From Electrons to Humans: a Mindful Planet

A review of the scientific evidence for the existence of feelings in squids, octopods, cuttlefish, crabs, lobsters and crayfish has just been published by the London School of Economics. It concludes thus: “We recommend that all cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans be regarded as sentient animals for the purposes of UK animal welfare law”. The government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which commissioned the report, has accepted the LSE’s judgement, and accordingly these animals will now be included in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill which is currently on its way through Parliament. This doesn’t mean that the many savage cruelties to which they are presently subjected will cease when the bill becomes law. Defra expressly reassures interested parties on this point: “Existing industry practices will not be affected, and there will be no direct impact on shellfish catching or on restaurant kitchens.” What it does mean, more vaguely, is that the welfare of these species will be “well considered in future decision-making”.

Octopuses and other cephalopod molluscs (squid, cuttlefish, nautilus) are already ‘protected’ animals in UK scientific research – to the extent that a licence is required for research that uses them. But certainly they are used, here and elsewhere in the world; such research indeed provided the evidence for the LSE review, and in fact the review refers to some of these animals as “intensively studied laboratory species”. And the research of special interest to the LSE is of course that worst kind of all, research into pain and distress. The review’s list of references indicates as much, with such key phrases as “anxiety-like behaviour”, “affective-motivational aspects of pain”, “acute and chronic effect of low temperature”, “noxious shock”, and “the effect of Crustastun on nerve activity”. Crustastun, by the way, is a slaughter device manufactured in the UK, either as a “single-animal unit for the hospitality sector” or as a “large-scale stunner for processors” (this weird language, half euphemism, half let-‘em-have-it!). So, as with much of the other research cited, that particular study was aimed at improving the lot of animals being treated as food, as indeed was the whole LSE review. Cruelty for kindness’s sake, then, if they but knew it. Haeckel decapods

In a most humane study of these and other marine creatures, titled Metazoa (meaning, roughly, multi-celled animals), the zoologist and philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith comments ruefully on this perversity in his own case: “All through this book I have used information that was gained, directly or indirectly, from experiments that were cruel in various ways . . . behind the scenes is often a lot of suffering.” But in fact Godfrey-Smith was pursuing something much less measurable, but possibly more important, than the sort of sentiency studied in those experiments. The sub-title of Metazoa is Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness, so the book is dealing with a theme that is commonly regarded as the most intractable mystery in both science and philosophy. Even in humans, capable as they are of reporting on their experiences, the ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘why’ of consciousness have no agreed answers and no prospect of any. The word itself is very variously defined, and even more loosely used. In animals, of course, who don’t speak at length to us, the puzzle is yet greater, but also, I hope to suggest, more promising.

We can at least start by putting consciousness into a sort of status-position in studies of the animal mind. First to come, after the merely insentient condition of stocks and stones (if indeed they are altogether insentient, a point we shall return to), is ‘nociception’, the awareness of harm without associated sense of pain, a state sometimes attributed to insects and also to some sharks, probably quite wrongly in both cases. Then comes sentience, the feeling and minding of both pains and pleasures. And then, inclusive of sentience, comes that state of unspecific mental awareness called consciousness. Paraphrases for it, used by Godfrey-Smith and others, include ‘presence’, ‘sense of self’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘lived experience’, and ‘having a point of view’. But perhaps the most favoured formulation is still the one which Thomas Nagel used in an essay which more or less launched philosophical study of the subject in 1974, titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ An organism has consciousness, said Nagel, “if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism [his emphasis].” It’s this formulation which the Oxford academic Charles Foster uses for the first line of his book of practical researches into the subject, Being a Beast (2016): “I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing.”

In Nagel’s essay, the bat was more of a thought experiment than a zoological subject: for him, the mystery of bat-experience illuminated the possibly insuperable difficulty of using science – that is, objective impersonal testable enquiry – to get at an inward and subjective condition. Still, he was convinced that there was a real experience called ‘being a bat’, however unimaginable to us. He nicely pointed out that a bat would surely find the experience of being a human similarly unimaginable, but would be wrong to conclude that there was no such thing. But it’s an indication of the uncertainties of the subject how very much opinions vary even among specialists: from denying consciousness to all except humans (though “Great apes come close” – Ramachandran), to stopping short at crustaceans (Edelman), right on or in to termites (“probably” – Searle). Petra Stoerig, a professor of biological psychology, goes beyond this sort of prize-day thinking. She argues (as indeed Godfrey-Smith does) that consciousness should be looked for not just in the mind, where humans have been hoarding it hitherto, but in the whole body of an animal. For instance, in elegance and control of movement many other species show “a basic form of self-awareness of which they may have more than we do”, and “there are plenty of other instances where they actually have more.”

This is indeed the necessary step, to disengage the study of consciousness from the human standard. For even the momentous Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness of 2012, in which some distinguished scientists stated that non-human animals possessed cerebral equipment capable of giving them conscious awareness, couldn’t help picturing humans as the central store and paradigm of this property, rather honourably sharing some of it with some of the others: “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” And with that disengagement will come, as Petra Stoerig shows, a better appreciation of different animal conditions. She has said “there are very many aspects to self-recognition and self-awareness . . . if you want to test them in different types of species you had better adjust your question to the species.”

Some of these many aspects are what Godfrey-Smith describes in Metazoa. His general aim is “to make sense of how experience came to exist on earth”, and he both reasons and shows that it had to come about when animals acted in and on their environments. Not just a feeling for what was going on around them became necessary to their welfare, but a distinction between their own bodies and the outside world. Thus the banded shrimp, having a variously-limbed body (“like a Swiss army knife”), needs to distinguish between its own complex parts and the external lives and surfaces that may bear upon them. In doing so, it is “sensing the world in a way that tracks the divide between self and other. Insects, part of the same arthropod phylum, must have something of this sense of self too, Godfrey-Smith says, because their flying is “a behaviour featuring especially complex feedback between action and the senses, the sort of feedback that contributes to a point of view.”

The octopus, with much more manoeuvrable limbs than the shrimp’s, and limbs which have their own nervous systems, is possibly “a being with multiple selves”, or at least a self that can divide and re-unite as required. And again Godfrey-Smith rejects the old human-centred style of assessment; the octopus is not so much ‘smart’, a term suggestive of ability to pass human tests, as “behaviourally complex”, “sensitive”, “exploratory”, terms relating to the inner life. He says of octopuses, with a respectful diffidence characteristic of his attitude to all the animals he encounters, “I think they experience their lives in a rich way.”

I should add that these are indeed encounters rather than generalizations, as you’d expect in what is partly a work of ethology (though of course there are generalizations too). Thus, a particular banded shrimp, one with a missing fore-limb, is a recurring presence in the book, last observed missing also a second fore-limb and looking “tired, very much on his own, and probably near the end of his days.” One octopus goes on a sort of “rampage”, as if showing off (“she certainly raised hell along the way”); another moves “in an unusual, stylized-looking way . . . winding his arms over his head and backward for no apparent reason, coiling an arm into a wheel.”

This is a helpful reminder of two things we know. One is that every ‘self’ is a true individual, however conditioned by its species-design (though collectives of ants and social bees may be an exception here). To speak in a general way of ‘the octopus’ or ‘a bat’ is a convenient fiction only. And then, such encounters as Godfrey-Smith describes are reciprocal; the animals are observers in their turn. He sees them looking at him. It’s a meeting of consciousnesses, a mysterious communion of alien beings.

So we come back to the questions, where and how in the story of life did consciousness enter into the material world? Of course there are many suggested answers, variously plausible, but one of them neatly and most appealingly makes the questions themselves unnecessary. This is the theory called ‘panpsychism’, which proposes that mind or awareness in some form was part of the story from the beginning, that so far from being a rare and elite property, consciousness (as the philosopher Philip Goff has said) “pervades the universe and is a fundamental part of it.” More specifically put by another proponent, “An electron . . . is a primitive experiential entity.” Primitive in the sense of coming first, certainly, but capable of combining and developing to create more complex selves and more acute awareness, until it reaches the hypertrophic condition that makes of the human mind a Babel of real and imagined voices.

Though it may have a somewhat outlandish sound, panpsychism is an established and serious philosophical (perhaps in time also scientific) position. Back in 1979 Thomas Nagel (subsequent to the ‘bat’ essay) argued that it was at least as plausible as any refutation of it, and that therefore “it should be added to the current list of mutually incompatible and hopelessly unacceptable solutions to the mind-body problem”. Since then the theory has gathered considerable academic support and substance. And as well as being attractive in itself, panpsychism has one great educational merit: it teaches us at last to look at the world, and at animal life in particular, not as their detached managers but (to use Frans de Waal’s image) as fellow-swimmers in the waters of consciousness.

Ever since René Descartes, in the seventeenth century, divided matter and mind as distinct creations, and gave the mind to humans alone (identifying it with the soul), zoologists and ethicists have had to chip their way back into the animal kingdom finding mind bit by bit. The situation is instanced in all those ‘smarter than you thought’ researches reported in the press. It’s evident again in the laborious species-by-species concession of sentience, just now reaching squids, crabs, shrimps and their kind, as we’ve seen. Panpsychism starts us at the other end, the right end. Our assumption will be that mind (or awareness or experience, however we name it) is as universal as matter. Now let researches prove, for instance, that a fly or a snail doesn’t have it. Until they do (if they ever can), we must concede, to all the animals, awareness and appreciation of their own worlds, and allow them to experience those worlds unimpeded and especially unkilled by humans. conscousness books

Notes and references:

Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans, by Jonathan Birch et al, was published by LSE Consulting Ltd in November 2021. It includes a survey of current practices in the fishing, farming, and slaughtering of these animals. It can be read online here:

The government’s response is here:

Metazoa: Animal Minds and the Birth of Consciousness is published by William Collins, 2021.

Thomas Nagel’s essay is reprinted in Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979. The quotation about panpsychism comes from an essay of that title published for the first time in that same collection.

Being a Beast is published by Profile Books, 2016. In this most remarkable book, Charles Foster attempts to live the characteristic lives, each in turn, of a badger, otter, fox, red deer, and swift. The result is a comic-heroic story of honourable failure.

The brief citations of specialist opinions (Ramachandran and others) are taken from interviews conducted by Susan Blackmore and published as Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 2005). The quotations from Petra Stoerig come from the same book. Susan Blackmore has also written an excellent summary of the subject in Consciousness, a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2017). She believes, incidentally, that human consciousness, in particular our sense of a persisting self, is a language-bound illusion.

Philip Goff is quoted from an interview in Scientific American (14 January 2020) titled ‘Does Consciousness Pervade the Universe?’, which can be read online here:  The quotation about the electron is from Peter Ells, Panpsychism, O-Books, 2011, p.115.

Frans de Waal’s image comes from the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?(2016), discussed in this blog here:

The fly and the snail: Godfrey-Smith provides various evidences for the self-hood of flies, and the snail is the subject of a very clear account of the whole question in an essay by the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, titled ‘Is There Something It’s Like to Be a Garden Snail?’ and published online here:

The illustration showing various decapods comes from the 1904 book Kunstformen der Natur (immediate source Wikipedia), written and illustrated by Ernst Haeckel, the great marine biologist and evolutionist. Haeckel was an early proponent of panpsychism, though he didn’t call it that, and he was also a pioneer of the science of ecology (a word he himself invented).

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