There’s a running joke within my circle of friends that our cats actually own us; when I consider the amount of time, money and effort spent curating those relationships, cuddling and cleaning up after them – it instantly becomes harder to argue the contrary. What, if any, is the difference between a pet animal and their human counterpart? At its most basic level, two lives are coming together to coexist in harmony; conversely, at it’s most complex, there are two differing levels of consciousness that are forced to somehow reconcile their innate differences. Once the qualifications and implications for ‘ownership’ are considered within this seemingly symbiotic relationship, in it’s most simplistic form it all comes down to consciousness. Is Sake my pet or am I his? To answer this question, you’d have to take a long hard look at our relative levels of consciousness and through that, infer which one of us has the ability to assert their consciousness upon another individual. Regardless of if you’re inspecting the relationship between humans, animals, plants or even minerals – each and every relationship between two separate entities – is dictated by an individual understanding of consciousness. In turn, this opens the door for even more questions. What is ‘consciousness’, how do we as humans define ‘consciousness’ and last but certainly not least – who are we as humanity to ascribe or limit levels of consciousness?
Consciousness is defined two-fold as both being awake and aware of one’s environment through one’s thoughts, feelings and existence as well as the innate distinction in recognizing yourself within the world. For an incredible amount of time, the definition of consciousness was limited to the human psyche; after all, can you ask a rock if it’s aware that of it’s mineral state or can you have a philosophical discussion with your dog about his motives for hiding every tennis ball in the depths of your backyard? After a brief life as a stem cell, each cell within the human body has a distinct function, making it markedly different from other cells; does this mean that within each cell is a level of consciousness an self-awareness? A school of thought led by philosopher Ned Block proposed that there are actually two forms of consciousness, phenomenal and access; the former being the sensory reception of true, raw experience and the later being of the mind and available for analysis and introspection. Overtime and through plenty of scientific research, it’s been proven that animals of all shapes and sizes – from Orangutans, Elephants and Dolphins down to the Cephalopods like the Octopus and the Squid, African Grey Parrots, Dogs and Cats – all exhibit forms of what we now recognize as consciousness. Whether it’s the ability to paint with their trunks, observe themselves in the mirror, or open cans with their tentacles – there have been ample examples of empathetic animals who are aware of the world around them as well as their place within it. So, as I posited before – beside being at the top of the food chain, who are we to exert our opposable thumbs driven brand of control over the world?
There are ‘isms’ we choose to hie behind and they each attribute and apply arbitrary levels of consciousness to forms far beyond our human understanding. At a larger, umbrella level – many people make their dietary choices based on what feels good for their body; like the 40-40-20, Atkins or Paleo diet. And I fully believe that we should all pay close attention to the minutiae of nutritional needs and wants. But if you look beyond those diets, you find people that ascribe to an ‘ism’ – like Veganism or Vegetarianism; each on the idea that animals retain a level of consciousness that doesn’t exist in plants. Quite to the contrary – like humans, plants are born out of reproduction between a male and female, live, grow, undergo photosynthesis which produces energy and oxygen, reproduce and die; blow by blow, a parallel life to any animal or human. Humans, plants and animals alike all contain trace amounts of the hallucinogenic chemical dimethyltryptamine and to boot, plant systems – especially trees – have been shown to communicate with each other through a type of fungi called mychorrhizae. If plants are able to communicate, this means they’re able to process and analyze their external world, and wouldn’t that make them conscious beings?
As a society, we’ve grown comfortable ascribing qualities, assigning traits and categorically grouping objects together because it’s the easiest way to deal with the unfathomable amount of chaos, clutter and disorganization within the world. However, as we push for a greater understanding of our external surroundings, we’re left with the realization that not only do we not completely get it, but most likely we never will. For years, because there’s been an assumption that animals don’t or won’t operate within parallel plane of consciousness we can exploit them for entertainment purposes like a circus, or Sea World, or as of recently – the Sochi Olympics . As our definition of consciousness evolves, we should concurrently update our definition of entertainment as well. The more we study animals like orcas, pigs and elephants within their natural environment, the more we learn about their high aptitude for learning and their incredible levels of both community and intelligence. After all is said and done, can we still truly call it entertainment when we see our aquatic counterparts reduced to jumping through hoops, or when we limit a four legged friend to the limitations,isolation and dimensions of a cage? If we acknowledge our own human need for a safe community where we can cultivate relationships, we can’t simply dismiss the needs and freedoms of other animals simply to satiate our necessity for control and amusement. Documentaries like Blackfish and The Cove have been more than influential in bringing these truths to light for me, and I highly recommend watching both of them.
When we sent the Mars Rover to explore the great red planet, there was an assumption that without a carbon based biosignature of life – like humans, plants or animals – that life literally ceased to exist. But the big picture is anything but: because we’re limited to what we know about the building blocks of life on Earth, our view on life elsewhere is also limited; if we are allowed to expand our definition of life beyond a basic chemical building block, evolving our definition of consciousness shouldn’t be far behind.