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Animal Minds? Yes. Animal Consciousness? No.

The Fallacy of “Animal Consciousness” Is Reflected in Popular Scientific Journalism

It always astounds me when people express surprise at the psychological sophistication of animals. Their amazement seems premised on the assumption that an organism either has a mind or does not. A misguided corollary of this idea sometimes heard is that if an organism possesses a mind, it therefore must be endowed with human-like (or at least a near-human type of) conscious interiority. The closer an animal is to the human family (e.g., chimpanzees) the more hope there is that we can communicate with it. And of course canine companions and feline friends that moved in with human families many millennia ago are believed to share human emotions.

What Is “Mind” Anyway?

Let’s begin with a discussion of mind to get our theoretical bearings. Mind has two aspects that need to be appreciated when assessing a particular organism’s psychological abilities: Internal and external. The former describes an animal’s neurological apparatus (in which mental capabilities are grounded) and aptic structures (Jaynes’s term for instincts). How to measure an organism’s mental capabilities is debatable. We might start with the number of neurons: 200 for a tardigrade, 2,253,000,000 for a dog, 33,400,000,000 for a gorilla, 86,000,000,000 for a human, 257,000,000,000 for an elephant. Actually an investigation of an organism’s brain size is not a very good measurement of mental capabilities, since neurostructures and interconnections count for a lot more when it comes to what is commonly called intelligence (the current best predictor is the number of neurons in the forebrain).

Matters become even more complicated when we take into account how neurological hardware interacts with the external aspect of a mind. Here “external” means the environment into which an organism is born and presumably for which it has been evolutionarily designed. Besides providing nutrients, ecological surroundings trigger aptic structures and epigenetic processes. A complex neuro-ecological dynamic exists between the world and neurostructures, and the species in question determines what type of interaction transpires between its neurosystem and its ecological niche. Especially for Homo sapiens the external aspect plays a crucial role in survival and adaptation. While some animals do use tools, on this score modern humans are par excellence implement handlers; they not only utilize tools, they also manufacture them. People do more than just manipulate their environment; they build and repurpose their surroundings in an astounding manner light years ahead of any other known organism.

The Myth of “Animal Consciousness”

Popular scientific articles regularly appear with headlines conveying astonishment that animals might have minds and even consciousness. In “What is consciousness like for other animals and when did it evolve?” it is suggested that observable behavior, such as play, requires some form of conscious awareness, and that because animals engage in relatively complex activities, they must possess an “inner life.” Again, animals undoubtedly have complex minds, but no evidence exists to indicate they are conscious. Some researchers make gigantic leaps of faith without any real support. Consider “The Surprisingly Sophisticated Mind of an Insect.” This is a wonderful example of what’s wrong in certain quarters of comparative psychology. The assumption is that if an organism has a neurological apparatus, such as an ant’s 250,000 neurons, it has a mind, and if a mind, then conscious (whatever that is; it’s not clearly defined in this article so it could be perception, reacting to environmental stimuli, cognitive representations, mental imagery, etc.). In this article we learn that “‘Animals need to know what their movements are and what is happening in the world’ … That gives rise to an experience, which is the fundamental building block of consciousness.” Claiming that “experience” equals conscious is not scientifically useful. We also learn that “Even bacteria know kinds of pain and pleasure — they are hardwired to swim toward some signals but away from others.” The article states that it’s anthropocentric to assume that humans are the only conscious creatures. So animals, even insects, must have it too. The irony is that article’s argument is actually anthropocentric since it is projecting human consciousness into animals. To be clear, I agree with this article’s title that insect minds are sophisticated; but that does not mean they are the same as human minds any more than because I have ears and a nose my hearing and olfactory abilities are on par with my dog’s.

In “Assume that animals have feelings too, say cognitive biologists” it is pointed out that while researchers believe animals have emotions (basic physio-behavioral responses related to adaptation and survival), the question of whether they possess “feelings” is more debatable. While the emotional life of animals (in particular mammals) is more much subtle and complex than we often assume, it is highly doubtful that animals have “feelings” per Jaynes (i.e., consciously interiorized affects). The problem is how we define “feelings” (here we can see how our current terminology is inadequate for the scientific challenges at hand). In “A Two-tiered Theory of Emotions” Jaynes described feelings when he argued that the “new human capacity” — consciousness — stretches out affects over an imaginary spatialized time. This allows us to “dwell on past behaviors or on possible future behaviors and respond to them as if they were presently occurring, with copies of the affects themselves.” There’s no ethological evidence that animals can do this.

Minds and Mirrors

An oft-cited piece of “evidence” that at least primates possess near-human consciousness are accounts of them reacting to themselves in mirrors. But a world of difference separates stimulus-response cognition (a monkey “recognizing” its body in a mirror) versus a person conceptually “recognizing” his or her self. Despite their psychological sophistication, a primate lacks the complex, convoluted, highly symbolic understanding of self that humans acquire over years of socialization. The reason is simple, but one apparently lost on some highly trained people who should know better: A primate is not neurologically equipped to be enculturated like a person. This means that any mental representation of self they might possess operates only in a cognitively primitive, elemental dimension by human standards; the representation simply cannot symbolically recruit other associations to form semantic networks that undergird narratives, definitions of selfhood informed by collective experiences, linguo-conceptualizations, etc. Primate minds are not human minds, any more than elephant trunks are human noses.

See also: Myth 9: “Gordon Gallup’s ‘mirror test’ measures consciousness”

Learn more about Julian Jaynes’s theory by joining the Julian Jaynes Society and reading our publications.