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Feeling Self-Conscious

August 2008

Magpies are the first non-mammal to demonstrate a rudimentary affinity for self-recognition, psychologist Helmut Prior of Goethe University of Frankfurt in Germany and his colleagues report in the Aug. 19 PLoS Biology. Members of the corvid family, which includes crows and ravens, magpies join apes, bottlenose dolphins and elephants as the only animals other than humans that have been observed to understand that a mirror image belongs to their own body.

“When magpies are judged by the same criteria as primates, they show self-recognition and are on our side of the ‘cognitive Rubicon,’” Prior says.

Science News / I, Magpie


The extreme difficulty of reading Penguin has been very much lessened by the use of the underwater motion-picture camera. On film it is at least possible to repeat, and slow down, the fluid sequences of the script, to the point where, by constant repetition and patient study, many elements of this most elegant and lively literature may be grasped, though the nuances, and perhaps the essence, must forever elude us.

It was Professor Duby who, by pointing out the remote affiliation of the script with Low Greylag, made possible the first tentative glossary of Penguin. The analogies with Dolphin which had been employed up to that time never proved very useful, and were often quite misleading.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Author of the Acacia Seeds

Wild, Unsupported Theory: every species on our planet has some form of consciousness. We just don't have the tests or means of communication to figure that out yet.

Wild, Unsupported Implications: humanity is nothing special. Every species has equal value. Maybe even plants. We have exactly the same (moral) right to kill and eat other species as other species have to kill and eat us. Welcome back into the circle of life!

Greg commented:

Are the implications really that wild? Just because other species have the "right" to hunt us down for food doesn't mean we're going to let them...

In fact, if anything I think viewing humans as part of the "circle of life" engenders more of a dog-eat-dog attitude towards our fellow species. I like to see us as "guardians of the planet" or some such, with dominion over — but still a responsibility to protect — our fellow species.

Matt commented:

Hi Matt. Thanks for your comment! (And for putting up that story.)

Greg, a couple of relevant items:

  • We in the western world already tend to keep 'animals as pets' and 'animals as food' as distinct categories, and we find ourselves pretty unenthusiastic about crossing those lines.

  • We already (to a large extent) treat certain species as 'out-of-bounds.' I'm thinking dolphins, elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, and sometimes whales. Sure, part of it is that many of these species are endangered, but there's something more to it; we get kinda queasy about the idea of eating any of these. Can you imagine killing a dolphin or a gorilla?

  • There's actually a movement to grant human rights to apes (chimpanzees in particular): see USA Today, BBC News, The Speculist, The Guardian and a bunch more items on Jane Goodall's site. This would make killing an ape, legally speaking, an act of murder.

It's not about us being animals, it's about animals being persons.

Greg commented:

Hmmm, interesting stuff. I had heard about the ape-rights movement. I'm certainly not opposed to it, although I'm not quite sure about murder ... I do wonder how many people felt the same way 200 years ago about another issue though.

To be honest I get fairly queasy about the idea of killing anything. I'd certainly be a vegetarian if I had to do the dirty work myself! My vegetarian leanings are tempered by the fact that I don't want to be fussy - but when I have the choice, I'll generally go for the veg option.

I do love seafood though — and don't have any plans to stop eating it — which begs the question: are fish somehow in a different category to land dwellers, and if so should they be?

Matt commented:

I love seafood too, but from a certain point of view seafood is even worse than land-meat. See, for instance: Salt-Water Fish Extinction Seen By 2048: Study By Ecologists, Economists Predicts Collapse of World Ocean Ecology. I've heard elsewhere that we're in the last decade of readily available seafood.

But yeah, generally speaking we do consider certain types of life less 'alive' than others, and fish generally lose out there. It seems to be the case that we only really respect animals that we find easy to anthropomorphise – if we can ascribe human emotions and responses to them, we consider them a little bit human. Fish obviously have trouble with that.

Greg commented:

Another interesting link: Monkeys experience joy of giving, too, study finds

I'm gonna have to think about about this seafood thing ... it really is a lot easier to give up something that you don't like!

Greg commented:

Check out Forest and Bird's Best Fish Guide ...

I'm surprised hoki are right at the bottom, considering their ubiquity in fish n chips... I guess they must be easy to catch.

Red cod is probably my most-consumed species though so glad to see it comes out ok!