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December 19, 2018

Animals, too, have consciousness

Highly social animals
Highly social animals

I live close to the chief’s camp and since he is, or has become my personal friend, we constantly share some information involving security of our area. He is at the forefront in championing the neighbourhood watch, popularly known as nyumba kumi. This makes it easy and imperative to share and interact with the people around.

One of the disturbing findings that he shared with me is the fact that 90 per cent of the cases he handles in his office involves fighting couples. From his own words, the fights do not always have to be for material possessions. Most times the fights emanate from very petty issues of either crude jealousy from either party, or what they term "nagging". When probed further to explain the extent of damage the quarrels have had on relationship, it turns out that most homes are broken for reasons that would be described as ridiculously petty. Almost comical to talk about. It also comes out in the open that most couples begin to live together before they know each other well enough to understand and equip themselves with the necessary tools to deal with each other. Why do animals of same species live together, eat together and sleep together without the fights that we see in humans? Because they do not possess “consciousness”.

We are faced with an intriguing question of evolution. Namely, why should some species, including our own, have that quality we term “consciousness” while other do not. According to a psychologist, Dr Nicolas Humphrey, the reason why human beings are conscious is because they need to survive. Earlier in our evolutionary history, we probably were not conscious. But the nature of our social groupings soon made it imperative that each individual take account of what was going on in the minds of his or her companions. If our ancestors were to thrive as cooperative, interdependent beings, constantly interacting with each other, they had indeed and effectively to become “natural psychologists”, tuned in to the thoughts, feelings, ambitions and preferences of others that they are living with and their neighbours.

To do this, each individual has to form a kind of internal representation or model of other people’s behaviour, and that would be impossible without having consciousness. The same idea is to be found in primates, who are genetically closer to the human beings. The more complex the social interaction of species, the more it may be driven towards evolving consciousness. Primates clearly have complicated social relationship. We can see through careful watch of the behaviours of the chimps, which are easily seen at the Sweet Waters Conservancy, right here at home, in Nanyuki. With species such as these, it is not too difficult to concede, therefore, that they may share with us the faculty of self-consciousness.

Whatever the extent of consciousness among other species, the notion proposed by Dr Humphrey has one very important message. It implies that animals, including humans, evolve the intellectual capacities that are consistent with their environment and lifestyle. We are conscious because consciousness fits our social needs. It is adoptive. A bee, an ant or a bird has just the mental apparatus it needs for its own purpose. Any less would be fatal. Any more would be superfluous. If we are to learn whether other species behave like we do – thinking abstract thoughts, using tools or manipulating symbolic languages – it is essential that we observe closely what animals do in their own world and for what purpose – their own, or for others that live with them?

In the plains of the Mara, it is very easy to see many animals living together, grazing side by side. In some places, one sees different species lying close together. Zebras, topis, gazelles, warthogs and the rest of the grazers are grouped together under shades of acacia umbrella trees in the heat of the day. Each one of them is looking for a shade for himself, and not in the interest of his neighbour. But for highly social animals, which include humans, the behaviour of an individual has a direct effect on his neighbour. It is of great importance then, that for a family to cohesively live together in peace and harmony, they need to be consciously aware of the feelings and the needs of each other and to learn how to deal with the differences in character and behaviours that have been acquired by each individual in upbringing stage.

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