The topic of Consciousness is controversial in the fields of philosophy and science. For hundreds of years the debate has raged on in search of a commonly accepted definition of “Consciousness”. The term has been associated with or defined at various times as subjectivity, awareness, sentience, or simply the ability to experience or to feel.
The idea that animals possess some level of sentience, or the ability to feel pain, and express themselves in a way that humans can measure, has proven even more difficult to discuss in mainstream science than human consciousness.
Despite a growing body of evidence that indicates animals have awareness at varying levels, people prefer to deny the possibilities and implications of such an idea. Scientist Victoria Braithwaite wrote a book entitled Do Fish Feel Pain? exploring the topic and offering compelling evidence that fish do indeed feel pain and are sentient beings.
Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the pioneering cognitive ethnologists in the United States. In his paper, “Aquatic Animals, Cognitive Ethology, and Ethics”, Bekoff compiled a review of the literature on sentience in fish and other waterdwelling animals. Also, the World Society for the Protection of Animals released a systematic review of the scientific literature on animal sentience. The effort used a list of 174 keywords and the team reviewed more than 2,500 articles. The evidence gathered by Bekoff and the World Society for the Protection of Animals overwhelmingly indicate the existence of conscious action on the part of animals.
The ego-based human perception of animals, especially insects, is that they are emotionless creatures that have no distinct personalities. However, new studies have shown that even cockroaches have unique personalities. In the study “Group Personality During Collective Decision-Making”, scientists in Brussels, Belgium, found that cockroaches behave very differently, even when in the same environment, due to their personality. In the study, 304 cockroaches with RFID chips placed on their backs were led through a variety of settings, both light and dark. The scientists measured how quickly the cockroaches were able to find food and shelter. They discovered the cockroaches would all behave differently, even when subject to the same external stimulation.
On July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to assess the conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. The statement they wrote is known as The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. This international team of scientists stated that,
“Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors”.
The evidence consequently indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including mammals, birds, and many marine creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
Scientists believe animals communicate and make vocalizations based on physiological effects, such as stress. Recently, researchers at the Wolf Science Center in Austria published a paper called “Wolf Howling Is Mediated by Relationship Quality Rather Than Underlying Emotional Stress”, which demonstrated that wolves voluntarily choose their vocal communications, specifically howling and barking. To study the physiological stress response due to social separation, the scientists separated one wolf at a time from the other wolves in their enclosures. The teams collected saliva from the remaining pack mates 20 minutes after removing the first wolf. During this period all the wolves’ vocalizations were also recorded.
The wolves would always howl when ever separated. However, the researchers found that the wolves would howl more often for a close friend than for the removed socially dominant wolf. Although the stress was measurable with an increase in salivary cortisol in all cases, the wolves seemed to focus on friendship over social dominance, which indicates some level of cognition and choice, rather than an automatic, inflexible response.
If animals can feel pain, use tools and make choices about how they communicate with one another, is it that difficult to imagine them as aware, complex beings with emotions and thought processes?
In 2014 an Argentine court ruled that Sandra, a 29-year-old Sumatran orangutan, was a “non-human person” unlawfully deprived of her freedom and must be freed from the zoo and transferred to a sanctuary. The Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) argued that Sandra exhibited cognitive functions and deserved the right to a freer life. This marked a huge shift in the treatment of animals in captivity. We look to the future to see how court rulings on animals might redefine the human-animal relationship.
There is a huge disconnect in the modern western world in our diets and our treatment of animals. Many people consume unhealthy animal products that contain antibiotics and other harmful steroids and purchase meat from the Farming-Industrial Complex (aka The Meatrix). In doing so they are supporting the mistreatment of the animals themselves and damage to the environment caused by factory farming. Many people have begun referring to this industry as “The Animal Holocaust”.
To be clear, we are not asking everyone to become vegetarian or vegan or advocating some form of eco-fascism. Rather, we are asking free individuals to reconsider their level of respect toward the life that surrounds us at all times. We prefer you take an active part in your diet if you choose to be a carnivore. If you have the option, hunt your meal yourself. Spend the time, sweat and energy it takes to claim your meal. At the very least, buy your meat from a local vendor with humane practices that you know or can visit in person. Take the time to give thanks to the life that is passing, the life that will allow you to continue to exist. This is the type of thinking that has permeated indigenous cultures for thousands of years and allowed them to live in relative harmony with the planet.
Whether by growing our own food, hunting animals on our own or simply showing respect to the animals we encounter on a daily basis, we believe cultivating a stronger relationship with the life that surrounds us will strengthen the bonds within our human family and push us closer to a freer, more interconnected planet.
Animals and Humans are not the only conscious beings on this planet, however. Recent studies have found that plants have their own form of communication. Researchers with the University of Western Australia found that corn plants emit and respond to particular sounds. In their study “Towards Understanding Plant Bioacoustics” the team discovered that when plants are played a continuous sound at 220 hz they grow toward the sound. This frequency range is similar to the clicking sound made by the plants themselves. Another study entitled “Plant Communication from Biosemiotic Perspective” reported:
“Plants are sessile, highly sensitive organisms that actively compete for environmental resources both above and below the ground. They assess their surroundings, estimate how much energy they need for particular goals, and then realize the optimum variant. They take measures to control certain environmental resources. They perceive themselves and can distinguish between self and non-self. This capability allows them to protect their territory. They process and evaluate information and then modify their behavior accordingly.”
The groundbreaking 2014 study “Plants Respond to Leaf Vibrations Caused by Insect Herbivore Chewing”, published in Oecologia by researchers at the University of Missouri, found that the Arabidopsis plant can sense when it is being eaten and secretes an increased amount of mustard oil as a defense mechanism to deter insect attackers. In the study, researchers recorded caterpillar’s chewing vibrations and then played them to one group of plants while leaving another group in silence. The plants that could hear the chewing vibrations began releasing the mustard oil.
If we have scientific evidence of plants and animals making rational decisions based on analysis and not simply emotion, perhaps we should reexamine our relationship with the fellow inhabitants of this planet, as well as the planet itself. Groups like the International Tribunal for the Rights of Nature believe that corporations and governments around the world have violated the rights of nature.
The Tribunal and similar groups not only promote the rights of nature, but some believe in a sort of “Nature Supremacy”, or that the fate of the planet should be put ahead of humanity and, in some extreme cases, that force should be used against humans for the good of the planet. We do not advocate such a position but hope to encourage a debate on how our ideas of a more free world will deal with problems involving the planet and our species.
The pursuit of humanity’s co-existence with (or submission to) the Earth has manifested in a wide range of beliefs and opinions on how to interact with the planet and its inhabitants. From one side of the spectrum there is a complete denial of animal or plant consciousness or any possibility of “rights” or mutual-respect. In the middle, we see a healthy level of respect and compassion towards other forms of life– animals, humans, plants and minerals co-existing. On the other extreme side of the spectrum there are those who advocate for a dismantling of all technology and “civilization” (Anarcho-Primitivism), the freeing of animals from research labs and the destruction of such labs (Animal Liberation Front) and the destruction of property and occupying of lands slated for destruction or “development” (Earth Liberation Front).
Another key part of the animal rights issue goes back to property. If an individual believes pets are property they may feel entitled to do as they please with said “property”. This could include violent abuse. This individual might claim that someone intervening during the animal abuse has commited a violation of property rights. However, we could also foresee a case where animals are given the same “rights” that are awarded humans with diminished mental capacity. Also, one might conclude that since humans are animals, an attack on another animal is an attack on family, thus justifying intervention. We await further debate.
Many indigenous communities believe that life exists in all forms: plant, stone, human, animal and inanimate forces. We believe the closer we move to respecting all life as equal to our own, the deeper our understanding of liberty becomes. It is not only about pursuing freedom in terms of our individual paths, but recognizing the importance of allowing others to operate under their own freedom of action.
Many of us already speak to our pets as children or companions. Why not acknowledge the life in plants, animals, crystals and the earth that surrounds us?