Are we really so special?

by Giles Jackson

“Are we open-minded enough to assume that other species have a mental life? Can we tease apart the roles of attention, motivation and cognition?” asks the ethologist Frans de Waal in his book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Unsurprisingly, the natural science community has already made the leap. Released in 2012, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness formally acknowledges that mammals, birds, cephalopods and many other non-human animals are conscious beings.

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates” ~ Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness

The implication is that it’s not enough merely to treat other species merely with moral consideration. We must stop measuring them in purely human terms.

The first step is to remove the artificial barriers separating humans and other species. Instead of animal cognition, de Waal suggests “evolutionary cognition”, which acknowledges the existence of sophisticated non-human intelligence.

The ambon damselfish is a case in point. This fish is able to discriminate between other seemingly identical fish by reading their unique ultraviolet markings in the same way we recognise others by their unique facial features. These unique UV masks provide a secret way of establishing identity at close range in a way that’s invisible to any fish more than a few body lengths away, including watching predators. Animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed, says de Waal.

Another way to remove the barriers separating us from other animal species, he says, is to learn to think more like them and thus better understand their needs.

“When you acknowledge that consciousness — and friendship, or parenthood, territorial grabs, or falling in love — are not solely human activities, the implications are enormous for the way humans plan their cities, run their industries and their governments” ~ Nilanjana Roy

The pet care industry is not exactly known for putting animal welfare first. But this is about to change now that UK brand Lulu & Robbie has entered the fray. Drawing upon the expertise of practicing veterinarians, they’ve thought deeply about the needs of canine companions like my very own ‘J.J.’. Since she does not perspire, for example, J.J. requires natural clothing that breathes. Moreover, since she hears four times better than we do, jackets that crinkle when they move are wholly unsuitable.

We are proud suppliers of tartan fabric to Lulu & Robbie, whose collection of high quality, natural, stylish and socially conscious clothing launches in the New Year.

J.J. may not grasp the anti-trafficking symbolism of the Blueheart tartan, but if she were able, I know she’d support this cause with every ounce of her being. As James Herriot said in All Creatures Great and Small, “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans”.

The writer is cofounder of Liberation Kilt Co. 

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