Phenomena, Comment and Notes

As scientists probe deeper into whether animals really have consciousness, peripheral questions arise. If they think, do we really want to know what they think . . . about us?

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For a good part of this century, while the behaviorists ruled, science gave animals little or no respect. They were thought to be automata or, as we would say today, "hardwired." Dogma had it that animals could not think, that they did not even have consciousness. Case closed.

In recent years, however, a few intrepid souls, inspired perhaps by Donald Griffin of Harvard University, have started to take another look. Papers that would have been sneered at a generation ago are being published in research journals. "The Problem of Animal Consciousness in Relation to Neuropsychology" is printed in Behavioural Brain Research. Science magazines are not far behind: "The Emotional Chicken" appears in New Scientist. And Smithsonian ran an article in March 1985 that showed animals not simply acting consciously but apparently with Machiavellian intent.

All this is exciting, but it is not surprising to those members of the population who share their lives with what are now known as companion animals. There's no doubt in my mind, for example, that dogs not only have consciousness but also a sense of humor. It is very nice to see animals at last getting some respect from the cold hearts of science. But it also makes me nervous . . . very, very nervous.

At the moment a dog named Gizzie shares my life, not to mention my food and a substantial fraction of my bed. He seems content but who can say? My great fear is that we will not only concede that animals have consciousness, we will find ways to piece together at least a general idea of what they think.

It could be a rude awakening. My dog loves to go for long walks across pastures and into the woods (I think), but recently I've begun to worry about what he's thinking as we wend our way together. Suppose, just suppose, he sees a typical walk as something like the following. (Having no idea of how a dog might actually think, I've given him a mostly human vocabulary.)

"They're so hard to deal with. Disappear upstairs for hours until in desperation I have to give my strangled-puppy yelp. He looks down the stairs and says ŒJust a minute.' Yeah, sure. Finally he comes down and takes forever to put those heavy things on his feet and then layer after layer of pelt. It must be so tedious to be a two-foot.

"Outside I have to walk toward the back gate over and over to show him the way. He doesn't see the flier sitting on the fence, its feathers all puffed out against the cold, until it flies. Something wrong with his eyes. 'Bluebird,' he says. So what, I say. It's too hard to catch and too small to eat.

"The wind is coming from where the sun goes down. It is heavy with the smell of the oversized grass eaters. But the smell of fresh manure makes me feel warm. I run this way and that, getting the kinks out. He straggles. As we walk across the field I have to stop every 50 yards to make sure he is still coming.

"When we come to the creek, I just walk across. What else? He stops, sticks out a foot, makes a big deal of stepping from rock to rock, finally gives a little jump to the other side. Why is he so afraid of water?

"Then the ground starts going up toward the sky. Big deal. I just keep walking. He comes up on an angle so he has to walk twice as far to get to the top. He is breathing hard like he has been running, but he has barely been moving. I'm feeling so good I can hardly keep my feet on the ground. So I race along the side of the hill, back and forth, in sheer exuberance. He finally makes it to the top, to the end of the pasture, to a fencerow that has come straight up the hill. Now I'm getting good smells, fresh ones. In and out of the bushes. Mice. Foxes. Weasels. Dogs trying to mark my territory.


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