The other day I wrote about John Gray’s The Silence of Animals. The silence of animals, says Gray, is not the same as the silence pursued by human beings. The silence of animals is not a literal silence, for most sentient animals inhabit vivid sound worlds. It is, however, a world without the kinds of turmoil and torment that humans experience.
But today we listened to ‘The Roaring Crowd’, an episode from the excellent Radio 4 series Noise: A Human History. In the programme Professor David Hendy, in the ruins of the Colosseum, conjured up the power of the roaring Roman crowd and told a story of animals in torment.
On days when there was a big event at a Roman arena, mornings were reserved for the venatio, or animal hunts. Since an important object of the entertainment was to celebrate the superiority of Roman power over enemies, in 55BC Pompey hit on what he thought would be a real crowd-pleaser. A century earlier, Rome had crushed the great Carthaginian Republic, so why not remember that triumph symbolically by recalling Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who waged war against Rome by bringing 38 war elephants over the Alps, by massacring a few dozen pachyderms Pompey had expressly shipped to Rome. Truly, a spectacle no one would ever forget.
But things didn’t go quite as Pompey expected. Hendy gave us Pliny the Elder’s account of what happened, revealing just a hint that Romans saw animals as having human characteristics, thoughts, and emotions. Pliny wrote:
Pompey’s elephants, when they had lost all hope of escape, tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honour, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey for which he soon afterwards paid the penalty.
Plutarch records that a staggering five hundred lions were killed on that day, but that the elephant fight was ‘a most terrifying spectacle’. Cicero, who was present, wrote to a friend that for several days there had been two animal hunts a day:
The last day was that of the elephants, and on that day the mob and crowd were greatly impressed, but manifested no pleasure. Indeed the result was a certain compassion and a kind of feeling that that huge beast has a fellowship with the human race.
Seneca, too, recalled the slaughter:
Pompey … according to report, was conspicuous among the leaders of old for the kindness of his heart, [but] thought it a notable kind of spectacle to kill human beings after a new fashion. Do they fight to the death? That is not enough! Are they torn to pieces? That is not enough! Let them be crushed by animals of monstrous bulk! Better would it be that these things pass into oblivion lest hereafter some all-powerful man should learn them and be jealous of an act that was nowise human. O, what blindness does great prosperity cast upon our minds!
The elephants, wrote Cassius Dio, ‘were pitied by the people when, after being wounded and ceasing to fight, they walked about with their trunks raised toward heaven, lamenting so bitterly as to give rise to the report that they did so not by mere chance, but were crying out against the oaths in which they had trusted when they crossed over from Africa, and were calling upon Heaven to avenge them’.
And so they were: Seven years later, Pompey was stabbed to death in Egypt.
In this episode of Noise, David Hendy also recalled George Orwell’s famous account of the death of an elephant when he was serving as a civil servant in Burma in 1936. Orwell was called upon to shoot an elephant that had run amok; the memory of its dying never left him :
It was obvious that the elephant would never rise again, but he was not dead. He was breathing very rhythmically with long rattling gasps, his great mound of a side painfully rising and falling. His mouth was wide open — I could see far down into caverns of pale pink throat. I waited a long time for him to die, but his breathing did not weaken. Finally I fired my two remaining shots into the spot where I thought his heart must be. The thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause. He was dying, very slowly and in great agony, but in some world remote from me where not even a bullet could damage him further. I felt that I had got to put an end to that dreadful noise. It seemed dreadful to see the great beast Lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat. They seemed to make no impression. The tortured gasps continued as steadily as the ticking of a clock. In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die.
Orwell’s conclusion is a dry assessment of where the elephant stood in the colonial hierarchy:
Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
It hasn’t been just John Gray’s book and David Hendy’s radio essay that have had me thinking about animal consciousness. A few days before that I had read One of Us, an interesting essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from Lapham’s Quarterly. He remarks at the outset that:
These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly.
The most striking example of this came last July when a group of scientists gathered at Cambridge University for the first annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference. Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, spent the latter part of his career studying consciousness and in 1994 published a book about it, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul. The upshot of the meeting was the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which was publicly proclaimed by three eminent neuroscientists, David Edelman of the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, California, Philip Low of Stanford University and Christof Koch of the California Institute of Technology.
The declaration concludes that:
Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
The question of whether animals are conscious has a long history, embracing philosophers, biologists and psychologists. If you’re interested, both Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy have detailed accounts of the evolution of the debate online. In his essay, John Jeremiah Sullivan goes right back to those Ice Age artworks that I had the good fortune to see recently :
Trying to recapture the thought life of prehistoric peoples is a game wise heads tend to leave alone, but if there’s a consistent motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago, it’s animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else – lion or bird or bear. Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom. They were beings in a world of countless beings. Taking their lives was a meaningful act, to be prayed for beforehand and atoned for afterwards, suggesting that beasts were allowed some kind of right. We used our power over them constantly and violently, but stopped short of telling ourselves that creatures of alien biology could not be sentient or that they were incapable of true suffering and pleasure. Needing their bodies, we killed them in spite of those things.
Sullivan argues that only with the Greeks does the notion emerge of a formal divide between our species and every other animal on earth:
Today in Greece you can walk by a field and hear two farmers talking about an alogo, a horse. An a-logos. No logos, no language. That’s where one of their words for horse comes from. The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech. Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equalled brute. As time went by, the word for speech became the very word for rationality, the logos, an identification taken up by the early Christians, with fateful results. For them the matter was even simpler. The animals lack souls.
Or, as Rene Descartes put it two millennia later, they ‘eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing’. Man, on the other hand, thinks.
In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin made the intriguing claim that among the naturalists he knew it seemed that the better one got to know a certain species, the more each individual animal’s actions appeared attributable to ‘reason and the less to unlearnt instinct’. Scientists were beginning to suspect that animals were rational. Since Darwin, it’s largely been scientists who have probed the question of animal consciousness – and the clear trend in all their investigations has been towards more consciousness. As Sullivan succinctly puts it: More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed.
This was made starkly clear in last year’s Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which stated unequivocally that those ‘neurological substrates’ necessary for consciousness belong to ‘all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses’. Though what consciousness actually is, is anyone’s guess. In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay, ‘What Is It Like To Be a Bat?’, in which he suggested that animal consciousness occurs when ‘there is something that it is to be that organism – something it is like for the organism’. Sullivan comments:
The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that.
There’s that wonderful passage on animal minds in Montaigne’s ‘Apology for Raymond Sebond’, where he writes about playing with his cat and wonders who is playing with whom. He finishes with a witty and deceptively profound final sentence: ‘We divert each other with monkey tricks’.
Meaning he and the cat. Both human being and cat are compared with a third animal. They are monkeys to each other, strange animals to each other. (The man is all but literally a monkey to the cat.) All three creatures involved in Montaigne’s metaphor are revealed as points on a continuum, and none of them understands the others very well. This is what the study of animal consciousness can teach us, finally – that we possess an animal consciousness.
Which is, more or less, what John Gray argues in The Silence of Animals.
As for morality – and recalling those screaming, dying elephants, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham once wrote: ‘The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?’
- Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell: full text
- Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human non-Human Animals
- Donald Griffin, Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness: excerpt
- One of Us: essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from Lapham’s Quarterly, April 2013
- Animal consciousness: Wikipedia
- Animal consciousness: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- The Silence of Animals: ‘barbarism is a disease of civilisation’