Are we alone in our self-awareness? Science long thought so but this conviction has cracked in recent decades.
In “Being a Sandpiper“ Brendon Keim recounts his own journey from a focus on animals as types to animals as individuals:
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?
No one who’s shared a close bond with an animal doubts their individuality so science’s blindness in this matter is a little odd. Many scientists saw things differently, of course:
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.
Nevertheless, the view of other species as automatons, driven entirely by mechanisms of stimulus and response, lived on and flourished as the dominant scientific paradigm until very recently.
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.
Emotions and self-awareness are slippery concepts to pin down so the scientific community is rightly cautious about what all this means. Still, it’s impossible to imagine the door that’s now been opened ever being slammed shut again.
As to what these new perceptions might mean for our relationship with these fellow creatures, Keim takes a delicate, laissez-faire stance:
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.
His touch is light, the essay is full of warmth and humility and it’s strewn with delightful little vignettes. I’ll close with one of them:
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. [ . . . ] 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.
P.S. I stole the title “Animal Dreams” from Barbara Kingsolver’s 1990 book of the same name.