Scientists Give Animals Consciousness


Scientists have given animals consciousness. Not through complex manipulation of the brain or through genetic manipulation, but by publicly acknowledging the consensus, for the first time in such a straightforward way, that non-human animals, including some of our evolutionarily distant cousins, have awareness and experience like we do. 

The declaration, called The Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness, was signed at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference of Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals in the presence of Stephen Hawking in July in Cambridge, U.K. by an international group of scientists including cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists.

What do they mean by consciousness? The Declaration treats it as the same as the phrase, “subjective experience.” Philosophers who share this view of consciousness with the scientists often say that something is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be that thing. So, according to this, a rock is not conscious, because there is nothing “that it is like to be a rock.”

The signing marked the first formalization of the scientific consensus about the consciousness of several non-mammals, including birds, octopuses and even bees.

Octopuses are a remarkable addition to this list, not only because they are the only invertebrate included, but also because the way their brain evolution has progressed is so dissimilar from humans. The most notable dissimilarity is the lack of the neocortex that was long believed to be the biological foundation of human conscious experience.

The bases for the assertions of consciousness are, condensed, that:

1) “The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures.” This means that animals with brains which have evolved differently from or less than humans can experience brain states that are “rewarding and punishing.”

Written By: Nick Clairmont
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  1. several non-mammals, including birds, octopuses and even bees. 

    Octopuses are a remarkable addition to this list, not only because they are the only invertebrate included

    Bees are invertebrates. Other than that, this is a wonderful declaration. (laughed at cornbread_r2s comment)


  2. I posted the article at catholicanswers and the response so far has been, surprisingly:  Aquinas said that ages ago!

    I’m not an Aquinas expert, but I’m pretty sure such a claim is based on a different definition of consciousness.

  3. Kill me now. I don’t want to harm animals, but I don’t want to give up eating animal protein either. Either would be a dismal existence.

  4. The strongest indication of consciousness is this ability to recognise it in others.

  5.  @rdfrs-438002ca7b4c62cbf4e1c9be27313db4:disqus

    You’re wrong there. I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years and it is one decision in my life I have never for a moment regretted. Also, have no fear about the “dismal experience” of eating no meat products – not only are there good tasty meat substitutes nowadays, going vegetarian still gives you hundreds of pasta based dishes, hundreds of rice based, hundreds of bean based etc – most of which are overlooked by meat eaters. You are invited to my place for a vegey feast anytime.

  6. The original declaration is worth reading. In short, the organisms it declares cosncious are the mammals, birds, insects (an invertebrate example besides the octopus one Clairmont claims is the only one mentioned) and cephalopod molluscs (of whom octopuses are an example). Apparently, however, fish, reptiles and amphibians have yet to show signs of this. This isn’t impossible; the possibility conscious forms by convergent evolution is supported by how different octopus brains are from the rest of the complex brains on the list. But the reptile-bird comparison leads me to wonder which dinosaurs were conscious.

    I only wish Clairmont hadn’t taken so long to share it (the gap from July 7 to August 29 is far longer than our gap from August 29 to September 4).

  7. It’s purely up to you what you choose to like or dislike. We do live in a real life where we are part of a survival struggle, so we do occasionally have to tread on other creatures. I chose to be vegetarian for 5 years then chose not to, although I am not wholly happy with killing animals to eat them, but is it worse than them not existing in the first place? The food is great either way and I embrace that we are an omnivorous species. We also occasionally propel our own lives forward at the expense of other human beings, that’s an inevitable consequence of competition. Trees have to die to make room for that home extension. A little anguish seems reasonable, but not to the extent of feeling dismal.

  8. I suppose if structures other than cortical tissue can be responsible for consciousness, we should not exclude the possibility that vegetable structures could manifest this. The scale of speed may be different, so we may need to wait days or years to see reactions to the environment that suggest consciousness. It may be difficult to meet the second criterion of deducing the same sort of experience as humans have, but irritability seems easy to observe. The third criterion of response to familiar mind altering drugs seems unusually restrictive to a particular biology, though if we want to restrict the definition of consciousness to recognisable neural tissue, such an arbitrary line can be drawn. This of course excludes the possibility of machine consciousness.

  9.   The Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness, was signed at the Francis
    Crick Memorial Conference of Consciousness in Human and Non-Human
    Animals  .. .. .. . . .. . ..  by
    an international group of scientists including cognitive
    neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists,
    neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists.

    These scientists all have one thing in common! 

    They are experts in subjects fundamentalists have probably never heard of, and could not read or understand if they found papers on them!

    This will in no-way inhibit fundies from “knowing better” and spouting the pseudo-science of  “soul-physics”, or the egotism of  “god’s chosen species”!

  10. The original declaration is only just over a page long and is not technical.

    It is well worth reading.

  11. Is it correct to say ” This means that animals with brains which have evolved… LESS than humans” ?

  12. They presumably mean those species have more primitive brains, in the technical sense of the term primitive, i.e. their brains are more similar to the brains of our most recent common ancestors with them than our brains are to said ancestors’ brains.

  13. not sure how i feel about this. nice to be recognised but i was rather hoping the damage done to next door’s garden display would remain an “accident”

  14.   Peter Grant
    The strongest indication of consciousness is this ability to recognise it in others.

    I often wondered about the search for extra-Terrestrial intelligent life, when much of the Earth’s human population shows little signs of using intelligence, or recognising it in other humans or other species on Earth.

  15. Aquinas had a more or less Aristotelian model of psychology. This posits that there are three levels of soul – the vegetative, animal and rational souls – of which plants possess the first, animals possess the first and second, and human beings possess all three. The vegetative soul is responsible for all the processes that make up growth, nutrition and reproduction. The animal soul deals with sensation and movement, and the rational soul gives a creature the ability to think and reason.

    So, really, it depends on whether you consider “subjective experience” and “there being a something that it is like to be that thing” to be sufficiently included in the ability to sense and percieve the world with the tools that were considered a part of the animal soul. We probably would, these days, given that the animal soul in Aquinas’s reckoning was rather more sophisticated than the bare bones found in Aristotle. Thanks to the influence of Avicenna, Averroes and a century or so of Latin scholastic thought, Aquinas’s animal soul contained not only the faculty of collecting sense impressions, but the ability to combine them and turn them into mental impressions (“sensus communis” – the common sense) the ability to store and recall such images (“imaginatio” – the phantasmal sense or imagination) and a kind of instinctive response faculty called the “vis estimativa” or estimative faculty. It is this last which would probably be considered the seat of subjective experience, given that it was responsible for such things as a sheep’s instinctive avoidance of wolves, or attraction to its own young. With different estimative powers and subjects for each animal, it seems likely that one could pin at least part of what it means to have subjective experiences here.

    Though one thing Aquinas very much did not say was that animals and humans exist on a continuum of consciousness, the difference being one of degree rather than of kind. As an orthodox theologian he believed implicitly that man’s rational soul was a thing apart,  gave him special abilities the animals did not have, and conferred a special soteriological significance on him. So if consciousness as understood here can be seen in Aquinas’s model of animal psychology, then he did not consider that consciousness of this sort was an important thing about the place of animals in the world, as we do.

  16.  Don’t worry about it too much. Statistically speaking I am sure non-human animals are far ahead of human animals in the eating of protein competition, over time and on average!

  17. Ever since I was a child I found the notion that other creatures are not conscious (cannot feel pain) a silly assumption.

    We have humans reporting consciousness and unconsciousness when anaesthetised.  We know how they behave in the two states.  Barring any better measure, that is the one would should use for other species too.

    We can tell when a human is feeling pain.  The default assumption should be, barring some better measure, that when an animal behaves that way, it too experiences pain.

    The problem with consciousness is in theory a human could be unconscious (not having an internal experience) while simultaneously doing all the usual calculations, and there would be no way you could tell the difference from the outside.  Your assumption becomes a RELIGIOUS decision, biased by economic interest. (It would be an economic hassle to treat worms kindly, so we presume they do not matter.)

    What we need is an objective measure that correlates with the intensity of reported internal experience. Then we could apply it to other species. That may simply be frequency of neuron firing.  Consciousness may be a side effect of a sufficient number of neurons firing, sufficiently frequently, in a sufficiently small space.

    My guess is we will discover it is fundamental property like distance, time, mass.  It seems very different from anything else we have a handle on. Dreams and subjective experience are very closely associated. We might get a better handle on consciousness by approaching it as a dream.

  18. When I was high school, the biology teacher, Mr. Jackson cut the bottom shell off a live turtle and attached its heart to a lever that charted the twitchings on a graph. I told everyone he was a sadist. Mr. Mackenzie, the principal, called me down to his office and gently chastised me for slandering a teacher. Mr. Jackson reassured me “The turtle feels no pain.” I countered “How you know?” He replied “It’s spinal nerves are cut.” I said “Well, it sure looks as if it is in pain. It is struggling frantically to right itself.” He responded “That is just a reflex.” He offered “Using the turtle will save many lives. This turtle will last all day. Had I used frogs, I would have had to kill one for each class” I accused “Your experiment has no point. Everyone already knows that hearts beat” He said “You are planning a career in biology. You will have to get used to this” I said “If that’s what it means to be a biologist I want no part of it.” Since I am writing this years later, I can compose a better retort: “If you are so sure this will not hurt, how about I poke a scalpel into the back of your neck and cut your spinal nerves. Then you can reassure me, based on evidence, that the procedure is painless. From my personal experience, nerves hurt like the blazes when you cut them. Turtle nerves and human nerves are almost identical.”

    That was the last day of my biology career and my first day of animal rights advocacy.

  19. When I was 14, I came up with this thought experiment. Imagine it were possible to replace a single nerve cell with an electronic equivalent that behaved transparently. Imagine it were possible to replace a single blood cell with an electronic equivalent that behaved transparently. Let’s say we start replacing cells in a being, we will call Jimmy, with equivalents one by one. Any any stage our Jimmy is still indistinguishable from the original. Jimmy still dreams and has an internal conscious experience. Let’s say, as were replacing, we constructed a duplicate. When we are done we have two identical Jimmy androids. The common sense view in the 1960s would assert that one Jimmy was conscious and the duplicate was not, even though they were absolutely identical. How could you tell which was which?

    I find that absurd. It seems to me simpler to assume that brain activity in some way creates consciousness. It is not as though ghosts/souls possess bodies and the original Jimmy had one of these souls and the duplicate did not. Even if there were such things as souls, both bodies should be equally suitable homes for a soul. I so I fully expect complex machines to evolve consciousness.

    SAL-9000: Will I dream?

    Dr. Chandra: Of course you will. All intelligent beings dream. Nobody knows why.

  20.  Thank you very much!  I confess to using the reference to Aquinas as kind of a dog whistle  to attract your attention in particular. 

  21.  I do eat vegetarian meals on occasion. I also eat an East Asianer’s diet consisting of less meat and dairy than most other Americans. That being said, meat fills a special place in my food pyramid I couldn’t do without. It only takes a week to make me want meat again.

  22.  Maybe one day we’ll be able to spawn perfectly tasty animal flesh in a lab without having to even kill animals. That’d be awesome.

  23. Vegetarianism: That’s the the key – if you/I want to eat meat, then fine. My veggie period was when I found I didn’t want to eat meat, so no problem. What was weird was the concept that I might want to eat ersatz meat. Once you decide you don’t want to eat meat the concept of vegetable things made to taste like meat is bizarre, and also a little revolting.

  24. I don’t want to eat meat or ersatz meat. The meat substitute products are put there by suppliers to fill a hole in their range. What they call their products is of no interest to me on this one. What I do like though are the sauses – tomato, mint, mustard etc. So I buy vegey sausages (which these days are delicious) as much for the tomato sauce to go with them. I sometimes have the quorn “bacon” in a sandwich because I like the melting butter, and the quorn “ham” is fantastic with piccalilli.

  25. Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. [The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness]

    Rather than parallel evolution to describe possible human-like consciousness in birds, shouldn’t this be classified as convergent evolution? I’ve only quickly refreshed my memory (possibly with poor sources) on convergent, divergent and parallel evolution and await correction if I’m still misunderstanding. Thank you.

  26. Don’t be so sure- the mechanised slaughter and processing of billions of animals both natural and bred-for-purpose by humans may have overtaken the total for all other carnivores, for all time. Certainly the ‘balance of nature’ no longer exists. 

    “Don’t worry”?? The human train of mindless consumption is thundering toward disaster and we should adopt the Alfred E Neuman philosophy?

  27.  I have not, I hasten to say, tried this myself, but I have read about it and have no reason to doubt its authenticity. A wasp is cut in half through its narrow “waist”, and is then presented with a blob of honey. As I recall, there was a photgraph of the result.

    It eats the honey, which emerges from its thorax as another blob with nowhere to go. You seem to equate consciouness with feeling pain, so just think of a mouse, or a dog, oe even a man, chopped in half at the waist. Now that would be what I’d call suffering, assuming death from shock wasn’t immediate. How can you say the wasp is “conscious” in any normal sense of the term? I hesitate to argue with such eminent people, but i think they are to a large extent playing with words – which is what theologions are so fond of doing, come to think of it. Was somebody channelling Teilhard de Chardin?

  28. Recall the case of an octopus in an aquarium; supposedly it escaped its glass tank at night and crossed the floor to a crab tank, had a hearty supper and returned leaving crab shells and a baffled aquarium staff? 

  29. I have for many years entertained the notion that livestock animals know what the game is, to the extent their consciousness allows: “Eat, drink and defecate, for tomorrow we may die.”


  30. Yeah, I vaguely remember that; did not know it had dined and dashed 😀

    I love this photo of an octopus holding a Rubik’s cube.
    The research was to determine if octopusses have an arm preference.
     I’m thinking give it time, it may solve it in the near future!

  31. That’s ‘octopodes’.  😉

    I can’t help but think of them as very large hands with clever brains. To think that they could master Rubik’s cube would be to admit that they are more intelligent than I.

    Ah well, that’s the way it goes, I guess.

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