Learning abilities, self-perception, emotions... Fascinating discoveries about animal consciousness

Learning abilities, self-perception, emotions… Fascinating discoveries about animal consciousness

Many species, not just mammals, are said to have a form of “intelligence.” This is what 300 scientists recently stated in a solemn declaration. What do we know today about the mental reality of animals? Should we change our view of them?

“My dog ​​made me change my philosophy classes,” admits Anne-Lise Giangrande, who teaches this subject in a high school in Calvados. Twenty years ago, I told my students: “Consciousness is unique to humans. To animals, instinct and habit.” But my dog’s sensory intelligence, her ability to decode our behavior with finesse and accuracy, troubles me.

Of course, I do not discuss values ​​or maths with her, but I observe that she has an awareness of the world around her, that she is capable of correcting her mistakes, of adapting…” Dog, cat, horse… our proximity to these friends of man makes us rather inclined to recognize special abilities in them. But what about other animals, wild fauna? The 288 world luminaries who signed the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness on April 19 do not make the distinction. Going beyond intuition, these researchers rely on scientific protocols to advance that many species have elaborate cognitive and emotional capacities allowing us to attribute a conscious experience to them.

An observation that does not surprise wildlife filmmaker Baptiste Deturche. For a year, he filmed five endangered birds in the Alpine massifs (The bet2023). His long observations convinced him: these birds are aware of time, their environment, and what they experience. The opening of hunting season makes them much more fierce, the rise of livestock in the mountain pastures leads them to change their outing times… “Our anthropocentric vision, which places Homo sapiens above all, guides our way of studying animals, deplores the documentary filmmaker. But animals perceive the world in a way that is totally foreign to us!”

Fascinating discoveries

Pierre Le Neindre knows this bias well. An agricultural engineer by training, he specialized in ethology, the study of animal behavior. Now retired, he remembers that this subject of study came up against, and still does, a powerful obstacle, which he describes as “theological”: “For a very long time, it was considered that animals had no conscience. It was the privilege of man.” But what exactly do we mean by “conscience”?

Pierre Le Neindre coordinated a collective scientific expertise on the subject for the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) nearly ten years ago. This project led him to sift through hundreds of experiments aimed at answering questions such as: “Is the animal studied aware that it is there? Of the passage of time? Of its own knowledge?” To do this, the species tested were subjected to specially designed protocols. And research has progressed in leaps and bounds in just a few decades. The discoveries are fascinating: rather than risk giving a wrong answer, some dolphins, monkeys, rats and corvids (the crow family) are able to signal that they do not know how to answer a question. Placed in front of a mirror, the cleaner wrasse, a tropical fish, tries to erase the mark deliberately placed on its body: it is therefore aware of itself.

Signals, dialects and accents

While life sciences are particularly active in this field, other, more unexpected disciplines also contribute to increasing knowledge. This is the case for language sciences. In France, at the instigation of Astrid Guillaume, a lecturer authorized to direct research at Sorbonne University in Paris, zoosemiology is emerging. “It involves studying the signs that animals exchange, whether within the same species or between distinct species,” explains the specialist. Among other striking examples, she describes how elephants, like dolphins, call each other by their “first names.” That whales, like migratory birds or wolves, return from their distant voyages with dialects and accents.

The researcher emphasizes the notion of “sentience.” Larousse gives the following definition: “For a living being, the ability to feel emotions, pain, well-being, etc., and to subjectively perceive its environment and life experiences.” There is no doubt, for Astrid Guillaume, that “the majority of animals are sentient. They experience joy, fear, well-being, have a memory of trauma…” And they adapt their lives according to the emotions they experience.

“It’s never black or white, it’s a continuum,” Pierre Le Neindre specifies, however. We cannot say: “This one is aware of the world, that one is not.” There are tenuous levels of consciousness, others very developed: a vast range between the earthworm and the bonobo. However, establishing a hierarchy between species makes no sense, because the capacities of some are not those of others: it is impossible to say that the monkey is superior to the cow or the octopus to the bee. Finally, let us remember that there are still a myriad of animals that have not been studied and for which nothing can be said.

Faced with this battery of animal capacities, our own place in the living world is shaken up. Defining “what is specific to man” is a challenge. From this new representation comes a responsibility that Pierre Le Neindre summarizes: “If animals have mental states, what do we have the right to do? What do we not have the right to do? When do we consider that we are mistreating animals?” The New York Declaration concludes thus: “When there is a realistic possibility of conscious experience in an animal, it is irresponsible to ignore this possibility in decisions that concern this animal.” Our philosophy professor asks: “Why do we need proof that animals have a conscience to feel a moral responsibility towards them?” The fact that they are sentient beings should be enough for us to consider them with humanity.

Xavier Loppinet*, Dominican in Nancy: “Life is aware of itself”

“When reading Genesis, we often believe that we understand that God assigns man a place of domination over animals. It is much more complex than that. Paradise, on the contrary, is the place of connivance, of harmony between man and animal. The man of God is at peace with the animal world, seeks this harmony and bears responsibility for it: we read in Proverbs (12:10) that the man who does not take into account the pain of his animal is not wise. Let us think of Saint Francis of Assisi and the wolf of Gubbio, or the animals that populate the parables. For me, the dog – the domestic animal par excellence – is an ambassador of Creation to man. And man is an ambassador of God to Creation. Scientific discoveries do not surprise me: life is aware of itself. The need to rediscover harmony with nature is immense. In an urbanized world, where we are losing contact with the countryside, one key would be to reconnect with the contemplative spirit.”

*Author of Will my dog ​​take me to Heaven? (Ed. du Cerf)

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