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What the Crow Knows: Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition

Alongside humans, scientists can now say there exist a universe of vivid animal experience. But they can’t tell us how to do right by the trillions of minds with which we share the Earth’s surface. That's a philosophical problem.

ROSS ANDERSEN: ‘The idea that animals are conscious has long been unpopular in the West, but it has lately found favor among scientists who study animal cognition. And not just the obvious cases — primates, dogs, elephants, whales, and others. Scientists are now finding evidence of an inner life in alien-seeming creatures that evolved on ever-more-distant limbs of life’s tree…

In recent years, it has become common to flip through a magazine like this one and read about an octopus using its tentacles to twist off a jar’s lid or squirt aquarium water into a postdoc’s face. For many scientists, the resonant mystery is no longer which animals are conscious, but which are not… Crows recognize individual human faces. They are known to blare vicious caws at people they dislike, but for favored humans, they sometimes leave gifts—buttons or shiny bits of glass—where the person will be sure to notice, like votive offerings…

If these behaviors add up to consciousness, it means one of two things: Either consciousness evolved twice, at least, across the long course of evolutionary history, or it evolved sometime before birds and mammals went on their separate evolutionary journeys. Both scenarios would give us reason to believe that nature can knit molecules into waking minds more easily than previously guessed. This would mean that all across the planet, animals large and small are constantly generating vivid experiences that bear some relationship to our own…

There now appears to exist, alongside the human world, a whole universe of vivid animal experience. Scientists deserve credit for illuminating, if only partially, this new dimension of our reality. But they can’t tell us how to do right by the trillions of minds with which we share the Earth’s surface. That’s a philosophical problem, and like most philosophical problems, it will be with us for a long time to come…

Apart from Pythagoras and a few others, ancient Western philosophers did not hand down a rich tradition of thinking about animal consciousness. But Eastern thinkers have long been haunted by its implications—especially the Jains, who have taken animal consciousness seriously as a moral matter for nearly 3,000 years. Many orthodox Jain beliefs do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. The faith does not enjoy privileged access to truth, mystical or otherwise. But as perhaps the world’s first culture to extend mercy to animals, the Jains pioneered a profound expansion of the human moral imagination’. SOURCE…

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