Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2012 paradigm shift in animal welfare

Acknowledgement that animals
feel in much the same way as
humans represents a huge
paradigm shift in animal welfare.
The current issue of Animal People contains a noteworthy article, entitled "The most overlooked victory for animals of 2012."  The article, written by Kim Bartlett, president of Animal People, reported on a potentially earth shaking paradigm shift that sadly went largely unnoticed.

On July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of neuroscientists, biologists and physicists (including the eminent Stephen Hawking) gathered at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness; which states:

"We declare the following: the absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess substrates."

This declaration repudiates the 17th Century, "father of modern philosophy," Rene Descartes' ideas that animals are not conscious and have no interests or sense of well-being that humans need to be concerned with.

For more than 350 years, animals were believed to be incapable of thinking, and therefore incapable of "being." Descartes labeled animals "automata" which means they lacked minds and emotions and were incapable of feeling sensations. Descartes considered compassion for animals worthy of ridicule.

Descartes, and generations of his followers, contended that when animals act as if they are suffering, it is no different than a malfunctioning machine. This philosophy gave carte blanche to the practice of vivisection, which takes living and fully conscious animals apart as if they were pocket watches. Vivisectors were encouraged to laugh as animals screamed and to make fun of the "sentimental" and "ignorant" people who protested their barbaric practices.

Descartes formulated a philosophy of mind/body dualism, similar to Greek and Asian thinkers before him. However, unlike earlier intellectuals, Descartes only granted minds to humans, designating animals as mere machines. "I think, therefore I am," declared Descartes. However, in his system, animals were incapable of thought and therefore incapable of "being" in any meaningful way people ought to respect.

One prominent protester of Descartes' rationale for animal cruelty was the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, who famously demanded, "You discover in the animal all the same organs of feeling that are in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has nature arranged all the means of feeling in this animal so that it may not feel?"

Descartes' ideological reign of terror over Western science began to crumble over the past several decades as scientists became uncomfortable with animal cruelty in laboratories and started to question "automata." A new wave of academic philosophers, such as Tom Regan and Peter Singer, began poking holes in the Descartes doctrine in the 1970s in tandem with the birth of the modern animal rights movement. During this same time, studies of animals in their natural habitats led to an understanding that animals have more in common with humans than ever recognized before. This has all led to the culmination of a new paradigm embodied within the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which thoroughly denounces Descartes and his philosophy.

As 2013 begins, I want to invite you to celebrate this new humane consciousness with the Yavapai Humane Society as we embark on our 41st year of promoting and protecting the health, safety and welfare of animals in our community. For just $35 a year, you can become a member of the Society. Visit for more information or call 213-792-4800 ext. 12.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.