Mainstream Science Finally Recognizes The Consciousness of Animals

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elephantAfter over a century, mainstream scientists finally got around to acknowledging something that has been completely obvious to most  – animals are conscious beings.

A year ago at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference, evidence of this obvious conclusion was presented by self-congratulatory scientists, despite the fact that only one of them had actually bothered to do any field research into wild animals and that field researchers had already made the same conclusion years before. As Michael Mountain at the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks to change the common law status of some nonhuman animals as “things”, stated: “Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”

Two of the primary reasons why it has taken so long for the scientific establishment to come to such self-evident conclusions is the nature of the study of psychology and consciousness itself, and the historical cultural values towards animals in the Western world.

The rise of behaviourism at the turn of the twentieth century as the dominant psychological model for the study of human nature represented an outright rejection of conscious and subconscious actions, reducing psychology to a strictly scientific discipline based solely on observable behaviour. Consciousness, it seems, was proving to be too problematic for the fresh-faced psychologists who were desperate for their field to be taken seriously by other scientists, with John B. Watson – one of the strongest early advocates of behaviourism – stating in his 1913 paper, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It:

Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept. The behaviorist, who has been trained always as an experimentalist, holds, further, that belief in the existence of consciousness goes back to the ancient days of superstition and magic.

While behaviorism doesn’t have the tight grip on the academic psychological community it once had, the dominant scientific consensus still has a tendency to reject any unorthodox views on the nature of consciousness. David Lewis-Williams described this as the “consciousness of rationality”, describing this in his book, The Mind in the Cave as follows:

The contemporary Western emphasis on the supreme value of intelligence has tended to suppress certain forms of consciousness and to regard them as irrational, marginal, aberrant or even pathological and thereby to eliminate them from investigations of the deep past.

This suppression has manifested itself in a number of distinct ways. The study of emotions has been frequently ridiculed, for instance when U.S. Senator William Proxmire rallied against researchers in the 1970s who were studying love and deemed the work as a waste of taxpayer dollars, issuing them his first Golden Fleece Award. The subjective nature of emotional states by definition precludes them from investigation by an ideological model rooted in empirical data.

More recently, Graham Hancock found himself under attack from the scientific community and censored by the TED organization for his talk, The War on Consciousness – his major crime against established consensus was to reject the materialistic view which relegates consciousness to nothing more than the product of electrical impulses in the brain rooted entirely in our physiology, and suggest that the use of shamanic visionary plants can teach us that we are immortal souls temporarily incarnated in these physical forms to learn and to grow.

Given the inability for any form of consensus on the nature of human consciousness, it is little wonder that the scientific community has taken so long to concede that animals, particularly birds and mammals, are conscious too.

Another problem derives from cultural values. Historically throughout the West, non-human creatures have been relegated to the status of “dumb beasts” incapable of love or happiness, pain or suffering. Aristotle viewed the function of animals as serving human beings as “natural and expedient”, and the Bible states that animals are there to be used by mankind – while this was originally not intended as a license for abuse, history has demonstrated that as a species humans have failed to adhere to the proverb, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” It goes without saying that the contemporary factory farming model represents the total reduction of animals to unthinking, unfeeling commodities.

Philosopher Rene Descartes, adopting the mechanistic view of the world, infamously described creatures other than humans (lacking, as he saw it, the body-mind duality which made humans uniquely conscious) as “animal machines”, while in the nineteenth century the Zoological Journal declared that all behavior which appears to resemble characteristics of consciousness were actually little more than reflex actions. Often, people who exhibit violent or unreasonable behaviour are described as behaving like an animal, with specific creatures – asses, mongrels, pigs and so on – functioning as pejoratives.

All of this can be seen as an effective way in which humans have historically absolved themselves of responsibility for the manner in which they have historically exploited the animal kingdom for their own ends – the reluctance on the part of the scientific community to acknowledge that animals are indeed conscious can be viewed as a continuation of a willful collective blindness.

Yet the study of emotion in animals should have cleared up the question of consciousness in animals some time ago. As the dictionary defines it, emotion is:

An affective state of consciousness in joy, sorrow, fear, hate, or the like, is experienced, as distinguished from cognitive and volitional states of consciousness.

Numerous species of animals have been seen to demonstrate sorrow. Elephant families are so closely knit – and live for so long – that the death of one of their number can be devastating. They are known to bury their dead and attend the corpses in what appears to be a mourning ritual; they have even been known to bury humans with the same attendant behaviour.

Death rituals have also been observed in dolphins, and a number of primates – many of whom we know to have complex social structures – also show clear signs of mourning. Magpies have been observed conducting rituals similar to those of elephants – Marc Bekoff wrote in his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals:

A few years ago my friend Rod and I were riding our bicycles around Boulder, Colorado, when we witnessed a very interesting encounter among five magpies. Magpies are corvids, a very intelligent family of birds. One magpie had obviously been hit by a car and was laying dead on the side of the road. The four other magpies were standing around him. One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it-just as an elephant noses the carcass of another elephant- and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing. Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass, and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then, all four magpies stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.

Other rituals more commonly observed relating to courtship and mating. In addition to the elaborate displays of birds of paradise, hermaphroditic flatworms engaging in “penis fencing”; male giraffes take a mouthful of the female’s urine then proceeds to stalk her – sometimes, when the female is particularly interested is a certain male she will pursue him and rub her neck against him in an effort to get him to rub her rump so she can urinate in his mouth. Porcupine mating rituals also involves urination, this time with the male peeing all over the female (once she has given him her approval after a bout of nose-rubbing). Male hippos prefer flinging excrement to attract the attention of a female. Some animals deal with sexual rejection in much the same way as some humans, for instance the male fruit fly, who will often turn to alcohol.

Other emotions have been observed in various species. In 2007, a 4 year old Siberian tiger took revenge on three men who had apparently been taunting her – the tiger left her enclosure and ignored hundreds of other visitors to San Francisco Zoo before attacking the men, killing one of them. A similar fate befell Russian tiger poacher Vladimir Markov – after shooting and wounding a tiger and taking part of its kill, the tiger found his cabin and waited for his return before dragging him into the woods and eating him.

University of Chicago neuroscientists have observed compassionate behaviour in rats. Placing one rat in a restraining device while allowing another to roam free, the latter will attempt to release its companion, ignoring any treats available. Professor of psychology and psychiatry Jean Decety said,

There are a lot of ideas in the literature showing that empathy is not unique to humans, and it has been well demonstrated in apes, but in rodents it was not very clear.

Perhaps, given the number of psychopaths amongst the human population, rats are actually more compassionate than ourselves.

A recent book by University of Miami philosopher Mark Rowlands has suggested that animals exhibit human-like traits which go beyond displays of emotions. Can Animals Be Moral? discusses the idea that social animals know right from wrong and can choose to be good or bad. Male bluebirds sometimes beat their mates if they catch them with another bird; monkeys refuse to electric shock one another even when it means missing out on food; a female gorilla by the name of Binti Jua rescued an unconscious 3-year old boy who had fallen into her enclosure, protecting him from other gorillas and calling for human assistance; there are many cases where dolphins have rescued humans from shark attacks.

These small samples of evidence clearly pointing to the rich emotional lives of animals indicates that the recent declaration by scientists regarding the conscious status of animals is a case of stating the obvious – science, it seems, often struggles with basic common sense.

What this sense of superiority and reluctance to acknowledge the capacity for other animals to experience emotions as conscious creatures highlights is an aspect of mankind’s unfailing arrogance. Many of the positive traits exhibited by animals are sorely lacking in our own species. One example might be an incident in my own city, where a young girl on the roof of a shopping mall was goaded by onlookers before jumping to her death – a stark contrast to the respect shown by elephants and other animals. And while it is true that some species of animals are known to commit suicide, there is no evidence that other members of their species look on with a perverse, callous pleasure.

It is the differences between human behaviour and that of other animals which should be the focus of scientific scrutiny. We display a number of negative traits rarely witnessed in the animal kingdom which if anything mark us as emotionally inferior: we lie, cheat, steal and get pleasure from bullying and cruelty, both psychological and physical. In fact, our propensity for violence for the fun of it is believed to be as strong as our drive for sex and food. While aggressive behaviour is observable in a variety of species, most often this relates to defense of territory or mates.

These negative emotions and behavioural characteristics have achieved a kind of supremacy in the contemporary Western world and are most obvious in the upper echelons of society, where greed, power and corruption dominates the elite cliques who shape the ideologies which have the most negative impact on humanity. Cultural and political institutions reflect the psychopathic tendencies of those in charge and the general population, through a form of mass conditioning on behalf of mainstream media and superficial popular culture, becomes infected with the value system of the rich and powerful. In daily life this manifests itself in bullying on the school playground, road rage, vicious serial killers and hierarchical street gangs.

Continuing down the path of negative behaviour, with its vast potential for destruction of both the species and the planet itself, is clearly untenable. But fortunately, the prognosis isn’t all doom and gloom. While the powerful elites continue their drive towards total domination over both the people and the planet, greater numbers are standing up and demonstrating that love and compassion can work as a powerful tool in reclaiming our lives from those who seek to oppress us. Peaceful protests and movements for positive social change are emerging every day as the flimsy facade of “democratic” political institutions crumbles, revealing the authoritarian underbelly ruled by oligarchs and tyrants.

As Graham Hancock demonstrated in his TEDx talk, the old psychological models which allow us as a species to justify our destructive impulses on the planet and everything which lives on it are now facing rigorous challenges.  Rather than being viewed as something barely worthy of consideration, consciousness is increasingly considered as something fundamental to all reality; an interconnected web which ties humanity intrinsically to all life on the planet, and indeed, the universe itself.


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CE provides a space for free thinkers to explore and discuss new, alternative information and ideas. The goal? Question everything, think differently, spread love and live a joy filled life.

  1. Ron

    Anything with life, be it a human, animal, plant, insect, etc. has consciousness residing. We don’t need a laboratory and varieties of evidence to prove it. Just common sense. At another level, what doesn’t have life? All is One. Everything you see and don’t see vibrates at an energy level. And as I once heard it, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” -Albert Einstein Therefore, couldn’t we assume that even our tables and chairs for example on some level contain vibrating energy? ie Life?

    • gusgrunt

      “Anything with life, be it a human, animal, plant, insect, etc. has consciousness residing. We don’t need a laboratory and varieties of evidence to prove it. Just common sense.”
      Absolutely!….. the ancient tribal systems understood this so why has it taken science so long?….. Gus

      • peter

        Because scientists need moral justification for vivisection and the carnivorous majority for the consumption of animal flesh. Not so long ago, Jews, Blacks and Slavs were regarded as inferior to everyone else and therefore disposable material for laboratories.

        • Dead

          Science diverted from the common understanding of non-white racial inferiority over a hundred years ago. And when it did, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the attempts by scientists to contradict what they deemed obvious to the “average man”, a “suspicious” undermining of common knowledge. Led by George Sutherland, they set a legal precedent which threw science and all empirical evidence out the window (something the US loves to do) and relied entirely on the racist assumptions of the conservative justices and to set precedent for the use of common knowledge in matters of race, which reinforced future legal discrimination and exclusion of non-whites. The power of the law in constructing racial categories and maintaining the social order is far more important than that of science, which on large does not support such views. The law influences our ideology and our material reality in ways people often fail to realize when looking to point the finger at someone for all social problems and injustices.

  2. psychology had this inferiority complex because it could not reduce its studies to unambiguous numerical data. now that has improved and the problem of that complex is being shuffled aside. as for snimsl emotion. decartes denied a dog coild feel pain. progressives once drnued full human attribution to blacks snd hottentots. how could they defend the racism without the specism! a clear division was necessary to their own self importsnce. re animal showing rmotion…you neglected stories of india elephants attacking trains where their babies had been killed by those trains…it was revenge. ..not animals protecting turf..otherwise they would have attacked even without dead children to be upset over.

    • Hi Walt, I recall the news story about the elephants getting revenge for the killing of one of their young by a train – obviously in light of space considerations I had to leave a lot of reference out. There are of course countless other examples of animal behaviour which is relevant – I regret not covering in detail the emotional lives of pigs and octopuses and other hugely intelligent, intriguing cephalopods. Perhaps another article in the future will rectify this. All the best.

  3. John

    This article shows an astounding lack of understanding of what science can and cannot do. Science, by its own definition, deals with things it can measure. Consciousness cannot be measured, so it falls outside the realm of science. Criticizing science for its lack of ability dealing with animal consciousness it like complaining about your hammer for its inability to remove/install a screw.

    • steph

      I think that you bring up a really good point that consciousness is very difficult, if not impossible, to measure. I think that part of the reason that consciousness is so difficult to understand, let alone measure, is that there does not seem to be a clear definition of consciousness. One of the articles that I came across while researching this topic was “Are Our Primate Cousins Conscious?” by Elizabeth Pennisi and she defines consciousness very simply by saying that: “At the simplest level, consciousness is being aware of oneself and others.” Pennisi then continues to develop the definition of consciousness by explaining that there could be other components of consciousness such as creativity, language and having the capacity to put others before oneself. New studies at the time proposed that consciousness involves “the higher cognitive function” that allows individuals to develop a new way of solving a problem instead of following their instinct. The example that was given in this article is when someone sees a cookie he/she wants to eat in a bakery, he/she decides to go up to the register to ask and pay for the cookie instead of following his/her instinct of hunger and breaking through the glass to obtain the cookie. As you can read, defining consciousness is not an easy thing to do, and consciousness does not have just one definition. This article by Pennisi was written in 1999 so we can imagine how much the definition may have evolved.
      As I have stated, lacking a clear definition of unconsciousness makes it very difficult for us to study human consciousness, so imagine how much more difficult it is to study animal consciousness. However, after doing an extensive amount of research into the literature, I have to agree with this article and say that I believe animals are conscious, or at least have the ability to be conscious. While it is true that animal consciousness cannot be precisely measured there are other ways to conduct experiments that are able to give us some insight into whether animals are conscious; this is through the study of emotions.
      Much of the literature I have read examines the ways in which animals express emotions. One of the studies that clearly show that animals exhibit emotions is a study that concluded that bonobos are influenced by their emotions when making decisions, much in the same way that a human’s decisions are affected by their emotions, whether they are positive or negative emotions. I believe that if a bonobo can take his/her emotions into consideration in making a decision, then he/she has to have a certain level of understanding of his/her emotions, which I conclude has to mean bonobos are conscious beings. Another study that I think demonstrates this idea examined the ways in which stress is displayed in chimpanzees. The results of this study showed that when a 14-year old chimpanzee was given an assignment and he did poorly on it, he would scratch himself. If he did well on the assignment, he would rub his arm. In this study scratching was a negative behavior-while rubbing was a good behavior, and this showed that the chimpanzee was aware of how well or how badly he was doing. Another study examined mammal’s vocal ranges to find if the vocal ranges indicate emotions like fear and anxiety. The findings of this study concluded that vocal ranges did in fact indicate emotions.
      I believe that because animals have indicated that they can exhibit a variety of emotions, they possess a certain level of consciousness. I think the real problem does not lie in whether or not animals possess consciousness, but rather in how consciousness is defined. I have to clarify that I do not think animals possess the same kind of consciousness that humans do, but I do think that they have a consciousness of their own, and even the capacity to have our level of consciousness. But the reason this is so contested is that the scientific community cannot even begin to define what human consciousness is, and without that understanding it is premature to deny animal that animals have consciousness.

    • Thanks for commenting John – I agree completely, but nevertheless science DOES form judgments on the nature of consciousness, despite as you rightly point out, being ill-equipped by its very nature of doing so. The fact that scientists made the announcement on the conscious status of animals at the Francis Crick memorial conference supports my assertion that mainstream science often weighs in on consciousness, surely? Psychology and neuroscience are other examples of scientific fields which study consciousness (the point I made about psychology adopting the empirical method with behaviourism being a clear case of how the method is inherently flawed). I think my criticism is fair and clearly laid out, but thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  4. Thank you for the interesting article.
    As much as I never doubt animals´ capacity for emotions and consciousness, I am very carefully avoiding to label human behaviour or character traits as negative or “bad”.
    That is because my understanding of bio-socio-psychology provides insights in the biological root causes for individual character development which are designed to help handle a life of prevailing conflicts. And yes, these conditions can be addressed meaningfully for both the individual and her surroundings.

    Suffering and prolonged pain is something humans produce mostly by expectation and labeling of what is/has been experienced. In nature, pain has a signal function and is terminated. Stephen Porges´ polyvagal theory describes the “freeze”-reaction of a hunted animal not succeeding to escape, in which motoric and sensory responses are being shut down temporarily, giving the animal a merciful death or even an opportunity to survive.
    So when we think that an animal suffers, it does experience pain but not necessarily as we think it would – because these thoughts are our own ideas and associations rooted in our own individual experience or learnings..
    In humans, this same freeze response can be triggered but often not being resolved, which leads to being stuck and re-enacting the original traumatic experience in the unconscious attempt to find the way out.

    Another thing you mention is animals´ability to know “good” from “bad”. These terms need a perspective.
    In pets, this is due to conditioning precisely as in human education. In nature, “good” is what is good for survival of the flock, or even the ecosystem.
    Animals know gratitude for support of their survival, and often show long time memory. So they have a sense of I-ness but would usually prioritize the safety of children/flock over their own. In humans, most mothers have the same priority and rapport.

  5. Wide range of response here! Good article, but I have to lean towards Ms Klapp’s view that this announcement/discovery is more than a bit simplistic.
    As I see it, words have replaced empathy for Humans, in much the same sense as money has replaced trust and faith.
    Animals are empathetic because it is the way they get along.
    My own observations lead me to believe that animals are conscious [as in ‘awake’] as we are, but rarely self-aware, as Humans can be, unless it’s thru contact with people.
    ”Rituals” are not a sign of Human-type thinking. They are group reaction to specific situations.
    It’s strange that ‘Science’ should have come out with this NOW. I’m wondering what may be implied in the greater picture.

  6. Emotions are our word for whatever cocktail of hormones we are experiencing at a given moment. Animal react to them as instinctively as to all other stimuli. Humans can decide not to react to emotions, but only if they are aware of them.

  7. Alexx

    Animals are perfectly equal to humans and we should not need science to tell us that.
    Whoever said for instance that ^Until there are slaughter houses there will be battlefields” was absolutely right.

  8. mikael


    Thats why the present science is a fallacy and runn bu morons.
    Selfawarness is a stupid notion that have been asosiated with consciousness and even wurse, intellegence.

    Do they have any idea of this, selfawarness.
    Any creature is responding to the envirioment, thats basic selfawarness, and as long it reacts and acts acordingly, its intellegent, and have the ability to infuelc its envirioment, thats intellegence.
    If two creatrures cooperate, in this envirioment, that both are selfaware and comunication, thats intellegence.
    This goes all the way down to cellular level.
    Any entety that have a Feed Back loop, and acts acordingly, is a living organism, organic or not.

    A flok of Birds, and Fishes as an ex. is a beutiyfull display of collectiv mind in real time, the coordinations some of the displays is staggering and instant.
    I could tell you about Plants, and the fact that they are beyound our ability to copy regading the transition of sunlight to be utelising the photosyntesis, is mindboggelin and involves science that we are just reasently begining to scratch the surface of.

    To categorise or to make a “level” of this selfawarness is utter bollocs, and regarding Non Verbal comunication its obvious that Moust of you dont have a clue or any kind expirience at all.

    Main stream science is simply a staggering display of medival thinking and havent moved since, the moronic consensusses and even more stupid dogmas on vitually everything on or in our present reality, is our greatets obstacle to humanity as a hole, from their corruption(AGW/CO2/peakoil/fukushima/a.s.o) to false teachings like the utterly corrupted and insanly evil Medical comunety, the real scum of this earth, along iwith the f…,. that is hiding the Fukushima insident, they sould be Hanged.

    No, I am not suprised it took some centurys before the f morons becamed aware of other consciousnesse we live with, everything is conscious, we just dont see it, water is and have intellegence and memory, did you know this, and we are 70% water.

    The fact is, that we dont know mutch do we, drivel is everywhere, but actuall knowledg is diminishing and humans de evolve, and became more and more alianated in their won world, how is that f…. possible.
    The present science is a Parody on anything conected to intellegence and visions, it a reductionistic/mechanistic dead end, they will not admitt it, but I know its true, this reasnt Enlightenment about animals tells me all I need to know.


  9. Joe McPlumber

    Rene “I think therefore I think too much” Descartes, deemed the mind-body duality distinctly human and -therefore- the superior attribute defining human consciousness. Yet i can’t help but wonder if i could do just as well without it, and be a more whole, integrated being to boot. It is a bothersome dichotomy, and i observe that my cat does not seem to suffer from it.

  10. Careful- you are getting dangerously close to saying that animals have souls… an assertion that would condemn you to a lake of fire! If you don’t believe me, ask a fundamentalist Christian! Frankly, a heaven without animals would be FAR from a paradise to me, especially a heaven without the animals I have loved in my lifetime. Consciousness is a no-brainer (pardon the pun).

  11. Thanks for a well presented, thought provoking article. Graham Hancock’s TED talk was brilliant.

  12. While interacting in our day-to-day life, we need to act or react to bodily processes and the happenings in the world, sometimes instantly, to provide us beneficial outcomes.

    Consciousness is designed by the evolutionary process to allow data from such interactions that requires judgmental power to become available for making decisions, thereby benefiting from the capability of making free will decisions.

    If there were no free will, there was no requirement of consciousness.

    Based on the same, it can be derived that as animal and other organisms have free will, they have consciousness. As machines don’t have free will, one can say with certainty that they do not have consciousness, which is contrary to the belief that as consciousness is a subjective experience, it is impossible to objectively know if anything has it.

    To understand how consciousness emerges and free will decisions are made, visit


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