Week 7 Memory and Consciousness_Long Lau

Guest lecturer Dr. Ramakrishnan discussed about the consciousness of animals; he argues that humans always neglect animals’ ability to understand the environment and themselves. Being arrogant and selfish, humans seem to purposely regard animals as inferior beings, justifying themselves by labeling animals as not having consciousness. Dr. Ramakrishnan provided examples of octopi and bees, both of which are invertebrates, to show that at least some animals have the ability to react to environmental stimuli in complicated ways. For the octopus example, he showed us that its ability to disguise itself using both color change and texture change is clearly beyond the normal camouflage ability such as the strips of a zebra. Passive camouflage such as the strips of a zebra or the stick resemblance of a walking stick are the results of natural selection against those individuals who are more likely to be preyed upon due to their lack of ability to blend in with the environment. The cephalopods, however, utilize active camouflage in which the animal itself has to receive ambient information and react to them by actively changing its own physiological processes. Some scientists argue that most octopi, being colorblind, change their colors and patterns using epidermal cells that reflect light from the environment. However, the fact that octopi can not only change their patterns and colors but also their textures should be enough to convince people that they are indeed conscious of their surroundings as well as themselves. As for bees with their ability to convey directional codes within their dances, it is clear that a certain level of social awareness, communication sophistication, and collective intelligence must be achieved.

walking stick

I think it is difficult as a human to explore the consciousness of animals not only because of the ambiguity of the the definition of consciousness itself but also because of the inherent inability of empathizing with animals. I remember reading Franz Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” in which the narrator is an ape that gives a speech to human audience about his painful transformation from an animal to a human. He said something like this ” through my training of becoming a human, I have lost the ability to express myself in terms of an ape and I cease to understand how it felt to be an ape because I find that no word in the human vocabulary is enough to capture the feelings of an animal.” It seems that language, which is a human invention, is a reflection of the anthropocentricity that humans take as a worldview for the things around them. As ironic as it may seem, perhaps we may never understand what it is like to be an animal even though we ourselves are animals. As such, we may never find out the actual extent of animal consciousness.

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