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Do Animals Know Who They Are?

Science & Tech  (tags: animals, awareness, humans, Scientific inquiry, sense of self, study )

- 1737 days ago -
Do elephants, dolphins, cats, magpies, mice, salmon, ants or bees know who they are? Was Jethro, my late companion dog, a self-conscious being? Do any of these animals have a sense of self?

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Kit B (276)
Friday September 20, 2013, 9:12 am
Photo Credit: Cool pets 4 u blog spot

Did David Greybeard, the chimpanzee who Jane Goodall notably was the first to observe using a tool, have any idea of who he was? Do elephants, dolphins, cats, magpies, mice, salmon, ants or bees know who they are? Was Jethro, my late companion dog, a self-conscious being? Do any of these animals have a sense of self?

What do these animals make of themselves when they look in a mirror, see their reflection in water, hear their own or another's song or howl, or smell themselves and others? Is it possible that self-awareness "Wow that's me!" is a uniquely human trait?

Because there's much interest and much exciting work to be done concerning what animals know about themselves, it's worth reflecting on what we do and don't know about animal selves. There are academic and practical reasons to do so.

In his book, "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex," Charles Darwin pondered what animals might know about themselves. He wrote: "It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth."

However, Darwin did believe that animals had some sense of self, and also championed the notion of evolutionary continuity, leading him to also write, "Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind." Thus, there are shades of gray and not black-and-white differences between humans and other animals in cognitive abilities. So, while animals might not ponder life and death the way humans do, they still may have some sense of self.

After decades of studying animals ranging from coyotes and gray wolves to domestic dogs and Adelie penguins and other birds, I've come to the conclusion that not only are some animals self-aware, but also that there are degrees of self-awareness. Combined with studies by my colleagues, it's wholly plausible to suggest that many animals have a sense of "mine-ness" or "body-ness." So, for example, when an experimental treatment, an object, or another animal affects an individual, he or she experiences that "something is happening to this body."

Many primates relax when being groomed and individuals of many species actively seek pleasure and avoid pain. There's no need to associate "this body" with "my body" or with "me" (or "I"). Many animals also know the placement in space of parts of their body as they run, jump, perform acrobatics, or move as a coordinated hunting unit or flock without running into one another. They know their body isn't someone else's body.

In my book, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart (Oxford University Press; 2003), and elsewhere, I argue that a sense of body-ness is necessary and sufficient for most animals to engage in social activities that are needed in the social milieus in which they live. But, while a sense of body-ness is necessary for humans to get along in many of the situations they encounter, it's often not sufficient for them to function as they need to. A human typically knows who he or she is, say by name, and knows that "this body" is his, Marc's, or him, Marc. There's a sense of "I-ness" that's an extension of "body-ness" or "mine-ness."

So, my take on animal selves is that David Greybeard and Jethro knew they weren't one of their buddies. Many animals know such facts as "this is my tail," "this is my territory," "this is my bone or my piece of elk," "this is my mate," and "this is my urine." Their sense of mine-ness or body-ness is their sense of self.

How do animals differentiate themselves from others? Many studies of self-awareness have used mirrors to assess how visual cues are used. Such studies been effective for captive primates, dolphins and elephants. Although mirror-like visual images are absent in most field situations, it's possible that individuals learn something about themselves from their reflections in water. But, scientists also need to know more about the role of senses other than vision in studies of self-awareness because some animals for example, rodents who can distinguish among individuals don't seem to respond to visual images.

Odors and sounds are very important in the worlds of many animals. Many mammals differentiate between their own and others' urine and glandular secretions, and many birds know their own and others' songs. Moving Jethro's "yellow snow" from place to place allowed me to learn that Jethro made fine discriminations between his own and others' urine. Perhaps a sense of self relies on a composite signal that results from integrating information from different senses.

While there are "academic" questions about animal self-awareness, there also are some very important practical reasons to learn about animal selves. Achieving reliable answers to such questions is critical since they're often used to defend the sorts of treatment to which individuals can be ethically subjected. However, even if an animal doesn't know "who" she is, this doesn't mean she can't feel that something painful is happening to her body. Self-awareness may not be a reliable test for an objective assessment of well-being.

So, do any animals, when looking at themselves, hearing themselves,or smelling themselves, exclaim "Wow, that's me"? Do they have a sense of "I-ness?" We really don't know, especially for wild animals. It's time to get out of the armchair and into the field. Speculation doesn't substitute for careful studies of behavior.

Some people don't want to acknowledge the possibility of self-awareness in animals because if they do, the borders between humans and other animals become blurred and their narrow, hierarchical, anthropocentric view of the world would be toppled. But Darwin's ideas about continuity, along with empirical data and common sense, caution against the unyielding claim that humans and perhaps a few other animals, such as other great apes and cetaceans are the only species in which some sense of self has evolved.

By: Marc Bekoff | OpEd | Live Science |

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Are Pigs as Smart as Dogs, and Does It Really Matter?" This article appeared as "Do Animals Know Who they Are?" in Psychology Today. More of the author's essays are available in "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed" (New World Library, 2013).

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

Past Member (0)
Friday September 20, 2013, 10:05 am
I think we need to consider consciousness in terms of degree of self-awareness. Non-human primates appear to be just as conscious and self-aware as humans. The reality is that we should be doing more to protect our fellow primates because they easily meet or surpass the most minimal standards of personhood.

Cetaceans, based upon brain-to-body size as well as upon research, appear to have a great deal of self-awareness and identity. Given their lives as aquatic beings, their ideas of identity and consciousness may be very different than ours, but no less valid.

Many other mammals appear to have moments of consciousness and therefore, identity, that are distinct from other times of their day(or night) when they are operating from what appears to be a fairly automatic, instinctual process. Sometimes my cat appears to be thinking, considering options, and then communicating what is apparently a fairly lengthy list of demands. Other times, she appears to be on auto-pilot and just operating as a cat, any cat, might do.

Some species of birds appear to exhibit conscious behavior, including a sense of identity. Certain types of parrots demonstrate a remarkable level of consciousness and personality. Other species of birds appear to never demonstrate more than instinctual programming. Further down along the evolutionary tree, there may be consciousness of a sort, but there doesn't appear to be much evidence to suggest anything beyond instinctual behavior.

This line of research is powerfully exciting and relevant to helping us understand what it really means to be human and how we might better relate to the other species on this planet...but like everything else good in our world...more funding is needed.

Gloria p (304)
Friday September 20, 2013, 11:28 am
Of course they know who they are!

JL A (281)
Friday September 20, 2013, 11:32 am
Fascinating stuff begging the question of when a cat looks at a screen image of a lion, does he think he's looking the mirror at himself?

Karin Abraham (27)
Friday September 20, 2013, 11:36 am
Thanks for the article. I believe all animals have consciousness and are self-aware -- maybe not to the extent that humans are, but a lot more than we give them credit for.

Kathleen R (192)
Friday September 20, 2013, 11:47 am
Interesting article. I do believe animals are self aware. I don't think it's less that humans, I believe it just different. Which doesn't make it less important.

Kit B (276)
Friday September 20, 2013, 12:02 pm

A few years ago my husband declared that the animals did not know their names. With a flat and gentle voice I asked each one by name to come to me. "Lily please come here, Callie, please come here....." until all 4 cats and Buddy the dog were sitting in front of me, looking with curious eyes and wondering what I wanted. I'm not even sure how well humans know themselves, so how can we decide if animals have self knowledge?

Past Member (0)
Friday September 20, 2013, 12:13 pm
like Kathleen R. saying

Thank you, Kit ~

Dot A (182)
Friday September 20, 2013, 12:15 pm
Great article Kit! and as so many here have attested, of course they do, and they're especially responsive to those who love and appreciate them!!!

Arielle S (313)
Friday September 20, 2013, 1:26 pm
Duh - is the Pope Catholic? Of course, they know who they are - We think we are so much smarter and more capable - HA They can smell better, hear better, some can run faster, some can fly...Just because they don't speak the way humans speak doesn't mean they aren't way ahead of us in many ways. I mean, I ask you - who is smarter? your dog or cat or John Boehner? Which would you rather be with? Which would you trust more?

Kit B (276)
Friday September 20, 2013, 1:39 pm

Oh gee Arielle that is a tough question. I know I trust my fur babies, I know that under no circumstance could I trust the orange man. My fur friends are delightfully interesting and fun. The orange man is most often dour and stern faced, but sometimes he cries.

Arielle S (313)
Friday September 20, 2013, 1:46 pm
I wonder if the orange man knows who he is? (why oh why did one of those red-butted baboons pop into my head?)

. (0)
Friday September 20, 2013, 1:58 pm
Probably not. Thanks for sharing. Kit.

Roger G (154)
Friday September 20, 2013, 2:41 pm
noted, thanks

Winnie A (179)
Friday September 20, 2013, 2:59 pm
No doubt in my mind, YES!

Sheryl G (360)
Friday September 20, 2013, 3:30 pm
They are the more highly evolved we are the lowly ones. They seldom kill except for food, there is no greed, no envy, no destruction of the planet comes from them. They never doubt who they are, they just are, they live in the now and enjoy "being" while we struggle to figure it all out, hurting each other, killing each other, torturing, hated, we spend too many days working, crying, and suffering. All for what? To destroy our planet, see who can be at the top of the hill, who has the mightiest weapons. Native people always knew, we had MUCH to learn FROM the animals not the other way around.

Julia R (297)
Friday September 20, 2013, 3:56 pm
Great article! I really like Marc Bekoff as a scientist and a writer. Based on this article as well as my interactions with my pets, I would say that animals do have a sense of self and definitely as Darwin so aptly stated that the difference between man and animals is one of degree not kind. Even if one could say that animals are less self-aware than we are, their brains and emotions are still very complex and we are really only novices when it comes to having a real understanding of their emotions and thought processes! Hopefully, as we show more respect for their lives and start to see them in a new light other than a purely exploitive one, we will be able to see them more objectively just as Mr. Beckoff and appreciate their abilities including their capacity for empathy!

Gene J (290)
Friday September 20, 2013, 4:29 pm
"Some people don't want to acknowledge the possibility of self-awareness in animals because if they do, the borders between humans and other animals become blurred and their narrow, hierarchical, anthropocentric view of the world would be toppled."

Anyone who has ever seen a grieving animal sitting next to its dead mate, or the video of the porpoise grieving her dead calf knows these animals surely have a sense of self and other. They are governed more by natural law than by reason and it is our own self awareness that truly sets us apart but to deny other animals have a sense of self and other is to deny one's own sight. They, even the lowest, certainly recognize pain, they scurry from it, run from it, hide from it when WE don't even know it is there or coming. They aren't us, but that doesn't make them any less. It does diminish those of us who do not see that truth. Growing up on a farm, our animals were not pets, I always knew where our food came from, but I never saw the adults who raised me treat an animal callously and not just because they were commodities and profit producing but because it was right, morally, to treat animals with respect and even love. I learned from them and have taken those lessons with me to the city. Where I find the savagery of humanity to far exceed anything I ever saw in the natural world.

Vicky P (476)
Friday September 20, 2013, 4:51 pm
according to science, no. Only primates show that, recently dolphins as well. All other animals even though they feel sadness, pain, anger like we do, don't know who they are.

pam w (139)
Friday September 20, 2013, 5:34 pm
Yoshiko is one of our chimpanzees. She likes to examine her teeth and will do so at GREAT length...if someone holds up a mirror so she can see her image.


Bryna Pizzo (139)
Friday September 20, 2013, 6:03 pm
I do think that many animals have a sense of self. As Kit said, her furry friends all come when she calls them just as ours do; therefore, I must conclude they have a sense of self. I also have to mention that the orange man is most beneath the baboon on the evolutionary scale. Thank you for the interesting piece and conversation.

Bryan S (105)
Friday September 20, 2013, 6:06 pm
Animals certainly have self awareness, though maybe not the same as humans -- not in the same way we think of identity. Animals are governed more by instinct, though ironically you could say (as many do) that the mental constructs humans possess cause them not to know themselves or their world.

Barbara K (60)
Friday September 20, 2013, 6:21 pm
I think they do have a sense of self awareness and know who they are. When I call Tommy, Tommy comes. When I call Charlee, Charlee comes, as did the other cats who have gone to Rainbow Bridge. Sometimes Charlee sets and stares at himself in the mirror and I think he now knows that it is him. When he first noticed his reflection, he tried reaching under the door to touch the cat he was seeing. I opened the door a little and left it ajar and just watched. He would look in the mirror and then look "behind" the mirror, actually the door, but I think that Charlee thought he was looking behind that thing that looked like him. lol. They have their favorite foods, their favorite sleeping spots. When they want to be held and when they don't. Yes, I think they do have a sense of themselves. Even when they take turns licking each others' heads. They definitely know when a strange cat is in THEIR yard. lol.

Kit B (276)
Friday September 20, 2013, 6:32 pm

Many years ago I saw a video taken with hidden camera in a forested area. The camera caught a leopard killing a chimp high up in tree. Just as chimp was attacked something fell from her arms. Before the viewer could see what was falling, the leopard had jumped to ground, caught the baby chimp and began to bring it to her own teat. That is a sense of self, a sense of what we call morality, and a sense of right. The leopard was banded and the team doing the research was able to track her and find both she and the baby chimp.
I'm not positive about when, but I believe that video was posted to Care 2 news.

Sheila D (194)
Friday September 20, 2013, 8:33 pm
Oh, Arielle, I will never get the picture of a baboon out of my mind every time I look at his picture...

Kit B (276)
Friday September 20, 2013, 8:42 pm

But just one part of the baboon.

Laurie H (817)
Friday September 20, 2013, 8:52 pm
This is a great topic Kit & I have no doubt in my mind that animals have a sense of self. Every fur baby I was blessed to share my home with certainly did. I remember how handsome my Golden Retriever, Bear, looked standing in front of the full length mirror at himself, looking so proud and happy!!!! My Tara does this now and I tell her how beautiful she is! My Simba (may he RIP,) knew he was so very handsome---my "Lion King!" Each of my fur babies knew who's dish was theirs, knew their names when addressed, it just goes on and on. Thanks Kit for the share!!!~

Inge B (202)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 1:31 am
Slaughtering animals know their fate, are we aware of what we do and eat? and why do we do it?

Love and Understanding

Teresa W (782)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 2:18 am
fascinating, thank you

Past Member (0)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 4:33 am

Ruth C (87)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 6:57 am
Yes they do.

Esther Z (94)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 7:21 am
I believe animals are self aware, sentient beings. Their self -awareness is shown by the way they socialize; how they form cliques, tribes, prides, flocks, colonies, and well, you get the point. If you're a cat owner, which I happen to be, you'll know the experience of how each cat has a different personality, and how some tend to socialize more with some than others. You'll also notice, how one usually becomes the dominant "Alpha" cat, and others become the "followers". Self awareness is nothing without self preservation; wanting the perks that comes with a dominant role shows a high degree of self- awareness. The self- awareness might not be as complex and sophisticated as a human's, but like the article stated, "the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind".

Thanks for posting the article, Kit. I really enjoyed it!

Lloyd H (46)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 7:43 am
There are some really big problems with this question. Which animals, do you count coral polyps and brain eating amoeba they are animals. Then there is the problem with Cnidia, the colony animals, siphonophores, true jelly fish et alia, where each "animal" is composed of specialized animals. There is also the problem with the Social/Hive animals do you consider the whole colony or an individual. Then there is the problem with the human observer, none of which I can see eliminating anthropomorphizing the reactions they observe or elicit. And I am almost sorry to bring this up but I see no difference between your pets responding to the specific sounds, aka their names, as they have been trained to and Pavlov's dogs responding to a bell. There are some very highly trained primates that might be communicating or just doing what is necessary to get a reward. Although since some primates and monkeys do practice prostitution and bribery particularly with bits of flesh they may be getting close. There is also the mirror problem too many animals never get to the point of knowing that it is not another animal and most of those who do simply stop reacting to the image. The assumption that human psychology can be used for totally non-humans is ridiculous until we can convers with the animals in question on their own terms and in their own way.

Esther Z (94)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 10:06 am
An amoeba is not an animal; it's a single cell microorganism.

Mary Donnelly (47)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 1:58 pm
Thanks again Kit.

M B (62)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 2:48 pm
Animals differ from humans; take dogs for example, they live in the "NOW", they don't have the past and the future.....I think that animals are self aware, its part of their instinct, indeed they rely on odor instead of recognizing themselves in a mirror.

Past Member (0)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 3:19 pm
When I see that iconic picture of a cow just about to be slaughtered and understand the fear in her eyes, I have NO doubt that she knows who she is and what is happening to her.

Nimue Michelle Pendragon Gaze (339)
Saturday September 21, 2013, 5:21 pm
Interesting. Thanks.

Suzan F (137)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 3:42 am
I believe most animals do know who they are. C'mon...they know their names & come when called, they (sometimes) react to seeing themselves in a mirror. Our Boston, Jack, truly considers himself second only to the Alpha male (my husband) of the "pack." We would protect family members, & so would Jack. He knows there's good stuff in the bags when we get home from the store. If nothing else, they know when they are part of a pack, & they know who leads, & they know their place. They have to know!

Craig Pittman (52)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 5:11 am
Oh I am pretty sure there is a degree of self-awareness in various species including humans in some cases.

Lloyd H (46)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 5:56 am
Esther Z, you need to learn some basic science, amoebae are animals. And you need to beware of the number of cells argument as a fertilized ova is a single cell. And you are, I fear intentionally, ignoring the point about just what animals are going to be used to bolster this argument about self-awarness in animals.

Ben O (152)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 7:49 am
I guess so, but when it comes to us...
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be"
(Kurt Vonnegut)

Kit B (276)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 9:48 am

Amoeba - not an animal

Amoeba (genus)
Scientific Classification

KINGDOM - Protist

PHYLUM - Protozoa

CLASS - Rhizopoda

ORDER - Amoebida

FAMILY - Amoebidae

GENUS - Amoeba

SPECIES - Amoeba (many species)

Esther Z (94)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 10:20 am
LLOYD H., based on what I've read, amoebas belong to the Domain of Eukaryota, Kingdom of Protista, Phylum of Amoebozoa with subsequent sub-phylum that classify the amoeba as ANIMAL LIKE. The amoeba is not considered an animal, since it lacks certain properties and characteristics, only animal like.
As for an fertilized ova, I would think, based on it's genus, it would have different properties, so a comparison is a bit far-fetched.
No, LLOYD H., I'm not ignoring any point, nor am I trying to "bolster" any argument, nor do I have an agenda of any sorts. I was under the assumption the article was posted so people could post their beliefs and experiences. My experience with animals, and primarily with cats, is that animals are self aware, sentient beings. It's my experience. Period. You can believe what you want. I would suggest you take a deep breath, and not jump to conclusions on what most people post on this forum.

Fiona O (565)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 1:29 pm
Always an interesting question.....with many considerations.

Since we (home sapiens sapiens...that translates as man wise wise) have decided that the ratio between the size of our brain as estimated from skull size to our overall body weight makes us the smartest primates, let's see if any other complicated animal organisms compete with us when we use this standard for measurement and conclusion.

Corvids ..... ravens, crows, bluejays, jackdaws ARE ALL much more intelligent than we are.

ALL parrots are smarter than we are.

All toothed cetaceans .... orcas, dolphins, narwhals, humpback whales are also our intellectual superiors. Interesting these are, air breathing, former land dwelling mammals who chose to return to the sea and thus have 3/4 of this planet. We had to be very shortsighted at that time in our evolution to settle for so much less.

Somehow I feel that there might be other animals so clever we have not "discovered or endangered" them,.

Robert Hardy (68)
Sunday September 22, 2013, 10:26 pm
Hell, my dog told me about this a long time ago.

Lloyd H (46)
Monday September 23, 2013, 6:34 am
I stand corrected on the classification of amoebae, not a big surprise since it has been 40+ years since I worked in the biology department in my high school or in college and my reference materials at home still list amoebae and the like as animals. The problem I have is not just which animals are being discussed but the interpretation of hard wired instincts as equivalent to human-like activities and patterns. Social Insects are not actually forming societies in the human sense, and colony-organisms are not actually colonies in the human sense. Pack/Pod/Pride... are not generally joined or left out of conscious choice. I do not have a real problem with intelligence, other than the fact that we can not even measure or define it for ourselves, the problem is that when ever this discussion comes up all I see is vast amounts of anthropomorphizing animal actions.

divergent revolution (309)
Monday September 23, 2013, 12:38 pm
"Is? Space pope reptilian? "Bender, from futurama
I also had someone tell me my dog didn't understand my words, so in a monotone, asked, where is the bird,dog looks up, then where's the fish, dog looked into the ocean. ..they know when it's mealtime, usually minutes from the clock time.
Thanks Kit, never a question in my mind.

Past Member (0)
Tuesday September 24, 2013, 4:17 am
From what I can tell, most animals looking at a mirror want to get into a fight.

Melania P (122)
Thursday September 26, 2013, 12:22 pm
So sharing, thanks!
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