To Know or not to Know Yourself

Are animals aware of themselves?

In his book “The Self and its Brain” the famous Australian 1963 winner of the Nobel Prize in “Physiology or MedicineSir John Eccles addressed the question whether an animal’s self-consciousness was the product of its brain or whether the brain served the animal’s self. Eccles, although an Australian by birth, it is often forgotten that he served as a professor at New Zealand’s Otago University from 1944 to 1951 and that during this period he devised a completely new course in physiology for medical students and carried out fundamentally important work, published in the journal NATURE as a paper co-authored by A.K. McIntyre. In 1951, he disproved his own theory of electrical synaptic transmission and accepted that the transmission was chemically mediated. His lab at that time was described as a “chicken cage of oscilloscopes, wires and animals” and he himself was seen as the “caricature of the mad scientist”, who once spent 24 hours “cooped up” in his cage .

But back to his book. Actually the title of the book already provides the answer to that interesting question of whether animals have a notion of who or what they are. Students of animal behaviour often use a mirror placed in front of an animal to see whether the animal recognizes itself and, for example, removes some dirt from its head, examines a wound or begins to threaten or court the one in the mirror and looks behind the mirror to see if someone is there. Chimpanzees certainly see themselves in the mirror and for dolphins such awareness has also been reported. However, even animals which do not recognize themselves in a mirror exhibit an awareness of their own body. Lacking a distinct brain, sea urchins for instance take great care in removing dirt, foreign particles and faeces from their body surface, while at the same time they carefully deposit bits of rock or seaweed here and there between the spines for camouflage. They do all this with tiny motile, stalked forceps termed “pedicellaria” that are present between a sea urchin’s spines and tube feet.

Cleaning and decorating one’s own body are purposeful actions, impossible without some concept of “the self”. Demonstrations about an animal’s understanding of its “self” abound: a hermit crab in search of a new empty shell does not haphazardly try out just any shell: only those that are most likely to fit will be examined and tried. Or think of a cockroach: not only does it clean and brush itself regularly, it also appears to know exactly how far it can enter nooks and crannies without running into danger of getting stuck. Shore crabs I have studied behaved no differently: they must have an awareness of their bodily dimensions. A parallel can be found amongst deer, because a stag apparently knows very well how wide its antlers are and what gap between rocks and trees it can safely navigate by leaping through.

Snakes, on the other hand, seem not to be too self-conscious: not that many would ever leap, but they have been known to enter an enclosure through chicken wire meshes, then have a good meal, and then, consequently, get stuck on their return as they no longer fit through the chicken wire meshes. Well, I guess this is something not exactly new to humans, since we all know that gluttony and body consciousness don’t mix well.

meyer Benno Rochow biology science essay

Do you smell it?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2017.
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