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Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world’s pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff’s column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Did David Greybeard, the chimpanzee who Jane Goodall notably was the first to observe using a tool, have any idea of who he was? Do elephants, dolphins, cats, magpies, mice, salmon, ants or bees know who they are? Was Jethro, my late companion dog, a self-conscious being? Do any of these animals have a sense of self?
What do these animals make of themselves when they look in a mirror, see their reflection in water, hear their own or another’s song or howl, or smell themselves and others? Is it possible that self-awareness — “Wow that’s me!” — is a uniquely human trait?
Because there’s much interest and much exciting work to be done concerning what animals know about themselves, it’s worth reflecting on what we do and don’t know about animal selves. There are academic and practical reasons to do so.
In his book, “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex,” Charles Darwin pondered what animals might know about themselves. He wrote: “It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth.”
However, Darwin did believe that animals had some sense of self, and also championed the notion of evolutionary continuity, leading him to also write, “Nevertheless, the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” Thus, there are shades of gray and not black-and-white differences between humans and other animals in cognitive abilities. So, while animals might not ponder life and death the way humans do, they still may have some sense of self.
After decades of studying animals ranging from coyotes and gray wolves to domestic dogs and Adelie penguins and other birds, I’ve come to the conclusion that not only are some animals self-aware, but also that there are degrees of self-awareness. Combined with studies by my colleagues, it’s wholly plausible to suggest that many animals have a sense of “mine-ness” or “body-ness.” So, for example, when an experimental treatment, an object, or another animal affects an individual, he or she experiences that “something is happening to this body.”