Are the animals conscious of your suffering? The question is so deep that it seems to be beyond the reach of science. It fully affects one of the most fundamental problems in the singular hierarchy of philosophers: qualia,like the feeling of redness that redness induces us, or the conscious pain that cruelty produces us. But policies to alleviate animal suffering – or not to do so – depend entirely on science. Do they feel, do animals suffer, and therefore do they hold some kind of right? In general, the best available science supports this idea, although without unanimity.
The question goes far beyond neurology. From a technical point of view, knowing if an animal has consciousness is the same problem as knowing if it has it a patient in a coma or in a vegetative state. Both are objective questions about the structure and activity of the brain. Everything that happens in our mind has a correlation in neural activity, and consciousness is no exception. Researchers already have even a conscience meter, an apparatus that assigns a number to the degree of consciousness of a subject, for example while anesthetized, or if it has suffered brain damage. With a few adjustments, it could be applied to any animal, which would give us an objective measure of the degree to which an animal can feel and suffer.
Defining consciousness is very difficult – how to define anything without knowing what it consists of – but sometimes a parable works better than a definition: consciousness is what you lose when you fall asleep and recover when you wake up. The folds of the quilt that covers you, the smell of coffee coming from the kitchen, the dodecaphonic quartet of the horns that filters the window. The feeling of being alive. Also the ability to suffer, the talent to feel pain, your memories and the dark augury of your future. "I do not know how to define it, but I recognize it when I see it", as Judge Potter Stewart said about pornography. In Spanish, the problem is aggravated by the confusion between conscience (conscience) and consciousness (consciousness), or between the moral and the neurological. The dictionary collects this difference, but few people use it clearly.
The Cambridge Declaration editor, neuroscientist Philip Low, enters self-combustion when bullfighting is mentioned. "Mammals are conscious and capable of suffering, and that includes all the bulls slaughtered wildly in the name of 'tradition' and 'entertainment'. The inability of a culture to recognize the sophistication of others and respect them lacks in itself sophistication and does not deserve respect. "
Low continues his angry argument: "The question is not whether neuroscience has advanced, but rather why Spaniards have not wanted or have not been able to accept science and calibrate its behavior accordingly, repudiating the barbaric practice of bulls, which remains a stain in the great Spanish culture and the richness of its history? ".
As a good American, Low can not dissociate the fight from the most famous bullfighting who left his country: "Hemingway has given way to the Cambridge Declaration; the bullfights are no longer considered romantic, but rather unnecessary and cruel; there is nothing virile or grandiose in tormenting and stabbing an innocent and sensitive being; rather, the opposite happens. The gladiators long ago disappeared from Roman circuses. It is time for the bulls to retire from the Spanish ring, and for people who get a sadistic enjoyment with the bullfights, a show of cruelty and suffering in the name of art, history and culture, to receive medical attention what they deserve".
Well, that's how things look from California.
Despite the philosophical problems that define their definition, neuroscientists have in recent years taken notable steps towards the understanding of consciousness that fully affect the debate on animal suffering. The reference document remains the Cambridge Declaration on consciousness, agreed in 2012 by a neuroscientific elite in that British city. And recent investigations have done nothing strengthen your arguments.
Philip Low, founder and executive director of the neurodiagnostic company NeuroVigil, in California; Christof Koch, of the Allen Institute of Brain Sciences in Seattle; David Edelman, of the Neurosciences Institute of La Jolla, California, and other prestigious neuroscientists issued a clear message in the Cambridge statement. In humans as in other animals, homologous circuits have been identified whose activity coincides with conscious experience. Moreover, the neural circuits that are activated while a person feels an emotion are essential for a mouse to experience the same emotion. This is striking, since humans and mice have been evolving separately for 200 million years. It points to a common origin of emotional systems in the early phases of animal life.
"Although there have been many updates in neuroscience, the field has long come to the conclusion embodied in the Cambridge Declaration that at least many non-human animals, including all mammals, are aware and have the capacity to suffer," Low says. email. Aware of being talking to a Spanish media, the neuroscientist is very critical of bullfighting. "Other countries, including Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, India, New Zealand, Portugal and Switzerland, are moving into the future and have started to make progressive changes," he says.
"A lot of progress is still needed in pharmaceutical research, because these companies can only patent artificial molecules that they then test on animals," Low continues. "Every year about 100 million vertebrates are slaughtered, more than 40,000 million dollars are invested and 94% of the molecules fail in animals; and 98% of those that pass end up failing in human trials. This is suboptimal and very expensive. Understanding the role of our lifestyle, and especially our diet, in health will be as essential as identifying early markers of disease. People should pay more attention to studies that involve dairy and red meat in Parkinson's and cancer, respectively. "
Juan Lerma, a research professor at the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante, also assumes that animals have awareness, sensitivity and ability to suffer, but points out some nuances. "We have to flee from all anthropocentrism," he says, "people tend to apply their own feelings to animals; It does not make sense to say that a fish gets depressed, but it is even said in technical articles. The animals' mice, here under my laboratory, are not asking themselves right now if they have consciousness. "