Thursday, May 2, 2024

The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness

The NY Declaration on Animal Consciousness was announced on 19 April 2024 at New York University. Although the Declaration does not assert certainty in consciousness across all species there is strong support for the claim and therefore a call to consider consciousness when making policy decisions regarding animals. While some might say that any announcement about animal consciousness is not news or might shrug off the “realistic possibility” of consciousness in, for example, fish, the Declaration has wide-ranging implications in areas of teaching, medical research, suburban and rural development, wildlife conservation, etc.

For instance, while many of the signatories are research scientists, what care is henceforth required for “animals” used in experiments? Should animals be excluded from lab experiments, given computer generated imaging and other forms of visual effects and artificial intelligence? Should animal experiments that simply replicate known results cease? Beyond the university lab, what about animals, from mice to monkeys, used in experiments for the corporate beauty, pharmaceutical, or medical industries? What happens to businesses that breed animals simply for the purpose of sale as human food or research bodies in labs? At the conference, one audience member inquired about the fate of animals at the close of an experiment. The person who answered the question, and a primary signatory to the Declaration, said she does not dispose of animals when an experiment is done; but that begs the question about practices of “euthanasia” among other scientists. If you stop and look around, you will realize how animals are ingrained into our lives as pets, companions, workers, food, or objects of entertainment. So, the crystallization of meaning in the Declaration boils down to how we treat the lives of others.

The original 40 signatories don’t call for animal rights but “welfare,” which implies that animals can be used “humanely” for our use. Should animals be objects of experimentation in the first place? Activists would object to the welfare reference and insist on animal rights. The presentation at the start of the conference made clear that among the 40 primary signatories there was discussion and disagreement, so it’s likely that some lean more to rights while others rest on welfare. That’s not a criticism but a reflection of the reality about how animals are currently viewed. Though a declaration, much of the language admits “uncertainty” (as of now) and opens with a question about which animals have a “capacity” for consciousness. To their credit, the signatories imply that many organisms including fish have such a capacity in various degrees based on their evolutionary adaptations. Clearly then, the Declaration is an important development and tool for researchers and animal activists alike. For example, in advancing concerns about welfare or rights, many people can raise legitimate claims about how animals are treated with reference to this document.

The statement of animal consciousness is brief but includes background material, which highlights (in simplified form here) how crows can learn, octopuses evade pain, cuttlefish have memories, cleaner wrasse fish can identify themselves, bees engage in free play, etc. The point is that a consensus of leaders in this arena of inquiry, from scientists to philosophers, confirm that more species have subjective awareness than has been recognized heretofore. Ongoing evidence firmly suggests that more animals have phenomenal consciousness or sentience exhibited in a range of behaviors, from self-consciousness, problem solving, planning, etc. This evidence, so far based on different species, posits a range of “more likely” to the “realistic possibility” and “strong scientific support” of consciousness across a broad range of species.

However one thinks, the New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness is yet another important step forward regarding how humans interact with the living world. Assuming our human ethics of caring, animal rights are linked with human rights, so this pronouncement is a crucial development in establishing rights for all living organisms. To bolster the authority and credibility of the Declaration, the announcement has been covered by many outlets large and small, from Nature News to The Hill

For academic references used by the writers of the New York Declaration, go HERE

The New York Declaration comes almost twelve years after the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, HERE

Readers might also be interested in the PETA argument for animal sentience and emotions, HERE

There’s also a declaration of animal personhood by the University of Toulon, France, HERE

Additional resources for the curious can be found on the Literary Veganism site, HERE

-Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. and Fredericka A. Jacks