Awareness: A Trait Exhibited by Apes?


Truly informed analysis of animal behavior began after Charles Darwin produced
his book “The Origin of Species through Natural Selection” in 1859. Since this time
animal behaviorists have been compiling a phenomenal amount of research
recording their naturalistic observations and trying to make sense of them within an
evolutionary framework. The majority of these behaviorists tended to conclude that,
even though most animals act in very systematic and functional ways, they are not
explicitly aware of the reasons behind their efforts.  One of the most influential
advocates of this viewpoint was C.L. Morgan.  His “cannon” of 1894 proclaimed
that it is “unscientific” to ascribe human attributes and characteristics to animals.  
He applied the principle of parsimony to animal behavior and asked other
behaviorists to look at their subjects objectively:

“In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher
psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of one which stands lower
in the psychological scale.”

This statement was a strong denouncement of the anthropomorphism that was
rampant throughout previous academic literature.  Taking this one step further,
behaviorists in the twentieth century have shown that because of instincts, and “fixed
action patterns,” many animals can act in ways that seems deliberative and aware,
even though they truly are not.

Since the publication of a book in 1976, Donald R. Griffin’s “The Question of Animal
Awareness,” a different trend has emerged, producing a large body of research that
has tried to delve into the “consciousness” of nonhuman animals. More specifically,
many researchers have been trying to determine the level of intelligence at which
different species function.

Many animal researchers are forced to make subjective judgments about animal
intelligence based on the behavior of their animal subjects because, unfortunately,
the subjects are unable to report verbally. Some of this new research has
succeeded in exploring animal “intelligence,” showing that animal consciousness is
in many ways analogous to human consciousness, and also garnering evidence to
support the existence of “self awareness” in some primates.

Because animal intelligence is very hard to quantify, researchers have used very
fundamental experimental techniques to observe and measure the intelligence of
various species. G. Gallup is one of many researchers who used great apes to
conduct experiments to study thinking and consciousness in animals.

G. Gallup was one of the first scientists to be recognized for uncovering information
about non-human, primate self awareness. He gave full length mirrors to chimps that
had never seen a mirror before. Initially of course the chimps thought that their
mirror image was another, live chimp which for some reason got progressively
more aggressive in mannerism and physical display.  The chimps would, like many
other animals, continue to vocalize and make visual threats for many hours, or even
days. However, each chimp that was tested, after some time, began to show a type
of behavior that no other species of animal has shown in a laboratory.

The apes in Gallup’s experiment began to understand that the mirror image was
their own image. This became formally evident to researchers once the chimps
began to investigate their bodies in the mirror.  The apes had never seen their own
faces, the tops of their heads, their backs or the insides of their mouths. Each
chimp that was given a mirror in one of Gallup’s experiments explored themselves
thoroughly.

Gallup and others interpreted this behavior to mean that the chimps had correctly
identified the images in the mirror as themselves.  Further investigation by the same
researchers tested this hypothesis more conclusively.  While the apes were asleep
the researchers put red marks on their faces.  When the chimps awoke and
examined themselves in the mirror they seemed surprised by their new reflection
and they rubbed their own faces to remove the dye.  Also the chimps that were
marked with red dye observed themselves in the mirror for more time than the
chimps that were not marked.

Another group of chimps which had no previous exposure to mirrors were given the
same red facial markings, they did not show alarm and did not think to try to rub off
the dye. This is because they had not yet realized that the mirror image was in fact
their image.

Many new studies have shown that some animals have more capacity for
intelligence than ever thought possible.  However, there are only three other
species, besides the chimps, that have shown recognition and self awareness in
similar experiments. These animals are bonobos, orangutans (both a type of ape)
and humans.

One of the aspects of intelligence that scientists and philosophers seem to value
the most is self awareness.  It is thought to be one of the traits that make humans
unique.  We are not the only species that exhibits signs of awareness, but perhaps
we are the only species that is aware of self awareness as a concept.

If we really value awareness, shouldn’t we as humans make efforts to become more
aware of what makes us operate the way that we do, aware of the world in which we
live, aware of the laws that govern the world around us, and as the apes were,
aware of who we are and who we are not?

Many forms of life are perceived by science to be nothing more than biological
machines only capable of reflexive reactions to external stimuli.  The ability to be
aware of one’s self seems to extend outside of this boundary and create a
qualitative difference between animals with higher intelligence and those more
simple forms of life.  If there is a distinct difference, then in the same vein self
awareness should help us become more than just the sum of our individual physical
and biological components.  


I think, therefore I am  
Rene Descartes



Griffin, D. R. (1981). The question of animal awareness (2nd ed.). New York:
Rockerfeller Univ. Press

Gallup, G. G., Jr. (1977). Self-recognition in primates: A comparative approach to
the bidirectional properties of consciousness. American Psychologist, 32, 329-338
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