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cockswain's avatar

Do you think animals are self-aware?

Asked by cockswain (15271points) September 19th, 2010

Humans obviously are, but we’re just one species. Do you think animals are aware of their existence? They seem to have emotions. Do you think dolphins have ever contemplated their existence? Do you think a bear has ever made a moral decision?

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21 Answers

chyna's avatar

I’m not sure. My dog sees herself in glass reflections, not mirrors for some reason, and kind of barks at the reflection. (Really more of a bfff, she doesn’t bark). She acts like it is another dog in the house.

aprilsimnel's avatar

From what I understand, some animals, such as elephants, dolphins and certain primates are self-aware.

Pandora's avatar

I don’t know about being self aware the way we are but they know other things that are even more important. They know loyalty, they know purpose, they know love.
As for moral decisions, I really don’t know. But most animals that kill either kill because they are protecting themselves or cubs or because they are hungry. Unless they are ill they usually don’t lash out without a reason.
There are stories of some animals in the wild (like dolphins) who have fished people out of water and taken them back to their boats. They didn’t have too but they must have some sort of idea that the people would drown without being in their boats. Why would they even be concerned for a persons safety?

ETpro's avatar

That’s a very interesting question. We know that chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a photo, and they can also identify other chimps they are close to from a photo. So they are one of the few animals outside humans who can tell that a photo is something quite different from just another piece of paper. Lots of higher animals can tell that their reflection in the mirror is themselves, and not some other animal invading their territory. Given what Wikipedia offers as a definition of self awareness, I think its likely that some primates, dolphins, orcas, whales and elephants at the least may have self awareness. We won’t really know till we learn to either communicate effectively with them or probe the workings of their minds.

iamthemob's avatar

It really depends on what you mean by self-awareness. Considering your description, I do have some assumptions -

- I really have difficulty believing in a creature having full self-awareness unless it demonstrates an understanding of its own mortality.

nebule's avatar

I’m not sure that self-awareness implies an understanding of morality…but yes, certianly there are animals that are self-aware such as those expressed by @aprilsimnel and @Pandora

janbb's avatar

I read a piece in the NY Times a few years ago which said that elephants when shown a mirror image of themselves with a mark on their face, will touch that spot on their own faces with their trunks! Fascinating proof of awareness of self in elephants at least.

Coloma's avatar

I don’t think self awareness manifests in an animal being able to recognize it’s mortality, but I do think it does exist in the sense of self preservation and for many a recognition of self.

Instinct and survival sure, but, something beyond instinct must create an awareness that there is a life, some being, to defend to begin with.

There would be no survival instinct without some base awareness of a self to preserve.

I know several of my cats over the years have recognized the difference in their ‘self’ after a grooming session where they were shaved to the skin for summer.

Most obvious is their unmistakable awareness of their de-plumed tails.

They would spend several days obsessed with looking at, playing with and chasing their own tails. lol

cockswain's avatar

@nebule That’s a good point, that there isn’t necessarily a connection between self-awareness and morality. Not sure why I made that connection, maybe it’s a good question on its own. But a dog does display loyalty. Isn’t that a form of morality?

janbb's avatar

@cockswain But we don’t really know if the loyalty is to his food source and pack leader or from moral values, do we?

cockswain's avatar

We do not. Without being able to have meaningful communication with the animals, the capability or understanding their language, or the ability to use technology to interpret their brain scans, it may be impossible to answer this.

I did hear a bit on NPR recently about how prairie dogs actually communicate lots more info than we thought. Loosely, humans use about 16 categories to describe things and the study found the dogs were using 11 to relay info about someone approaching. In other words, the dogs would change their bark based on skin color, height, color of clothing, and other things, as determined by computer analysis of the data. I know this is a vague description, but I listened to the report and don’t have a link. Sounded well-controlled. The investigator hypothesizes that a computer program could one day be used to interpret animal language, so your dog could tell you what hurts, or that it’s happy, etc… That might open some answers to my question in several decades maybe.

wundayatta's avatar

In order to conceive of anything, including yourself, you need some way of creating and using symbols. There are many animals that understand various symbols. Dogs are pretty good at understanding human commands, and they can, to some degree, communicate to humans. Many other animals can interact with humans on a symbolic level, albeit a very basic level.

As far as I know, cats do not use symbols. Many cat owners think their pets are quite smart, but cats basically ignore anything we attempt to communicate to them. They do what they do when they decide to do it. Clearly, cats are not very intelligent.

I think if you can use symbols to pass information from one being to another (oh all right, I’ll let cats back in), then you can tell the difference between you and not-you. You can begin to understand you are not the center of the world. There are others.

My guess is that many animals do have a concept of self, however rudimentary it may be. I think that we would not feel as close as we do to so many animals if we did not see clear evidence that they are self-aware.

What that awareness means, I don’t know. It’s clear that self-awareness does not necessarily endow animals with reasoning capabilities. Self-awareness does not make them very intelligent. They have barely enough awareness to be able to communicate only the most rudimentary things. So I don’t think they contemplate existence or have moral codes. They do, I believe, have emotions.

cockswain's avatar

You know, I just thought of the parrot I used to have. If you would speak to it in sort of a hammed up, congratulatory tone, his feathers would swell up and ruffle. It looked like he was proud from receiving complements. Isn’t this some sort of evidence?

iamthemob's avatar

I think that might be more confirmation bias. Of course. I’m not a bird-whisperer…

Coloma's avatar

I’m a goose whisperer.

Definite awareness happening, just don’t run out of bread, sorta like bears and marshmallows.

cockswain's avatar

I guess what I was implying is if animals can show vanity, wouldn’t that mean they are self-aware? Eh?

iamthemob's avatar

Oh, that I wouldn’t be able to deny.

But part of the confirmation bias is the way the evidence is interpreted.

Although I am of the belief that you’re right. I admit that my dog is actually an evil genious. I’m fairly certain he trained me to react certain ways when I though I was training him.

ETpro's avatar

@wundayatta GA, but in defense of Spoony THE Cat, she ignores humans because she has come to realize how worthless most of what we say is to her world. I thought it an admirable quality indicating great intelligence.

wundayatta's avatar

@ETpro You know, there’s theories, and they there’s theories. I think you got yourself a nice theory there. :-0

mattbrowne's avatar

Most are not. There are scientific mirror experiments for example to find out.

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