Last week a document that was signed on July 7 in Cambridge, England quietly began to appear online. Having remained largely within the circles of neuroscience thus far, this paradigm shattering declaration signals the emergence of an intelligent science-based relationship between humans and non-humans. Everything humans believed they thought knew about the experience of non-humans - animals, birds and even invertebrates - being unable to experience life as we do, to have emotions or process their existence as a sentient being has been wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.
On July 7, 2012 a delegation of scientists converged at the University of Cambridge to sign the Cambridge Declaration On Consciousness the italicised text of which has been presented below in brief. The signing of this document was done in the presence of Stephen Hawking and memorialised by CBS's 60 minutes.
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness
On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observations can be stated unequivocally:
- The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and nonhuman animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).
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.”
For those of you who would prefer not to read the entire text - although it is very well worth the time - these distinguished scientists declare that the long held conception that only a human brain has the required parts to be able to experience consciousness has been found to be scientifically flawed. They have found that other kinds of brain builds are equally capable of giving the related being the same levels of consciousness and emotionality humans experience. In the words of Dr Joseph Dial, up to now we have had a very primitive and backward view of non-humans.
Researchers have learned non-humans have the same experiences as we do, each in their unique way, but equally as poignant and as important to them as our experiences are to us. Non-humans are able to recognise faces, have long-term memories, can problem solve and are aware of their environment; they suffer, feel pain and experience life in all its colour just the same as we do and in some cases even more profoundly than we do. These paradigm bending facts are not recent evolutionary developments on the part of the non-humans, rather it is we who have finally become advanced enough to understand them. All through the thousands of years man has been dominating the planet, he has been exploiting non-humans, using them, torturing them, and eating them. Helped along by the biased thinking of philosophies such as Descartes' I think therefore I am oft-used quote, we have assumed in our shameful arrogance these other beings were just little machines operating blindly by rote, without any awareness or purpose other than to eat, sleep and reproduce. In our centralised paradigm they existed for us. No longer can we deceive ourselves with these scientifically incorrect assumptions. Science has freed man from the ignorance of treating other sentient beings as things devoid of awareness.
The time has come for mankind to face the future with courage. We can live without the use of other sentient beings to benefit our short term needs, vegans have been doing it for decades. With this new intelligence, we are morally responsible to find new ways to live with non-humans and respect them as beings in their own right. Indeed, we have been warned by 2050 the world's population will have risen to nine billion and there will no longer be enough resources to raise animals for food anymore, we simply won't have enough water. Will we choose to accept what science tells us or will we balk at giving up what we believe is ours by 'right'? In time we shall know how humanity will react to this knowledge and how well they will respond to it, but after six thousand years of believing non-humans lack sentience, the paradigm is suddenly bending and with it, we are able to glimpse a brighter and more compassionate future...for every single sentient being on Earth.
Originally published on Paradigms Bend August 31 2012