Awareness: A Trait Exhibited by Apes?


Truly informed analysis of animal behavior began after Charles Darwin produced his
book “The Origin of Species through Natural Selection” in 1859. Since this time animal
behaviorists have been compiling a phenomenal amount of research recording their
naturalistic observations and trying to make sense of them within an evolutionary
framework. The majority of these behaviorists tended to conclude that, even though
most animals act in very systematic and functional ways, they are not explicitly aware
of the reasons behind their efforts.  One of the most influential advocates of this
viewpoint was C.L. Morgan.  His “cannon” of 1894 proclaimed that it is “unscientific” to
ascribe human attributes and characteristics to animals.  He applied the principle of
parsimony to animal behavior and asked other behaviorists to look at their subjects
objectively:

“In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher
psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of one which stands lower in
the psychological scale.”

This statement was a strong denouncement of the anthropomorphism that was
rampant throughout previous academic literature.  Taking this one step further,
behaviorists in the twentieth century have shown that because of instincts, and “fixed
action patterns,” many animals can act in ways that seems deliberative and aware,
even though they truly are not.

Since the publication of a book in 1976, Donald R. Griffin’s “The Question of Animal
Awareness,” a different trend has emerged, producing a large body of research that
has tried to delve into the “consciousness” of nonhuman animals. More specifically,
many researchers have been trying to determine the level of intelligence at which
different species function.

Many animal researchers are forced to make subjective judgments about animal
intelligence based on the behavior of their animal subjects because, unfortunately, the
subjects are unable to report verbally. Some of this new research has succeeded in
exploring animal “intelligence,” showing that animal consciousness is in many ways
analogous to human consciousness, and also garnering evidence to support the
existence of “self awareness” in some primates.

Because animal intelligence is very hard to quantify, researchers have used very
fundamental experimental techniques to observe and measure the intelligence of
various species. G. Gallup is one of many researchers who used great apes to
conduct experiments to study thinking and consciousness in animals.

G. Gallup was one of the first scientists to be recognized for uncovering information
about non-human, primate self awareness. He gave full length mirrors to chimps that
had never seen a mirror before. Initially of course the chimps thought that their mirror
image was another, live chimp which for some reason got progressively more
aggressive in mannerism and physical display.  The chimps would, like many other
animals, continue to vocalize and make visual threats for many hours, or even days.
However, each chimp that was tested, after some time, began to show a type of
behavior that no other species of animal has shown in a laboratory.

The apes in Gallup’s experiment began to understand that the mirror image was their
own image. This became formally evident to researchers once the chimps began to
investigate their bodies in the mirror.  The apes had never seen their own faces, the
tops of their heads, their backs or the insides of their mouths. Each chimp that was
given a mirror in one of Gallup’s experiments explored themselves thoroughly.

Gallup and others interpreted this behavior to mean that the chimps had correctly
identified the images in the mirror as themselves.  Further investigation by the same
researchers tested this hypothesis more conclusively.  While the apes were asleep the
researchers put red marks on their faces.  When the chimps awoke and examined
themselves in the mirror they seemed surprised by their new reflection and they rubbed
their own faces to remove the dye.  Also the chimps that were marked with red dye
observed themselves in the mirror for more time than the chimps that were not marked.

Another group of chimps which had no previous exposure to mirrors were given the
same red facial markings, they did not show alarm and did not think to try to rub off the
dye. This is because they had not yet realized that the mirror image was in fact their
image.

Many new studies have shown that some animals have more capacity for intelligence
than ever thought possible.  However, there are only three other species, besides the
chimps, that have shown recognition and self awareness in similar experiments. These
animals are bonobos, orangutans (both a type of ape) and humans.

One of the aspects of intelligence that scientists and philosophers seem to value the
most is self awareness.  It is thought to be one of the traits that make humans unique.  
We are not the only species that exhibits signs of awareness, but perhaps we are the
only species that is aware of self awareness as a concept.

If we really value awareness, shouldn’t we as humans make efforts to become more
aware of what makes us operate the way that we do, aware of the world in which we
live, aware of the laws that govern the world around us, and as the apes were, aware of
who we are and who we are not?

Many forms of life are perceived by science to be nothing more than biological
machines only capable of reflexive reactions to external stimuli.  The ability to be
aware of one’s self seems to extend outside of this boundary and create a qualitative
difference between animals with higher intelligence and those more simple forms of
life.  If there is a distinct difference, then in the same vein self awareness should help
us become more than just the sum of our individual physical and biological
components.  


I think, therefore I am  
Rene Descartes



Griffin, D. R. (1981). The question of animal awareness (2nd ed.). New York:
Rockerfeller Univ. Press

Gallup, G. G., Jr. (1977). Self-recognition in primates: A comparative approach to the
bidirectional properties of consciousness. American Psychologist, 32, 329-338
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