Printer Friendly

On not eating myself.

My teacher, a man who gave me much of what I know about my profession, is a prominent neuroscientist. He has spent most of his life studying language, and recently he gave a talk about the nature of consciousness. He carefully prefaced his argument by observing that lots of other very famous people have tried to talk about this topic, usually when they are just about to lose their own consciousness. But, he was persuasive. After scrupulous scientific documentation, he concluded that what we call consciousness is language, meaning human language, and his argument was a good one.

But I think it too small.

A few days after the talk, I boldly complained to him that I believe my dog has consciousness. If I don't get out of bed by six in the morning, I told him, she puts her nose in my ear. If I go into the bathroom, she waits, but if I put on my bathrobe, she goes downstairs leading me. She has a vocabulary of some fifty words, and responds to them. She knows when I'm supposed to come home at night, and sulks if I'm late. She loves me in a dog way. I do think this is a kind of consciousness, maybe even with a language element, and it seems to me we got it from animals, not the other way around. Montaigne, in his famous essay "Apology for Reymond Sebond," held the same position. The love is part of it too, for to love a being must have both a sense of the self and the other, as well as the idea of deep ecology born in our region.

A few days later still, my wife sent me E.B. White's 1948 essay "Death of a Pig," a story about the last of several pigs White bought each springtime to be butchered by him in the fall. This particular Sus domesticus he admired more than most of them, although he still planned to kill it. Then it got sick with what the vet called erysipelas, an old-fashioned word for a streptococcal skin infection.

"I had assumed that there could be nothing much wrong with a pig during the months it was being groomed for murder; my confidence in the essential health and endurance of pigs had been strong and deep, particularly in the health of pigs that belonged to me and that were part of my proud scheme. The awakening had been violent and I minded it all the more because I knew that what could be true of my pig could be true also of the rest of my tidy world. I tried to put this distasteful idea from me, but it kept recurring. I took a short drink of the whiskey and then, although I wanted to go down to the yard and look for fresh signs, I was scared to. I was certain I had erysipelas."

Eventually, the pig died of the ailment. We must, by the end of the story, weep for a pig.

As my teacher's student, I too had murdered animals. The cause was a just one, I believed, because I was then in search of a cure for a certain type of epilepsy. I'd been doing animal research at that point for ten years, and continued for another five. This work meant the steady operating on and sacrificing of mice, rats, cats, and even an occasional monkey. I can no longer remember exactly why I felt I must stop, although at the time I told my friends that it was because if God is a white rat, I was in a lot of trouble. I now find that excuse over metaphysical and unnecessary.

I stopped killing animals in 1977, and the next year I stopped eating them. At the time, I thought this was a moral decision, but I have come to see morality as an aesthetic, not an absolute. The answer as to why I stopped is to be found elsewhere.

Isn't it a reverse anthropomorphism to deny animals consciousness? When I first fell under the spell of Spinoza's idea of conatus, I began to recognize "the desire to be" in all living things. Curiously, this idea seems less developed in the Judeo-Christian world, where the focus of mythic attention is directed always at the man-God relationship. The special sanctity of humans necessary in these stories, which sometimes involves the sacrifice of animals--as if God relishes a good barbecue--necessarily denies sanctity to anything else. Where are the saintly cows in Christianity? And why, really, is a pig filthy?

We can look at this scientifically. Even if language is the necessary condition for human consciousness, it came from somewhere in evolution. After all, bird song is lateralized to the left side of their brainstem, just as human speech comes from the left brain. My teacher himself showed that the deep ganglion in man we call the left thalamus, just above the brainstem, is required for fluent speech. And dolphins undeniably have language. A young bottlenose named Merlin even recently learned to use an iPad.

I tried this logic on my teacher. But, he argued, "according to Richard Dawkin's book 'The Ancestors Tale,' the evolutionary line that lead to birds (and dinosaurs, etc.) separated from the line to humans 310,000,000 years ago. The line that led to whales and dolphins (and pigs and hippopotamuses among others) separated 85,000,000. As there are many species along the human line in the intervals since those separations that do not have anything remotely resembling human, bird or whale "language", I think these must be considered cases of parallel evolution of communication systems and not evolutionary precursors of human language with its unique richness and variety of symbols (vocabulary, syntax) and speed of their production. And the "speech gene" change to human form seems to have occurred no earlier than 120-200,000 years ago, about the same time as the appearance of our species."

However, even if the sequences in DNA that led to a human "speech gene" didn't evolve in the present form until about the time that Homo sapiens pushed all the other Homo species out of their Gaussian niches, there must be some moment where the "speech gene" got its start. The transcription gene FOXP2 found deficient in families with severe speech disorders is nearly identical to the same gene found in chimps. So what if the evolution is in parallel.

Even genetics, though, does not address the meaning of consciousness if we construe that idea the way Spinoza did, as "the desire to be." We prefer (in our egoism left over from creation myths) to call it something else: pattern recognition, conditioning, instinct. But, in the end, isn't the neural complexity we call consciousness more likely to be nucleic acid sequences in DNA-like everything else?

That dogs and cats dream there can be no doubt. They cry out and move while asleep. What do they dream? Are they fearful, playful, anxious, hungry? If they have an unconscious dream life, does that not imply that it must reflect a conscious one?

All creatures, moreover, seem to be fearful of being deprived their being. Domesticated animals cringe when threatened, or react with fear aggression. My dog, who had a bad puppyhood and came to me from a pound, has had only one dog friend, the very not alpha female in the front yard next door. My dog can get to the front, and is at least civil to this sweet golden retriever when she finds her there. However, if she sees the same dog in the back yard, a place that she can't reach, she is terrified and barks furiously.

In the mountains last summer I encountered a doe in calf. I often run across whitetails in the Cascades, and they have always vanished as soon as they heard or saw me, or the dog. This one came straight at me. She didn't stop until I picked up a shovel and threatened her. Even then, she took her time, and looked back at me on her way down the path. A mother is nothing to mess with, and though the behavior may be governed by estrogen, we don't discount that sort of thing in humans as not a part of consciousness no matter how much of it maybe uncontrollable. I've never actually heard a deer make a sound, although I'm certain they can, but the mechanism must represent a very early form of the "speech gene." It seems more likely to me that the neural mechanisms involved in the female protective behavior, that complexity we camouflage by the word instinct, isn't speech but what neuro-philosophers term the cognitive unconscious. That is, whatever neurons communicate to each other before the mind recognizes it as an idea.

Elephants and Chimps mourn their dead, and lots of animals cooperate. But, consciousness doesn't necessarily imply altruism. Wendell Berry once told me the story of a stallion of his that for some days had been bothering a mare. He locked the stallion out of that pasture, but one day he got back in and went after her repeatedly. Wendell described catching the stallion and snubbing him to a tree. As he walked away, the mare charged down to the tree where her persecutor was defenseless, and "kicked the shit out of him."

Even insects seek to escape a threat of losing their being.

So, I do not eat "my brother the pig," (or cow, or chicken, or fish), nor harm him--unless he seeks to come into the house to live. I'm not beyond trapping a mouse. This is not a metaphysical choice so much as a metaphorical one. To kill or eat them seems an act of both murder and cannibalism, for it is my own DNA in some form that they represent. As I am conscious in the human way, perhaps because I can arrange and re-arrange the words on this page, so are they conscious in their own animal ways. That language plays a dominant role in human consciousness I have no doubt. Neither do I doubt that there are many ways to respond to the neuronal connections that are the cognitive unconscious, and to recognize both the self and the other so as to conceive of the desire to be.

Richard Rapport is Clinical Professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery and Department of Global Health at the University of Washington, School of Medicine. He is the author of "Physician: The Life of Paul Beeson" (Barricade, 2001), and "Nerve Endings: The Discovery of the Synapse" (Norton, 2005),as well as about 40 non-fiction essays, variously published, and many professional papers.
COPYRIGHT 2011 News World Communications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:MODERN THOUGHT; animal consciousness
Author:Rapport, Richard
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Previous Article:Whither moral education?
Next Article:Francis Thompson: poet of faith.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters