Are dolphins conscious?
In my novel, The Last Island, an animal rights activist, Kerryn, thinks so and is willing to risk her life to prove it.
But is there evidence for this assertion?
Consciousness is notoriously difficult to define, and we can get bogged down in definitions until we ourselves start to lose it – first by falling asleep and then, ultimately, by dying.
I think most of us would agree that if we can’t define something satisfactorily for ourselves, we certainly have no right to deny to any other creature. That is, I can’t say that humans or animals don’t have ‘something’, if I don’t know what that ‘something’ is.
But for the purposes of this post, let’s define consciousness as what most of us intuit it to be: the state of being aware of the world around us. But that doesn’t seem to be enough, does it? Mere ‘awareness of the world.’ So let’s set the bar higher.
Let’s go beyond mere consciousness and ask ourselves if dolphins possess self-consciousness (or subjective consciousness), which can be defined as an awareness of one’s own self or an awareness of one’s own awareness — a sort of dual awareness, if you will.
Dolphin’s exhibit at least two distinct behaviors that demonstrate self-consciousness.
The first is their keen interest in mirrors. They know when they are looking at themselves and, like us, are fascinated. This could be either narcissism or because their inner sense of themselves doesn’t quite match their outward appearance. But both are demonstrations of consciousness of a self.
A second and more powerful demonstration of self-consciousness is that dolphins have been known to commit suicide. (There is some debate about this, but a preponderance of evidence indicates that they do.) For a creature to commit suicide, they need to have an awareness of their awareness (or consciousness) as something that can be extinguished — in the same way that you must know a candle is lit before you can put it out.
And there you have it: two demonstrations of dolphin self-consciousness.
Here’s the Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness in Non-Human Animals, which was signed by a number of prominent scientists on July 7, 2012. It was late in the day for such a declaration, but better late than never.
In my next post, I’ll raise the bar even higher — to a metaphysical level — and address whether dolphins have souls.