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So Magpies are Self-Aware—So What? August 13, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

There is something fundamentally ironic in the fact that we are now beginning to understand ourselves as homo sentiens (the feeling human being) rather than homo sapiens ( a paradigm shift which has its own philosophical perils), but at the same time we are expanding our knowledge of the rational capacities of nonhuman animals. Birds and dogs seem to be the favorite research subjects reported on by the media right now, rather than apes—birds, because it is just so weird that birds can think (so it has shock value) and dogs, because we just love them so damn much.  I can find less-than-academic reasons why we are glued to these topics, but that shouldn’t detract from the astonishing fact that the scientific community has experienced a sea change over the last decade: Even in the late 20th century you couldn’t enter into an academic discussion about animal intelligence without risking the loss of your professional reputation; now it seems that we’re all getting into the fray, legitimately.

So let’s talk some more about birds. We’ll save the dogs for some other time. Did you hear about the rook that can figure out how to raise the water level in a tube so it can reach the worm?  Not the Aesop fable, but for real? A thought process that used to be attributed to humans only—chimps can’t do it as fast or as consistently.  Other experiments conducted on crows have shown that crows are able to envision a solution to a problem (using a string to get a piece of meat) without having first tried to solve the problem through trial-and-error. The crow brain is proportionally larger than other bird brains, the body mass taken into account. A bit of online surfing brought me to some research published last year, which I had somehow missed: Magpies are now the first bird to pass the mirror self-recognition test—they will try to remove a visible sticker placed on their feathers, if all they know about it is that they see it in the mirror. So move over,  humans, apes, elephants, and dolphins—magpies also turn out to have a basic sense of self! For those of us who were astounded and delighted in the 1990s when we read about chimps who would clearly recognize themselves in the mirror (red dot placed on their forehead), this is only one more step in the expansion of the personhood concept: If you know that you are, as an entity, language or not, then you exist on a higher level than beings who may be aware of their surroundings, but not that they are aware of them. Sartre’s old pour-soi vs. en-soi is being recast in another context.

So what are the ethical implications of this? Should we then respect crows, elephants, dolphins, apes, and other humans as persons? To some extent, most certainly. If you cause them pain, you are contributing to a suffering of which they are aware as happening to them. It is not trivial. But on another level it doesn’t mean that we are no longer allowed to interfere with their lives. We should just feel obligated to take into consideration that we’re dealing with conscious, self-aware life in some form, but we still retain the negative right to maintain our own life, liberty and property. When the crows are nesting in my big tree, I reserve the right to scare them away, because they ruin my night’s sleep. Do I have a right to kill them? That depends on the level of pain they are causing me. If one repeatedly goes for my eyes, or attacks my baby, or my pet, then yes, I will feel morally entitled to kill it. (Not taking into account local legislation about endangered species, noise levels, discharging of weapons, etc., of course. I’m talking about abstract moral rights, as I see them.) That’s just an extension of Locke’s doctrine of negative rights, anyway. The trouble is of course that crows may have self-awareness, but they don’t have human social awareness. They don’t know they’re trespassing, in human terms. So the taking of a self-aware animal life should be cnsidered a “last resort” approach.

But what lies in the future of animal research? I predict that, before long, we will hear that pigs can recognize themselves in the mirror. Pigs are smart, we know that—it is not too far-fetched to assume that they also have a sense of self, and maybe even a theory of mind (understanding that other members of their species are aware). They are in some ways smarter than ordinary chimps, and chimps have a theory of mind. So is that the end of bacon as we know it? You know what? I would actually say yes. If we can justify killing and eating a self-aware animal, there is no theoretical boundary preventing us from killing and eating humans, other than speciecism. An Asian prince of long, long ago who used to eat slave girls was told that eating humans was wrong. He answered, “But they taste good!” So we can’t use the same argument for eating pork—that it tastes good. So far few people eat crows (except metaphorically), but the day will come when some of our food animals will be proven to be self-aware, at some basic level. And in any event, all of them have a general awareness of pain and pleasure (like Bentham pointed out—“not Can they speak, nor Can they reason, but Can they suffer?). Bentham didn’t have a problem eating meat, because he viewed the pros and the cons of incurring suffering—but can we afford to be as bombastic and calculating?  Some (like PETA people) would say that the difference between self-awareness and general awareness is invented by humans with an agenda toward eating meat, because life is life (a pig is a boy etc.). In my own view, self-awareness does mark a different kind of existence than general awareness. I will eat animals who are aware of their surroundings, but not animals who are aware that they are aware. The day when our meat animals turn out to be self-aware, even in the slightest degree, that’s probably it for my meat-eating days. Unless I am locked in mortal combat with a pig, and manage to kill it with my equivalent of its tusks (my Swiss Army knife). Then I’ll proudly eat it, and wear its skin…