I'd say it's pretty obvious that animals are conscious, possessed of emotional and cognitive abilities, wouldn't you say?
I mean, the etymology of animal is the Latin animale "living being, being which breathes," neuter of animalis "animate, living; of the air," from anima "breath, soul; a current of air", so clearly even the ancients recognized this fact. It was only from about the beginnings of the 20th century, with the rise of the behaviorists, and the stricture to avoid any anthropomorphism in ethology (the study of animal behaviors) that we treated animals as machines. That has resulted in some pretty gruesome experiments.
Virginia Morell's book is more than just anecdotes about animal behaviors. More and more evidence, in the form both observation and statistics, tell us that not only are most animals conscious, but, in their own way, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of suffering.
(Is that going to stop me from eating things that have a face? Unlikely. I have a very well developed cognitive dissonance built up in that department. And besides, the things that don't have a face are - with exception of shellfish - not particularly palatable. I myself have killed and eaten chickens, and the only traumatic part that I could see was the distress they suffered in me trying to catch them. So, I'm gonna eat animals, but I do think our food animals should be treated and killed in as painless and humane a manner as is humanly possible).
In any case, Morell walks us through the animal kingdom, and the people who study them in a very engaging and easily read book. She's starts with ants and ends with apes. Along the way, we hear about fish, birds, rats, elephants, dolphins, dogs, and chimps. I've no need to write about the latter three. I think everyone agrees that those animals have got it going on brain-wise.
So, the chapters on the "higher"(forgive me for employing the outdated notion of the ladder of superiority) mammals and birds I sort of skimmed. I was much more interested in finding out how the "lower" orders fare.
Ants, for example, are fascinating. At least, when we were kids, my younger brother thought so. We'd find him out in the yard, sitting still, and watching ants. He'd pick a rock or a brick and expose the egg chamber. We'd ask him what he was doing, and he would say "Watching the young leebles". It turned out the "young leebles" were the pupae, which the ants, in what seemed a panic, actually very purposefully rescued from exposure and secured down further within the nest. Those ants weren't panicking, they were efficient, fast, businesslike, admirably competent in their tasks. Would that some individuals I know possessed the intelligence of those hives, those nests, life would be a lot simpler.
Are ants conscious? Your average ant possesses about a hundred thousand neurons in its brain, which is tiny. We humans, with our hundred billion neurons and ten times as many astrocytes and glial cells sneer at such a number. But that's not the way to look at them.
The brain of an ant is a gem, a real jewel of a brain.
It ants were made of semi-precious stones, perhaps we'd appreciate their behavior better. But the one thing we notice about an ant is how smart they really are. I mean, as multicellular creatures go, I'm starting to think that the term instinct is useless. There is some seriously complex computations going, all the way down to the molecular level. And we find out that not only can ants modify their behaviors beyond the limits of so-called "instinct", it turns out they can learn, they can imitate, they can teach. About this, researcher Nigel Franks muses:
"I would never say that these ants are thinking, but that's what intrigues me - because in many ways, they behave as if they were thinking. They've taught me that very sophisticated behaviors don't necessarily involve thought or language or theory of mind".That's the really fascinating part about this book. When it comes to artificial intelligence, we humans really have a long way to go to even approximate something as "simple" as a fish or an ant colony.
Speaking of fish, that was one of the disturbing chapters. A study was done in Great Britain and the questions was asked, "Are fish conscious?" but really the question was "Do fish suffer?".
And the answer, according to Victoria Braithwaite, a fish biologist at Pennsylvania State University, was "Yes". Not only do they feel pain, they are cognizant of it, and the upsetting thing is a neuronal map of pain receptors has a large concentration around the lips. I say "upsetting" because I like to fish. I'm not fanatic about it, haven't fished in years as a matter of fact, but when I do fish again, I'll be using barbless hooks.
So, I guess the next question is, what about insects? Can insects suffer? Am I gonna end up a Buddhist? Not bloody likely.
To summarize my reading experience, light summer reading with occasional delightful anecdotes and insights.