Consciousness, Ethics and Ravens

Image: Auguste von Bayern
Image: Auguste von Bayern

I have for a long time now been fascinated and perplexed by the challenges of basing human rights and ethics on an alternative quality such as genetics or consciousness as opposed to religion or natural law. Scientific and ethical discussion can impact and is impacting how we treat other species, particularly highly intelligent animals such as dolphins, chimps and ravens.

A recent study  by Ivo F. Jacobs and his colleagues[1on “object-caching” (an interest in novel objects, manipulating, utilising and even taking and stashing objects they find) by members of the raven family confirmed that these birds can use insight to solve problems, cand make and use a variety of tools. Mary Bates summarizes the findings of the team nicely;[2]

The researchers presented the birds with a set of 16 novel objects on a tray next to a cachable food item. If object caching was only a side effect of a strong food caching motivation, the birds would be expected to take the food before taking any objects.

Individuals from all three species frequently touched, moved, and cached objects, showing that interest in objects is not limited to juveniles, food cachers, tool users, or birds deprived of cachable food.


Animals learn about their physical environment by interacting with objects, and corvids may build up a knowledge database of their world through object exploration. This might help them discover new sources of food, evade different kinds of predators, or adapt to changing or new environments. Jacobs says corvids fit this picture because they are relatively large-brained, long-lived, adaptable, playful, and innovative. They are known for their behavioral flexibility and interest in new things. Object caching may reflect an exploratory spirit that helps these birds adapt to and exploit their environment.

All those mentions of; tool use, building up a database of knowledge, exploration, large brains, and adaptability will surely ring a bell with the more anthropologically minded of you. It is precisely these sorts of qualities which are often suggested as contributing factors to the, in many ways seemingly unlikely, ascent of mankind in the animal kingdom. It is easy to forget that without our “extelligence” – a wonderful term coined by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen in their 1997 book Figments of Realityto explain our ability to story huge amounts of knowledge and experience within society and to pass it on through the generations – humans might not seem all that much more intelligent than many other species out there.

But even defining the term “consciousness” itself is seen by many as a futile endeavour, with competing definitions ranging from the religious, to the metaphysical to the physically deterministic. Nonetheless, we seem generally to attribute much importance to ideas such as problem solving, self-awareness, empathy and generally the “higher cognitive functions” we for so long though exclusive to humans. Yet the recent trend is that we are finding more and more evidence for these traits elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

Science has shown that individuality – consciousness, self-awareness – is no longer a unique human property. That poses all kinds of challenges.

– Ethics Professor Tom Whit, Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles

Although I don’t have time to go into it in detail (hopefully a topic for another day), the excellent talk given by Sam Harris to TED in March 2010  puts forth the, sadly often dismissed, notion that science can indeed  have a go at answering moral questions. He grounds his argument in the idea that generally we accept a good rule of thumb for ethics is to increase the universal level of happiness and welfare. He goes on to say that the scientific and ethical community are suffering under the notion that tolerance means that all opinions in the field of ethics must be treated equally – one moral system cannot be said to be objectively worse than another. He controversially refutes this point and suggests that the Taliban can be as scientifically, measureably wrong about morality as they might be about physics, and that the ethical community need respect their views no more than the physics community might. Where does Sam Harris then decide the justification for deeming something moral or immoral comes from?

At a slightly different version of this lecture, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins discussed The Moral Landscape at The University of Oxford on April 12th, 2011. Here, he made the point more clearly that promoting “welfare” and reducing suffering should really be based on our idea of consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to comprehend our situation. This ties in rather neatly to the idea that many of our concepts of morality and ethics come from various forms of empathy (both the emotive, knee-jerk reactionary sort, and the rational sort) – being able to imagine yourself in the other person’s position. This is one of the reasons it is difficult to feel sorry for a stone being run over by a car, or a mosquito being squashed by a hand, but we feel a sense of shared pain if we see an injured person or a caged chimpanzee. Dogs perhaps are a good example of how difficult the idea of empathy can be, as it is not always rational and we might feel more empathy for cute animals than less cute ones, but to a great extent, we feel worse if we feel an animal can truly to some extent comprehend their suffering. Though Harris’ talk deals primarily with the implications of human rights being based on the protection of conscious beings, he does open this sort of protection and inclusion in the moral sphere to animals which might approach our level of consciousness or self-awareness.

Indeed, a few years back a move was made at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver (the world’s biggest science conference) by experts in philosophy, conservation and animal behaviour to support a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.[3] The BBC article goes on to list a number of examples used by the proponants to support the philosophical redefinition of many whales, dolphins and orcas as “people”;

  • A member of a group of orcas, or killer whales, in Patagonia had a damaged jaw and could not feed. The elderly whale was fed and kept alive by its companions.
  • Dolphins taking part in an experiment had to press one of two levers to distinguish between sounds, some of which were very similar. By pressing a third lever, they were able to tell the researchers they wanted to “pass” on a particular test because it was too hard. “When you place dolphins in a situation like that they respond in exactly the same way humans do,” said Dr Lori Marino. “They are accessing their own minds and thinking their own thoughts.”
  • A number of captive dolphins were rewarded with fish in return for tidying up their tank. One of them ripped up a large paper bag, hid away the pieces, and presented them one at a time to get multiple rewards.
  • In Iceland, killer whales and fishermen have been known to work together. The whales show the fishermen where to lay their nets, and in return are allowed to feed on part of the catch. Then they lead the fleet to the next fishing ground.

These sorts of questions could of course have a serious impact on human rights and animal welfare law, in fact blurring the boundaries between the two. Such questions have been dealt with quite recently in the US Supreme court regarding the application of human rights to chimpanzees.  Though ultimately unsuccessful The Nonhuman Rights Project filed three lawsuits on behalf of four chimps in order to win them the right to “bodily liberty.” As Charlotte Alter put it;

Founder and President Steve Wise has previously said that the lawsuits aimed to ask ”judges to recognize, for the first time, that these cognitively complex, autonomous beings have the basic legal right to not be imprisoned.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project had expected to lose this first round of lawsuits, but the group plans to appeal the decisions as a habeas corpus petition, most likely in early 2014.

These questions are somewhat reminiscent of the 1952 novel by Jean Bruller, under his pseudonym Vercors, Les animaux dénaturés, also called You Shall Know Them in English. In this novel, the moral question of the genetic (rather than simply consciouness) similarity of humans and higher primates is cleverly addressed. Anthropologists travel to New Guinea to search for a missing link in human evolution. They find an actual population of ape-like creatures, which they name Tropis. However, all is not well for the  Tropis and soon a businessman named Vancruysen decides to use them as slave labourers without rights or pay. The anthropologists decide they must come up with a definitive answer to the question of whether or not the Tropis are human. They had, up to this point, avoided doing this on the grounds that fixing an arbitrary limit between human and non-human is ethically difficult to justify, as discussed above, and akin to the sorites paradox. They initially attempt to use the standard species defining criterion of interfertility, but it appears that Tropi females can be impregnated by sperm from both man and ape.

To force the authorities to reach a decision, thus giving legal protection of the Tropis whether as animals or citizens, one of the scientists deliberately kills the baby born from one Tropi female impregnated by his own sperm. The trial will then determine whether he committed murder, (making the Tropis human) or simply killed an animal. In light of the very slight genetic dissimilarity of humans to many higher order primates, and the growing understanding of the capacity for “consciousness”, self-awareness and higher order intelligence in other animals, the tricky ethical questions, such as those raised regarding the Tropis, are bound to become increasingly difficult to answer as we re-examine our definitions of consciousness and morality.


[1] Ivo F. Jacobs, , Mathias Osvath, Helena Osvatha, Berenika Mioduszewska, Auguste M.P. von Bayern, Alex Kacelnik, “Object caching in corvids: Incidence and significance”, Behav Processes. 2013 Dec 11,

[2] Mary Bates, “A Playful, Curious Spirit Drives Avian Exploration”, Wired Science, Zoologic, available at 

[3] “Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists”, BBC News, February 2012, available at


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