What do animals know?

Sunday 19 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Pit Theatre, Barbican Biomedical Battles

In 2012, prominent cognitive neuroscientists gathered at Cambridge University to announce the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, claiming: ‘The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.’ More broadly, this notion is now seeping into broader popular culture, for example in BBC2’s series, Inside the Animal Mind , and award-winning bestsellers such as Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures.

Advancing scientific study of animal cognition offers challenges on the one hand for our conceptualisation of our own species, and on the other hand for our attitudes towards and our understanding of all other species. Wesley J Smith of the American Discovery Institute has said that ‘the question of human exceptionalism…is the overriding moral and philosophical issue of our times’.

However, more sceptical voices reflect that this issue cannot be resolved simply by looking at the neuroscientific evidence. For example, the fact that animal and human emotions may be located in similar parts of the brain does not necessarily mean that the experience of emotion takes the same form. Also, it is perfectly feasible to argue that animals have consciousness if consciousness merely means ‘awareness’.

So is there a qualitative distinction between human and other animals’ cognitive abilities? Has the old disconnect between Homo sapiens and all other animals been undermined by recent advances in the knowledge of other species’ consciousness, making the ‘uniqueness’ of humans questionable? Is there an absolute divide between modern humans and all other creatures, or is there a continuum between human and non-human intelligence and consciousness? Is there more to this question than breakthroughs in neuroscience, for example an increasing tendency to reduce all consciousness to questions of brain activity? Do animals have minds?

Listen to the debate:

Professor Nicola Clayton
Professor of comparative cognition at the University of Cambridge; fellow of the Royal Society

Dr Helene Guldberg
director, spiked; author, Reclaiming Childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear and Just Another Ape?

Richard Swan
writer and academic

Produced by
Lesley Katon creative director, Pagefield
Richard Swan writer and academic
Recommended readings
Being a sandpiper

Animals have thoughts, feelings and personality. Why have we taken so long to catch up with animal consciousness?

Brandon Keim, Aeon, 2 July 2013

An interview with... Helene Guldberg on Man and Ape

It's fashionable today to liken humans to animals but the developmental psychologist says it's more interesting to study the ways in which we're remarkably different from other creatures

Five Books, 31 October 2012

The chasm between great apes and people

For all the claims that apes and humans are genetically ‘98.5 per cent the same’, there is still an unfathomable gap between us.

Helene Guldberg, spiked, 11 February 2011

Restating the case for human uniqueness

A brilliant new book cuts through all the media-oriented research about ‘clever chimps’ using tools, doing maths and feeling emotions, and reminds us that, in truth, there is nothing remotely human about primates.

Helene Guldberg, spiked, June 2009

Minds of Their Own

Animals are smarter than you think.

Virginia Morell, National Geographic, March 2008

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