Are Monkeys Self-Aware? Does it Matter?
Researchers have observed monkeys showing signs of self-awareness, something scientists previously thought monkeys were incapable of.
At the University of Wisconsin, a neuroscientist was studying attention deficit disorder with rhesus macaque monkeys when he noticed them studying themselves in the mirror — including the “saltshaker sized” implants he had screwed into their skulls during the course of his study.
The ability of an animal to recognize itself in a mirror is a sign of self-awareness. Originally only humans were thought to be self-aware, but a number of other animals have proven themselves to be self-aware, including chimpanzees and dolphins.
The procedure for checking for self-awareness involves making a mark on an unconscious animal’s face and then allowing the animal to examine herself in a mirror. If she recognizes the mark on her own face, then she is thought to be self-aware.
The “mark test” as it is called, has been called insufficient by some scientists to measure self-awareness. The type of monkey in the UW study, the macaque has always failed the mark test, but the new evidence from the researchers at UW and the videos they’ve taken seem to suggest there is a gradient of self-awareness and not an all-or-nothing measurement.
Other scientists have suggested the idea of a spectrum of self-awareness, including a primatologist at Emory University.
Other scientists, including the researcher who invented the mark test, are skeptical and say there may be other explanations for the monkeys’ behavior.
In the midst of this debate about the validity of the observations is the debate about the implications of the results. Ostensibly in the vivisection community there is a line between what they consider to be lower animals without self-awareness and animals like chimps. According to a scientist at UW who was not involved in the study: “There are decisions I would make with a monkey, that I would not feel comfortable making with a chimpanzee”.
We’ve learned time and again, however, that even the treatment afforded to the “more humanlike” animals is still cruel, disgusting and inhumane. The researcher who made the discovery voiced his hope that this new information wouldn’t spell the end of research on macaques.
One cannot help but cringe at the irony: a researcher accidentally discovers that the monkeys he’s torturing are smarter than anyone had given them credit for. He simultaneously argues the monkeys are self-aware and that in spite of that information, it’s imperative we continue testing on them.
If we can acknowledge that maybe self-awareness isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and recognize that it is a spectrum, then we can hopefully make the logical next step in realizing that justifying any animal suffering based on their abstract mental capacity has no moral basis.
Being self-aware to a certain arbitrary degree shouldn’t be an animal’s ticket out of torture and experimentation because that kind of treatment of animals shouldn’t exist to begin with.
Photo: Blues davis paris