Social Order and Animal Consciousness

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202
2002 First Paper
On Serendip

Social Order and Animal Consciousness

Porsha Gaughen

There is nothing new about the uncanny abilities of animals. People have noticed them for centuries. Millions of pet owners and pet trainers today have experienced them personally. But at the same time, many people feel they have to deny these abilities or trivialize them. They are ignored by institutional science. Pets are the animals we know best, but their most surprising and intriguing behavior is treated as of no real interest. Why should this be so, and what about the implications of animal consciousness and intelligence through the behavior observed by those with close relations to animals.

One reason for institutional science’s lack of interest is a taboo against taking ‘pets’ seriously. This taboo is not confined to scientist but is a result of the split attitudes to animals expressed in our society as a whole. During working hours we commit ourselves to economic progress fueled by science and technology and based on the mechanistic view of life. This view, dating back to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, derives form René Descarte’s theory of the universe as a machine. Though the metaphors have changed (from the brain as a hydraulic machine in Descarte’s time), life is still thought of in terms of machinery. Animals and plants are seen as genetically programmed automata.

Meanwhile, back at home, we have our pets. Pets are in a different category from other animals. Pet-keeping is confined to the private, or subjective, realm. Experiences with pets are kept out of the real, or objective, world. There is a huge gulf between companion animals, treated as members of the family, and animals in factory farms and research laboratories. Our relationships with our pets are based on different sets of attitudes, on I-thou relationships rather than I-it approach encouraged by science.

Whether in the laboratory or in the field, scientific investigators typically try to avoid emotional connections with the animals they are investigating. They aspire to a detached objectivity. They would therefore be unlikely to encounter the kinds of behavior and apparent consciousness that depend on the close attachment between animals and people. In this realm, animal trainers and pet owners are generally far more knowledgeable and experienced than professional researchers on animal behavior- unless they happen to be pet owners themselves.

Consciousness has been found to be one of the hardest things to define and study. The textbook definition of "Consciousness" is the full knowledge of what is in one’s own mind; awareness. "Consciousness" has many uses that may not be simplified into a single concept. Several useful distinctions among different senses of consciousness have been made though, and aided by these distinctions, it is possible to gain some clarity on the important questions that remain about animal consciousness. There are two notable senses of consciousness which are involved when a creature is awake rather than asleep, and the sense of consciousness shown in the primal ability of organisms to perceive and consequently respond to features of their environments, thus showing them as conscious or aware of of those features. Consciousness in both these senses has been identified in organisms belong to a wide variety of taxonomic groups.

One researcher, Pete Chernika, who has intimately studied consciousness, specifically in dolphins, observes "In experiments, for instance, dolphins appear to pass one consciousness test by recognizing themselves in mirrors. And dolphins also exhibit a keen awareness of the status and identity of other dolphins in their highly social groups. They know who mom is, who the leaders of the pod are, and how they should behave around different individuals," he says. "They appear to be able to envision themselves in relation to all these other animals and then act accordingly."

Many researchers agree that consciousness is more likely in highly social animals such as chimps and dolphins, who must be able to see themselves in relation to others in their groups in order to get along. "Complex social interaction puts a high priority on awareness of self and others," says Chernika.

It is impossible to observe these intangible bonds that form between social animals, that link together the members of their groups or families. The same is true of human social bonds. Our domesticated animals are by nature social, as are we. The bonds between animals and humans are a kind of hybrid between the bonds that animals form with each other and those that people form with each other.

Within these social bonds and interactions there exists an order which may suggest the consciousness of each individual of their function or position within their given social structure. For an animal to recognize its position within the hierarchy of a group, it seems that they would have to be vaguely cognizant of themselves as an individual. Factors such as size, ferociousness, being of the male gender, ect.,which are normally thought to dictate order in most social animal communities, are only fragments of establishing hierarchies and social structures. As an example, elephants usually associate in herds of about 20 individuals led by an old female, or matriarch. It has been observed that the eldest and most experience elephant is chosen as the matriarch and this position is not challenged. The other elephants are respectful and conscious of their place in the herd, and it is not until the matriarch dies is she replaced by the next oldest in the herd. Elephants happen to be very social and keenly sensitive to the motions and noises of the other elephants in their herd, fierce ‘animal’ competition does not dictate their order. Rather a sense of respect and an acute awareness of others behavior causes each individual to behave in a way that creates a cohesive social structure. In many animal social structures this deliberate self-modifcation of behavior and sense of place indicates an awareness of self.

Questions about animal consciousness are a fraction of the large set of questions about animal cognition and mind. The answers to these question of whether animals are conscious beings or "mere automata" could have serious moral consequences, considering the dependence of our societies the uses of animals for biomedical research and farming. The so-called "cognitive revolution" that occurred during the late 20th century has finally led to many experiments by psychologists and ethologists exploring the cognitive capacities of animals. Despite all this work, the topic of consciousness in animals has remained controversial, even taboo, among scientists, even while it remains a matter of common sense to most people that many other animals do have conscious experiences.


1) Riba, Rebecca. ‘How Small is the Circle: The question of animal consciousness’

2) Animal Consciousness

3) ‘Nature: Inside the Animal Mind’ mind/consciousness.html

4) Consciousness and Self-Conciousness

5) Griffin, Donald. ‘Animal minds’

6) Animal Cognition and Animal Minds

| Forums | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:09 CDT