Something like us

Cognitive ethology, and the case for animal consciousness

source: Gail Vines
Based on interview with Donald Griffin
New Scientist June 30 2001
starts p48, 4 pages long

Scientists have tended to avoid the area of animal consciousness, because evidence is not easy to find, but this area can help in understanding animal evolution, and it is questionable to take decisions based on notions that animals lack consciousness. Some understanding has developed of animal communication. Behavourism argues that animal behaviour should be explained by looking at stimulus and response, and that asking about conscious thoughts and subjective feelings is unscientific. Yet we can infer what humans are thinking and feeling through communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Animal communication can also be studied to make such inferences.

The idea of cognitive ethology was developed in ‘The Question of Animal Awareness’ by Donald Griffin, which was published in 1976. The stress is that animal cognition, or ways in which animals process information, think and reason, is important for understanding animal behaviour.

Scientists often argue that animals don’t or can’t do something when evidence is weak. Bees communicate through dances, and may even have consciousness. Honeybees have small, but very complex brains. We tend to assume that hard-wired behaviour that is genetically programmed involved lack of consciousness, yet humans are conscious of sneezing, and much learned behaviour does not have to be conscious. Consciousness may help animals to tackle unpredictable challenges and use their central nervous systems more efficiently. Animals other than humans can dream, and may even have fantasies.