Helene took part in this Battle of Ideas debate with Professor Nicola Clayton.
In 2012, prominent cognitive neuroscientists gathered at Cambridge University to announce the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, claiming: ‘The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.’ More broadly, this notion is now seeping into broader popular culture, for example in BBC2’s series, Inside the Animal Mind , and award-winning bestsellers such as Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures.
Advancing scientific study of animal cognition offers challenges on the one hand for our conceptualisation of our own species, and on the other hand for our attitudes towards and our understanding of all other species. Wesley J Smith of the American Discovery Institute has said that ‘the question of human exceptionalism…is the overriding moral and philosophical issue of our times’.
However, more sceptical voices reflect that this issue cannot be resolved simply by looking at the neuroscientific evidence. For example, the fact that animal and human emotions may be located in similar parts of the brain does not necessarily mean that the experience of emotion takes the same form. Also, it is perfectly feasible to argue that animals have consciousness if consciousness merely means ‘awareness’.
So is there a qualitative distinction between human and other animals’ cognitive abilities? Has the old disconnect between Homo sapiens and all other animals been undermined by recent advances in the knowledge of other species’ consciousness, making the ‘uniqueness’ of humans questionable? Is there an absolute divide between modern humans and all other creatures, or is there a continuum between human and non-human intelligence and consciousness? Is there more to this question than breakthroughs in neuroscience, for example an increasing tendency to reduce all consciousness to questions of brain activity? Do animals have minds?