When studying something which can be tested in a lab, scientists don’t hesitate to employ the tried and true formula: if it looks like shit, and smells like it, chances are it’s actually shit. When it comes to literal excrement, some scientists are real whizzes. Even without a DNA test, they can tell you with near-certainty through which species of animal’s anus a particular scat has passed. But when it comes to animal sentience, some scientists still don’t know shit (pardon my French—throughout).
Thanks to his creator, author Arthur Conan Doyle, the criminologist Sherlock Holmes famously pointed out that, “If you’ve eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains must be the truth.” Well, scientists have spent centuries toying with every other possibility to avoid the obvious fact that non-human animals are conscious, thinking, feeling beings.
Incredibly, there are some who’re still grappling with the question: “Are animals aware?” What the fuck—of course they’re aware! Most animals are far more aware of their surroundings than the average human, for that matter.
The science of animal behavior has come a long ways from the dark days of Rene Descartes, thanks to the likes of Donald Griffin, Marc Bekoff and other pioneers in the study of cognitive ethology. Just last summer, an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” The document stated that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness,” and concludes that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”
Having witnessed remarkably intelligent actions on the part of individuals throughout the animal kingdom—from the family dog leaping to his feet at the whispered mention of a “walk” or “car ride,” to a herd of wild bison mourning over the remains of their dead—my response to the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals is, “Well duh, tell us something we don’t know.”
Speciously, the Cambridge Declaration drew an arbitrary line and left the world of fishes out in the cold when it comes to animal consciousness. Far too many of today’s “behaviorists” still ascribe to the long outdated notion of fish the way science had long thought of all non-human animals—as automatons: mindless machines going through life without any more than random responses to stimuli.
Now I’m in no way anti-science—far from it, in fact—I just think that sometimes a scientist will spend an exorbitant amount of time chasing his or her tail when the answer they’re looking for is as plain as the nose on their face.
Take the question of animal communication, for example. We all know whales and dolphins are able (when they can find a quiet stretch of ocean—devoid of the deafening drone of ships or navy sonar) to communicate with one another through songs or clicks, respectively. But lately observers have learned that even fish have devised clever ways to keep in touch. According to an article entitled “Fish Farts: Herring Use Flatulence To Communicate” in the Huffington Post, apparently some types of herring pass gas to “speak” to each other without alerting other fish.
Researchers Bob Batty, Ben Wilson and Larry Dill made that Nobel Prize-worthy discovery after studying Pacific and Atlantic herring in Canada and Scotland, noting (importantly) that the gas is not caused by the digestive process. Instead, the fish swallow air from the surface and emit it through a small opening near their bung holes. Thus, profound as they may be, the bubbles aren’t really farts in the stinky, human sense.
So, it seems to me a bit arrogant to write an entire class of animal life out of a “Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals.” Granted, herring may not be flatulent enough to recite the Preamble to the Constitution, but then, as Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote, “Only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to.”
Time for skeptical scientists to wake up and smell the sentience when it comes to fish.