The Mystery that Unites Us All

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From birds and bees, to orangutans and octopuses, we are bound to every creature by the gift of consciousness

By DAVID STEELE

Dave and Tasty2

BESTIES: David Steele and Tasty, circa 2006.

My friend Tasty was very special to me. She was incredibly bright. She’d engage me in play and tell me what she wanted me to do. Deaf from birth, she was a dog – an Australian Shepherd, to be precise. She understood mirrors; she was surprisingly good at figuring out what I was likely to do next.

Tasty was born in a research facility in Virginia. When the experiments were done, she was scheduled to be killed. Fortunately for her and for me, a brave veterinary student spirited her away instead. Through a short chain of events, she came to live with me and spent all but the first ten months of her 17-year life as one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.

I remember very well the time, a few years after Tasty moved in, when a friend of mine called me early one morning. This friend, who lived a three-hour drive away, told me that a mutual friend was in town and that it would be great if I could visit. I agreed, but told her I would first have to walk Tasty, who, of course, would be coming along. As Tasty and I headed out for that walk, Tasty would have nothing of it. She made a bee-line for the car instead. Profoundly deaf from birth, she had somehow figured out that we’d be heading out for a drive that day.

I can tell you more about Tasty. About how she’d hug people she loved and would remember how to navigate complex paths in places she once lived – years before – to find old friends or to get a treat that she expected would be at the end of the line. Tasty was bright. There’s no doubt about it. But really, she was unexceptional. The vast majority of creatures on this planet are pretty much as capable. Tasty, like you and me and pretty much you name the animal, was conscious.

And wow is consciousness amazing! To me, it is the essence of what it is to be a person. It is awareness, the ability to experience. We all know we’ve got it, but we don’t really understand what it is. Physicians define it by simple test, ranking humans’ consciousness on a scale ranging from full alertness and responsiveness, through states of delirium, and all the way to what they consider a complete lack of consciousness, defined by a complete lack of responsiveness to painful stimulation. Still, this is just a practical definition. It doesn’t get to what consciousness really is.

It’s a question that has eluded the greatest of minds for millennia. Philosophers have puzzled over it and scientists, too, haven’t been able to figure it out. Some claim consciousness is an illusion. The vast majority of us would disagree with that, I think – and with good reason. I include myself on that one. But still, try and tell me just what it is.

The theories to explain consciousness vary wildly. Some say that mind and body are separate; others say mind and body are the same. “Consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe”; “it’s a side-effect of how our brains are organized”; “it works like a machine”; “it works because of the spooky properties of quantum mechanics.” The list goes on and on. Put the theories together and what do you get? An unintelligible mess that still doesn’t explain what consciousness is.

DaveSteele dog side bar for webMe, even though I don’t understand it, I think it’s physically based. We know that we can modify it by drugs – even eliminate it, e.g., for surgery, then bring it back at will. It disappears every night, too, as we sleep. That, to me, says that it arises as a property of our brains. And again, looking around, as my experience with Tasty showed me very well, it’s pretty clear that we humans are nothing like the only creatures on this planet who experience it.

Dogs and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and crows all clearly share the basic experience of life that we do. Fish, too, show clear signs of conscious awareness. Charles Darwin saw it even in the lowly earthworm. I’m not so sure that he was right about that, but I do know that they can be trained to solve very simple mazes. Fruit flies are much better at solving mazes, though; and they can even learn from each other!

Let’s take a closer look at what we know about the internal experiences of a tiny slice of the trillions of conscious beings with whom we share this planet.

We humans have our biases, so most of what we know about animal consciousness comes either from tests of animal intelligence or studies on a trait that is medically useful to humans: pain.  We look into intelligence because we value that in others; we look into pain mostly because we want to use the understanding we get from pain in animals to figure out how to alleviate pain in us.

On intelligence, know, for example, that orangutans are relative geniuses. They have been known to steal canoes and paddle them away and even to put on humans’ clothing, if given the chance. Returning to dogs for a second, we have good evidence they can recognize the emotions in other dogs’ faces and in our faces, too.

That animals feel pain is obvious. We use rats in experiments on pain because we know that they will react to it like we do and that drugs that blunt pain in them almost always do the same in us. They recognize pain in each other as well, and will try to help when they see another rat in distress. We’ve even learned that fish feel pain and react similarly to us when confronted with it. (That we can perform experiments like these on other creatures says something about the limits of our own consciousness, I’d argue, even if we do it to try to help other humans.)

Some scientists claim that fish are not actually feeling pain; their brains are too different from ours, they say. That, to me, speaks of irrational arrogance. One doesn’t need a similar brain to have fundamentally the same experience and ability. Different structures may well take on different roles in different species. Just look at the intelligence of a crow or a parrot! Or even a chicken!

Birds’ brains are very different from those of humans and other mammals. They lack the neocortex that so many scientists tell us is necessary for intelligence. Yet, they are clearly intelligent. Crows make tools – both in the lab and in the wild. Parrots can do more than mimic words; they can learn to use them in context – and can even use them to answer basic math questions. Chickens can learn to come when called and to accomplish some pretty impressive feats. They can identify colours and patterns and even learn to adjust their paths around an obstacle course according to the shapes of the pylons there.

Pigs and cows and bears and turtles and bees all show pretty clear signs of consciousness. You name the animal, look carefully enough and they’ll likely show it to you. My favourite example of consciousness, though –  the most endearing to me – is the consciousness exhibited by the weird creatures we call octopuses. They’re molluscs, the same class of animals as snails. Yet they are shockingly intelligent. I recommend that you Google the fascinating article, “Deep Intellect,” in Orion Magazine.

shutterstock_274092959Octopuses can solve multilevel puzzles with ease. In captivity, they recognize individual humans and can show consistent affection or distaste toward them for reasons that we do not really understand. Most interesting of all, they are physically so very different from us. They have no skeleton. Their minds may well be distributed across their bodies. Yes, there is a central brain, about the size of a walnut, but most neurons in octopuses are in their arms, and those arms can act independently of the brain.

Life is so incredibly diverse – and so very much of it is conscious. Yes, we humans have a huge advantage – our complicated languages that allow us to pass information across vast distances and generations is our biggest one, I’d say. But, deep down, we’re not that different from our non-human relatives. I agree with Charles Darwin: we differ in degree – and that degree can be substantial – but not in substance.

Dave SteelewebDavid Steele is a retired molecular biologist. He is also the president of Earthsave Canada and a popular public speaker.

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3 Responses

  1. Marie Guerra

    May 7, 2016 9:19 pm

    Great article David! I love articles on consciousness and awareness! Though my view is different from yours, it’s true, we are all conscious!

    Reply
  2. Norm

    June 7, 2016 10:38 pm

    I’ve been thinking of the issues you raise here, Dave.

    I think that there are two problems:

    1. Words like consciousness and experience are really vague; that’s why people can hypothesize that the universe is conscious. If it’s that vague, then this hypothesis may well be true, but then it also doesn’t matter. It’s a dark night and all cows are black. Merriam-Webster defines consciousness as: “the normal state of being awake and able to understand what is happening around you.” Consciousness is not just a set of brain-based equipment that comes ready to work. Our consciousness, as we developed, is increasingly structured by culture and language; our experience of time and space, and even of ourselves is shaped by the language we speak, even by the media we use (e.g. see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_n7gM5fIn0&feature=youtu.be). To take pain as the criterion for consciousness seems strange. How about taking it as a criterion for “sentience” (i.e. feeling and sensation) for the sake of precision?

    2. For better or for worse humans have this thing called culture that accumulates and also changes over time. (Rudiments of culture, of transmitted techniques, like those for accessing food, have been observed to be added to animals’ repertoires.) Culture totally changes us and our experience and consciousness at the same time. Again, think of things like “class consciousness” of Marx or look at histories of reading (e.g. Alberto Manguel). We experience our lives differently because we are a part of culture that has a history, an ideology and more. Our experience is never completely outside of this; I don’t think that other forms of consciousness are ever “inside” of this.

    These distinctions are not an attempt to make value judgments on other forms of awareness; I’m just trying to express what I’ve learned over years in studying consciousness philosophically (phenomenology) and historically (cultural history, starting with Marx).

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