The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness

By Dan Falk, originally published by Quanta Magazine.

In 2022, researchers at the Bee Sensory and Behavioral Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London observed bumblebees doing something remarkable: The diminutive, fuzzy creatures were engaging in activity that could only be described as play. Given small wooden balls, the bees pushed them around and rotated them. The behavior had no obvious connection to mating or survival, nor was it rewarded by the scientists. It was, apparently, just for fun.

The study on playful bees is part of a body of research that a group of prominent scholars of animal minds cited today, buttressing a new declaration that extends scientific support for consciousness to a wider suite of animals than has been formally acknowledged before. For decades, there’s been a broad agreement among scientists that animals similar to us — the great apes, for example —  have conscious experience, even if their consciousness differs from our own. In recent years, however, researchers have begun to acknowledge that consciousness may also be widespread among animals that are very different from us, including invertebrates with completely different and far simpler nervous systems.

The new declaration, signed by biologists and philosophers, formally embraces that view. It reads, in part: “The empirical evidence indicates at least a realistic possibility of conscious experience in all vertebrates (including all reptiles, amphibians and fishes) and many invertebrates (including, at minimum, cephalopod mollusks, decapod crustaceans and insects).” Inspired by recent research findings that describe complex cognitive behaviors in these and other animals, the document represents a new consensus and suggests that researchers may have overestimated the degree of neural complexity required for consciousness.

The four-paragraph New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness was unveiled today, April 19, at a one-day conference called “The Emerging Science of Animal Consciousness” being held at New York University. Spearheaded by the philosopher and cognitive scientist Kristin Andrews of York University in Ontario, the philosopher and environmental scientist Jeff Sebo of New York University, and the philosopher Jonathan Birch of the London School of Economics and Political Science, the declaration has so far been signed by 39 researchers, including the psychologists Nicola Clayton and Irene Pepperberg, the neuroscientists Anil Seth and Christof Koch, the zoologist Lars Chittka, and the philosophers David Chalmers and Peter Godfrey-Smith.

The declaration focuses on the most basic kind of consciousness, known as phenomenal consciousness. Roughly put, if a creature has phenomenal consciousness, then it is “like something” to be that creature — an idea enunciated by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his influential 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?” Even if a creature is very different from us, Nagel wrote, “fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism. … We may call this the subjective character of experience.” If a creature is phenomenally conscious, it has the capacity to experience feelings such as pain or pleasure or hunger, but not necessarily more complex mental states such as self-awareness.

“I hope the declaration [draws] greater attention to the issues of nonhuman consciousness, and to the ethical challenges that accompany the possibility of conscious experiences far beyond the human,” wrote Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex, in an email. “I hope it sparks discussion, informs policy and practice in animal welfare, and galvanizes an understanding and appreciation that we have much more in common with other animals than we do with things like ChatGPT.”

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This article was originally published by Quanta Magazine and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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