I’ve been reading If A Lion Could Talk; Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness, by Stephen Budiansky. What drew me to read it was this statement on the cover-jacket:
“Budiansky…show[s] us animals for who they are, not semi-adequate humanoids but powerful, competent, fully evolved beings in their own right.”
I was excited to glean insight into how intelligence and consciousness arouse in these amazing beings. To understand this about any being would be fascinating and a privilege. And so I cuddled up with the book, excited to spend some time with the evolution of our fellow planetary inhabitants.
I was not far into the book when Budiansky referred to animal research in which numerous primates, dogs, birds and rodents are held captive in order to learn how they recognize, or don’t recognize, faces or objects. Rats and dogs are exhaustively run through mazes and other structures in an attempt to understand how their memory operates. Song birds are removed from their natural environment to assess the impact their absence has on how the remaining birds sing. And on it goes.
At first one might consider this to be innocuous research and see no reason for concern about the welfare of the research subjects. Compared to medical research that often involves probing deeply into animals’ bodies and eventually killing them, this may be true. However, if you step back a bit and look at why we are doing this particular research and who benefits, then we encounter a very different conclusion.
Why are we doing this research? Think of what is required for humans and all other animals to survive or even thrive. Each inhabitant of the earth has a unique innate design and intelligence that allows it to exist in its own perfect way. Every species has what it needs to live. Knowing the evolution of and the level of intelligence and consciousness of other species is completely and utterly unnecessary. Everything is as it should be (and we can’t possibly understand how it all works on every level).
So why are we capturing animals from the wild and caging them? Putting probes into their brains to monitor cerebral activity when the size of their enclosure is altered? Why are we having them work with the principles of addition and subtraction?
We are searching for answers that we will never find, no matter how much technology we apply, no matter how many generations of animals we use, no matter how complex, comprehensive, or bizarre the research procedures are!
Comparing animals to ourselves is flawed and unnecessary. We are trying to figure out their level of intelligence by comparing it to that of an entirely different species—our own. We fabricate artificial frameworks under which we apply artificial conditions and assume we can then extrapolate information into the natural world. No matter the strategy, research will always remain limited by the fact that we created the context within the limitation of our human minds, a minuscule representation of all that creation has to offer.
Budiansky says, “Evolution, learning, the very wiring of animals’ brains and sense organs, adapt them to the cognitive demands of their physical and social environment in ways that at times put us to shame, with our reliance on consciousness and language and reason to see us through….[we could never] navigate our way home the way a pigeon can, or locate a tiny rapidly moving target the way a bat can, or calculate the distance of a Carolina wren from the tonal shifts in its song the way a Carolina wren can….So one might well argue that animals do not need the special human cognitive abilities that we possess, for they have gotten along quite well without them.”
But the very way we have learned of some of these amazing characteristics is through invasive research. So there is great discordance in this race to learn what we can about animals.
It seems we are researching to see what we can learn about animals so we can ultimately decide how we can treat them. If they are of a certain level of intelligence we consider treating then with a little more compassion and respect. If they fall below this level of intelligence we can continue to treat them as we wish, regardless of the impact it has on them.
All of this is for what? To satisfy curious human minds? To feed egos and pocket books? Animal research is a multi-billion dollar industry. It keeps a lot of individuals employed and a lot of universities and other research facilities functioning in certain capacities. Can all of this justify using animals in the name of knowledge? This question is what I find myself walking away with after reading If A Lion Could Talk.
What do you think?
How can we justify experimenting on sentient beings just to satisfy our curiosity?
Why do we think we have the right to do this?
Why have we chosen intelligence to be the basis on which we judge worthiness of a species?
I’d love to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment on my blog.