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.

This kind of cruel scientific doublethink isn’t surprising coming from a facility that has been cited so many times for their mistreatment of animals.

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


W. C
W. Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

William C
William Cabout a year ago


Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W6 years ago

Of course, it matters!

DAVID sanders6 years ago

I have not ticked yes or no, as the article has not changed my mind WE HAVE NO RIGHT TO EXPERIMENT ON ANY ANIMAL. We would not be allowed to experiment on humans without their consent ( although this occurred in mental hospitals, on black soldiers in USA, Unit 731 in Japan and under Joseph Mengles in nazi Germany). A human with a sub normal IQ should have the same RIGHTS as any other human. In the same light, ALL sentient animals should be afforded the right to be protected from cruelty from sad humans. Babies are not self aware but we rightly afford them greater protection than self aware adults.This is morality and should extend to all races and species.

Joe R.
Joe R7 years ago

In total agreement!

Past Member
Past Member 7 years ago

I don't like animal experimentation but I do think we need to find cures to diseases as cancer and ms as in my family, but not for smoking and cosmetics....maybe use rats not apes?

Muriel Servaege
Muriel Servaege7 years ago

I quite agree with Karren!

Karren Exley
Karren Exley7 years ago

chimps in particular have a mental aptitude as a 2 year old child so any abuse towards monkeys should be classed as child abuse & the sentance should show that i mean thers only 2 per cent difference in dna structure so they are classed as a toddler