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Perspectives on Science 14.3 (2006) 354-381

Animal Consciousness:
Paradigm Change in the Life Sciences
Martin Schönfeld
University of South Florida

This paper is a review of the breakthroughs in the empirical study of animals. Over the past five years, a change in basic assumptions about animals and their inner lives has occurred. (For a recent illustration of this paradigm change in the news, see van Schaik 2006.) Old-school scientists proceeded by and large as if animals were merely highly complex machines. Behaviorism was admired for its consistently rigorous methodology, mirroring classical physics in its focus on quantifiable observation. In the old analytic climate, claims that animals are sentient raised methodological and ideological problems and seemed debatable at best. Bolder claims, that animals are intelligent, or even self-aware in a way that is for all practical purposes human, were regarded as unfounded. Empirical trials to substantiate such claims were nipped in the bud, since it appeared that such inquiries would unduly humanize nonhuman beings. Scientists are not supposed to project their own intuitions, feelings, or thoughts on objects of their investigation. Studying the affinities of humans and animals would appear to violate this well-established rule, and would risk sliding down the slippery slope from fawns to Bambi, from rabbits to Thumper, and from science to myth. The task of science in the past four centuries had been to demythologize the past. Erasing myths had been the hallmark of progress; it turned astrology into astronomy, alchemy into chemistry, and natural philosophy into natural science. Naturalists, field workers, and experimenters who disagreed or who resisted the reduction of life to [End Page 354] quantifiable machines could be ignored. They seemed to commit the fallacy of anthropomorphizing nonhuman beings. Dutch, Germans, or Austrians scientists with doubts must have read too much Brothers Grimm; Japanese scientists feeding these doubts must have been misled by their own Shinto heritage. Thus foreign critiques were downplayed by the 'real' scientists in the English-speaking academy. It turns out that the dissent was justified. Anglophone reexamination of the Eurasian studies confirmed their earlier results and produced an avalanche of new information. As a result, the 'tough-minded' behaviorist view was thrown out and is now being replaced by a better paradigm.

I shall describe the paradigm change, summarize highlights of recent animal research, and suggest a philosophical interpretation of these findings. Anyone interested in this scientific revolution would have to wonder whether "consciousness" is used appropriately when describing animals. Section 1 contains a conceptual clarification based on a simple linguistic analysis, and a naturalistic argument for the evolution of nonhuman minds. How the paradigm change occurred is the question that will have to be addressed next. Section 2 contains a sketch of the events, figures, and findings that triggered the paradigm change, and a historical argument for the wider cultural and geographic patterns that informed regionally prevailing ideas on mind. Sections 3–5 are summaries of the scientific breakthroughs over the past five years. The summaries concern primates and monkeys. A large amount of revolutionary work has also been done on many other mammals as well as on birds—not to mention hive intelligences such as ants—but their appraisal should properly be the topic of future papers. For the purpose of identifying the paradigm change, it suffices to look at primates and monkeys, since they show the properties formerly identified with humans most clearly. Section 3 is an overview of findings of animal culture, tool making and use. Section 4 is an account of the recent experimental identification of exact animal thought-contents. Section 5 is a summary of work on animal morality and a proposal of its naturalistic interpretation. The conclusion of the paper will make a sketch of an ontological model that fits these discoveries better than the classic mainstream and that integrates them into a new metaphysics of nature.

1. Determining the Meanings of Consciousness

The word "consciousness" evokes multidisciplinary associations, and its core meaning is obscured by an abundance of theories and...


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