Descartes' prisoners

Through Our Eyes Only? The Search for Animal Consciousness

Marian Stamp Dawkins <em>Oxford Univers

Why does anybody today need to write a book proving that animals are conscious? Does anybody doubt it? The answer is yes; people doubt it if they have been put through the kind of behaviourist-inspired training that students of biology and psychology received during much of the 20th century. That training was intense. Academic prestige in many professions depended on abjuring all thought and all talk of consciousness. Only exceptionally determined souls put up any resistance. Accordingly the reverse process of deconditioning - certainly now going on - is slow and painful. Though psychologists officially abandoned behaviourist doctrines some 20 years back, the attitudes that went with those doctrines do not automatically change. Their decline needs to be mediated by long and soothing argument, calculated to take the whole position seriously.

Since the people involved are exactly the ones who are supposed to be developing our culture's understanding of animals, and are also the ones who take charge of the many creatures used in experiments, it is important that this process should go forward properly. Marian Dawkins has always understood this. She has carefully tailored her work to reach this strangely placed but crucial public. She has previously investigated the concept of "animal suffering" by research on chickens - research so ingenious, so sober, so obviously well designed that it largely managed to get past the thought police and establish this concept as a legitimate scientific topic. In the present book she widens her remit to take in the whole of animal consciousness. She carefully examines the evidence for conscious cleverness in animals, diligently presents objections, while scrupulously eliminating conduct that could be produced by some other cause, such as innate programming or trial and error. At each stage she notes how, despite difficulties, the evidence piles up. After all this sifting she finally presents a few cases, such as Irene Pepperberg's famous rational parrot Alex, as gold tried in the fire - examples that unmistakably show conscious thought. These are cases where all alternative explanations are absurdly complex - far less simple than the suggestion that the animal is actually thinking. Her conclusions, however, are still fearfully cautious.

Will her scholarly caution do? No, it won't. A few questions must be put - not to Marian Dawkins but to the background pundits who set the terms within which she is desperately trying to operate. We need to know why the standard of proof here is set so peculiarly high. More deeply, however, we need to know why that burden of proof is laid in this direction at all rather than in the opposite one. What is the initial balance of probabilities? Is there any reason why animal consciousness should seem initially a less probable hypothesis than animal unconsciousness? If so, what is it? Since we are so closely related to many other animals - since we have successful social interactions with so many of them and act like them in so many respects - the notion that we share consciousness with them has surely more initial plausibility than the idea that it has suddenly appeared as a human monopoly, a unique achievement. In a Darwinian world, the uniqueness of human consciousness would surely be the surprising proposition that would need defending, not its opposite.

Historically, these are reasonable suspicions. No scientific reason has been given for viewing animals as unconscious. The belief that they are so simply comes from traditional metaphysical thinking which is indeed pre-Darwinian. It is a proposition first stated by Descartes as a corollary of his view that the conscious human mind was an independent intellectual substance, distinct from physical matter and linked to it only by divine grace, effectively a ghost in the machine. Animals, not qualifying for such ghosts, could, then, only be unconscious machines.

Descartes' dualism was useful for a time because it allowed the study of physical matter to develop without interference from the rest of thought. For that reason some people still view it as scientific. But the idea of the human mind as a separate ghost proved so awkward that it quickly fell into decay. Without the ghost, dualism gradually collapses into a kind of "materialism" which means having nothing to say about mind at all. The logical conclusion of that process was a behaviourism that ruled that human thought had no effect on action and that therefore only human behaviour could be studied - a shaky, paradox-ridden construction, held aloft by confident advertising and instant persecution of anyone who discussed topics like consciousness.

The prolonged success of the behaviourist empire will surely give future historians material for interesting research. They will note with particular interest how suddenly the end began when, during the 1970s, pioneers such as Donald Griffin and Nicholas Humphrey began speaking primarily about animal consciousness and in an evolutionary context. They took it for granted that consciousness, both in humans and animals, does not have to be treated as a suspect supernatural intrusion but can be examined on its own terms as a natural function. That assumption has largely become common ground in the increasing upsurge of "consciousness studies" which has since followed their lead.

In her last chapter Dawkins mentions that work and comes out of her diplomatic wrappings to cheer for this more realistic approach. "It follows that there are not two sorts of questions that we have to ask - that is, questions about animal bodies (to which we can one day hope to have an answer) and questions about animal minds (to which we never can). On the contrary, questions about animal consciousness should be brought firmly within the framework of biology as they are as much a part of the subject as the study of oxygen-carrying molecules or of feet."

Her discussion of these matters is excellent and I wish that she had allowed herself to offer more of her admirable book to it rather than devoting space to carefully calculated therapy for convalescent behaviourists.

Mary Midgley is a philosopher and author

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning