A remarkable thing happened at The First Annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference held at the University of Cambridge, July 7 in U.K. A group of prominent neuroscientists signed a proclamation declaring human and animal consciousness alike. Called The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, it states:
We declare the following: The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
To many pet parents and animal lovers, the conference only confirms what they already believed through their own observations and interactions with animals – albeit, not with the credibility of scientific research.
Stephen Hawking — considered the greatest mind in physics since Albert Einstein — was the guest of honor at the signing ceremony. The declaration was authored by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch, all well-respected neuroscientists. The signing was memorialized by 60 Minutes.
Joseph Dial, former Executive Director of the Mind Science Foundation, explains why this declaration is historic and groundbreaking:
What is Consciousness?
There is an important distinction between intelligence and consciousness. Intelligence is measured by the “capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.” So, is it fair to say humans are more intelligent than animals? Animals certainly have a capacity for learning. They cannot create an atomic bomb; maybe that should define them as smart?
The dictionary defines consciousness as “aware of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc.” Take a good, hard look at your pet; for that matter, watch a zoo elephant or a deer in the woods. They are always aware of their own existence. They feel pain and other sensations. Your dog may get annoyed with you if you tease him with a treat for too long before tossing it his way. A deer caught in your headlights feels fear before deciding to take flight. Elephants mourn their family members just like humans.
What This Means for the Future
For millennia, humans have held onto their hubris regarding the belief in human superiority. Perhaps The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness will inspire a different attitude and further research into the minds of all non-human creatures.
Starting with animal rights through to veganism, changing the minds of those who believe humans are “top dog” will be a challenge. Notable scientists formally recognizing animal consciousness on a level with humans should make for some interesting conversations.
Photo of Inca birds by Rennett Stowe via Flickr