needs to be a cat, a human has what it needs to be a human, and so on. Natural selection is parsimonious.

      As for Jaynes and Dennett, a) "not even wrong," try living without consciousness and tell us how it goes; b) anthropocentric view of communication, not objective science, c) also "not even wrong," same thought-experiment, and d) falsified by newer empirical evidence.

      Theology is not relevant to the question of whether humans or other animals have consciousness. Theists and some agnostics may raise the question of whether consciousness in humans and other animals is in some way related to a hypothetical "mind of God," but that is an entirely separate issue.

    • A Conscious Animal

      Consciousness totally absent in children under 5, eh? Funnily enough, I can remember incidents in my pram and high chair (and yes, I was a lot younger than 5 at those times) - this was back before I was conscious. I remember emotionally blackmailing a babysitter from my high chair after she broke my favourite bowl. I remember the shock, anger and a desire to hurt. So I cried and cried and refused to stop.

      So sorry Ralf, you seem like a thinking man but I call "bollocks" on this one. You said there is good evidence for those incorrect conclusions but there is none. Check Nagle's famous essay for the reason why.

      Consciousness may or may not be overrated, as per Dan Dennett, but it's not only almost certainly present in us in childhood, but also in many animals. Never mind my own (supposedly unconscious robotic) toddler memories, but observation and numerous studies in animal intelligence and behaviour. If animals are not conscious, then why would they need to sleep. What is the difference between a conscious and sleeping animal? Mere animation? It's clearly absurd.

      It's possible that David Chalmers's philosophical zombies never existed until robotics, or perhaps the very low level forms like microbes, sponges and jellies are purely a series of chemical reflexes. Either all advanced animals are conscious to some extent or none of us are (including humans) and we are unaware that our thoughts and behaviours are entirely reflexive.

      The notion of language being essential for consciousness and used as a basis to deny animal consciousness is also absurd, given that we supposedly superior minds cannot understand the languages of "simple" animals, and for so long used that to declare that they have no capability.

      So in all our tests we try to teach animals our language because we cannot comprehend theirs - which can involve body placement, use of eyes, gesture, scent, etc along with sounds. Imagine being captured by Chinese people and being deemed stupid and unconscious by them because we didn't understand Mandarin.

  • Al_de_Baran

    "[A]s we’ve seen, sociality is a great evolutionary driver of consciousness."

    Octopuses? Orangutans? We've "seen" nothing of the sort, actually (again, assuming that we can conflate intelligence with consciousness in the sense that humans use the latter term, which is debatable). At least the writer uses the indefinite article, which I appreciate.

    Those who are interested in the record of an imaginative, non-scientific attempt to enter into the world of a non-human creature on its own terms should read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker.


      A terrific book recommendation, indeed. Baker's writing in The Peregrine is poetry as prose, and his keen observations will thrill any naturalist, amateur or professional.

  • Ted Schrey Montreal

    I assume all forms of life are a manifestation of consciousness. The central problem seems to be that humans can talk about it, without ever being aware they use rational reflection to do this. And I don't think for a moment thought and consciousness are identical.

  • saksin

    Engaging as this article is, it is marred by some puzzling assumptions, notably that taxonomy (and the species concept) has any bearing on or denies animal individuality or conscious status. A species, or any other taxon, is a population, and populations are collections of - yes - individuals, no two of which are exactly alike and some of which may differ rather drastically. Far from being a new insight, this has always been recognized by taxonomists, whose livelihood consists of ferreting out the natural clusters hidden in the surface variance of nature. What taxonomist was ever discomfited by the fact that in sexually reproducing species no two individuals have the same set of genes? There would be no natural selection without within-population variance. So, neither is individuality in conflict with taxonomy, nor, to be sure, is it particularly relevant to the question of whether individual animals are conscious. The facts of ubiquitous individual differences could be just as they are, while all those individuals spent their lives in the dark night of unconsciousness, as cleverly constructed robots. That most of them do not - but see, hear, and feel, which is all that is needed to be conscious - has to do with the fact that the capacity to see, hear, and feel are most useful attributes to possess in the business of survival and reproduction in a liveley and complex world. And it has nothing to do with sociality, as Al_de_Baran already pointed out. Rather, Brandon Keim seems to employ the term consciousness in some special and unstated sense, something like self-consciousness, but even that does not explain all the peculiarities of his treatment. Finally: large parts of biology never abandoned Darwin's sensible approach to animal consciousness. It was primarily in the United States, under the ice-age of behaviorist dominance in US psychology, that the mind in general was banished from psychological discourse, while ethology, the largely European science of animal behavior, never found grounds for such extremist committments.

  • Dcoronata

    My experience with shorebirds (much of it in Jamaica Bay) isn't as extensive as with passerines (hence the username, which I should really change to Scoronata.)

    Some are extraordinarily intelligent, very curious, and enjoy watching humans almost as we enjoy watching them. Makes sense- their lives depend upon determining threats, learning about potential food sources and survival tools. Catbirds will look you in the eye interrogate you; white-eyed vireos watch cautiously and follow you around to see what you're up to. Yellow warblers try to keep themselves between you and their chicks, scolding them if they get too close. These interactions are precisely what makes birding (or any animal watching) so fascinating and appealing. Never get on the wrong side of a red-winged blackbird, they've got no restraint when females are near and will attack with no fear.

  • bcameron54

    Of course they have consciousness. Not the same as ours or others' but still consciousness in the sense of awareness of self and others. They love and grieve, just as we live and breathe.

  • Charles Zigmund

    Humans are certainly special in that they are the only species to confine other animals in living hells called factory farms, where they are crowded together for months standing in their own waste, choking on ammonia fumes from that waste, and later subject to dismemberment and flaying while awake and screaming. Among the many other horrible things we do to animals. It takes a special mental gift to do such things while turning one’s eyes away from them and then claiming moral superiority to other animals. And pontificating at great length and with multitudes of reply comments on that superiority. Humans do have that gift and are obviously an exemplary species.

    • G

      Exactly correct. As once was done to slaves on the similar justification that enslaved peoples were somehow "less than" fully human. As still is done in places where torture and slavery still occur. As still is done in one translated form or another on the streets in the form of the routine predation of humans upon humans; and as if to make the point, as I write this I hear a police siren in the distance, which may well be officers en route to stop a predator or save a victim.

      And yet. There is progress, slow but none the less. Starting thousands of years ago with cultures from the ancient Jews to the First Nations peoples of North America, where the slaughter or hunting of animals was subject to various strictures based on reducing cruelty and/or expressing respect for the lives of those animals. That line of progress has continued, in fits and starts, to the present day, where arguements such as yours are taken seriously and given standing. That line of progress also includes increasing prohibitions on spousal abuse and child abuse, and on various other forms of brutality in public and private life.

      This is an evolutionary process: the evolution of human cultures toward lesser degrees of cruelty and greater degrees of compassion. It is maddeningly slow, fatally slow for those at the receiving end of the knife, the whip, or the bullet. But the way to hasten this evolution is by relentlessly making the point, and at the same time offering ways forward and concrete actions for individuals who wish to opt into the new outlook.

  • JKwasniak

    Great post. Even though I accept, and have accepted for a long, long time, that animals are consciousness - you have made me think much more broadly about what that means for individuality. Thanks.

  • Brian J.

    I enjoyed this piece a great deal and am reading it as my parakeets are happily chirping away. One quibble: I'm not sure that you have Aristotle right. Although Aristotle made plenty of mistakes in his science, he was actually quite in love with the living world and spent a lot of time doing the very first work on biology (collecting specimens, doing dissections, organizing data). Certainly, Aristotle put humans at the apex of living species because they had rationality, but Aristotle was emphatic that even simple living creatures like spiders exhibited goal-directed action. Aristotle even presciently argued that goal-direction action required neither reason *nor* intelligent design (a notion he would have rejected). If you have the time, watch the BBC documentary, "Aristotle's Lagoon" up on youtube. It does proper justice to Aristotle as a biologist, marking both his weaknesses and his strengths.

  • beachcomber

    Firstly one has to define "consciousness", but if one uses the generally accepted one: being aware of and interacting physically and mentally with one's surroundings through the brain and nervous system, certainly animals fit within this description.

    It seems that the discord arises in whether animals possess an emotional facet of their consciousness. Based on the premise that the greater amount of information a living processing unit like the brain can handle, the greater possibility for the evolutionary mechanisms of capacities like emotion to develop, it seems highly likely that they do.

    By this method one wouldn't ascribe an equal amount of "consciousness" to a jellyfish.

  • scott

    Dogs Rule!!!!

  • Capricious

    "Consciousness is necessary to be an individual, to have unique thoughts and feelings rooted in one’s own experience of life —"

    before I mentioned it, were You "conscious" ? Probably not. You were awake, no doubt, but conscious? As interesting and useful as it may be, it is not the default state in human beings, and animals would possess "it" in no greater proportion.

    The quoted phrase from above, goes a little too far I think, Consciousness, it seems to me would not be required, to have feelings, unique experiences or thoughts, in an ascending order of priority. The quoted phrase may be turned on its head to say
    " to have unique thoughts and feelings rooted in one’s own experience of life, an individual, is necessary to have consciousness."

    Feelings, unique experiences and thoughts would, in my opinion, necessarily come prior to consciousness.

    I enjoyed this article, but it has much more to say about human categories and models than about "animal" consciousness.

    • Renzo Bruni

      Consciousness seems to have many meanings, even many official definitions. Rigorously scientific discussion, such as publications about cognition, cannot take as its subject all of those definitions at once. Rather we test, measure and describe certain, as you point out, 'human' concepts of the constituents of consciouness. This essay is more exhortative, poetic and inspirational than science.

      I was very moved (and motivated) by the imaginative, poetic description of Peter's (the Dutch Red knot) supposed inner agenda when he "stayed red as long as possible hoping that Jaap, Map and the dog (Bolletje) would
      also become fat and change colour, after which they would all depart for
      Greenland". This anthropomorphosis, as you point out, says much about humans while perhaps seeming to say something useful about an animal. But that is poetry.

    • zac

      You only have to go to some slum cities where people have grown upon the streets to see survivalstratexpansion toomnivore al-like human consciousness exists, in some places of the world it's kill or be killed just like in the animal kingdom. Some if not many people's not to distant ancestors were once in a similar situation.

      However continous evolutional growth of human's social and emotional intelligence allowed us to live and flourish in communities. And once you have people living in communities together they have the ability to both easily share ideas and discoveries and develop knowledge and unwittingly share them due to the good ol' mirror neurons. Sharing resources allows for less waste of better usage of scarce resources and as a result less time is needed to be spent on foraging.

      In summary I would like to throw two more ideas into this old thread. In our dark days of survival and expansion to survive we have wiped out a number of not only human species but other mega fauna and their respective food sources.

      Another adaptation that may have helped us conquer the upper echelons of sentient life on earth is our resilient omnivore digestive system

  • lauralu

    and if we stopped to measure other creatures intelligence or any other 'capacity' using a human measure in order to give 'them' rights? shouldn't we just understand that is the difference the point to start from?

  • DrJack37

    Beautiful work by that rare combination of science and open mind, and thanks for it. The great Alan Watts suggests that every living organism, however simple, is somehow on some level an "I." An infinity of protagonists!

    Interesting also that the ideas here of having/showing more respect, even "apologizing" for what we take from nature by necessity, seem to echo the wisdom of many Native American cultures. Life as circles within circles, and "man" is no more important than the ants...

  • Anarcissie

    Consciousness, in the sense of the capacity to experience, seems featureless itself, and might well be an attribute of matter, or of the universe as a whole. The ability to perceive and report things, possibly including a reflective experience of consciousness, would depend on the informational structure of a being's anatomy and possibly society. We could guess that beings with nervous systems and brains would have experiences more or less like our own. Nevertheless, I think Witt was probably at least half right about the lion.

  • Skylar Redding

    You described Skinnerian operant conditioning the same way as classical conditioning. Hell's bells man, you know Skinner accepted organisms act on the environment!

    It's bad enough otherwise respected scholars like Sapolsky repeat this myth. Stop seeding the public consciousness with it!

  • Noland

    A wonderful story about animals as conscious artists:
    "The Author of the Acacia Seeds And Other Extracts from the Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics" by Ursula K. Le Guin: