If Monkeys Could Talk

The Bioethics Club explores the ethics of animal consciousness

Late one evening in a Thompson Hall classroom, roughly a dozen students gathered to hear Puget Sound psychology professor Erin Colbert-White give a talk called “The Ethics of Animal Consciousness.”

The informal seminar was one in a series sponsored by the Bioethics Club, which, under President Emma Goldblatt ’18, is focusing on exploring the diversity of the bioethics field. This academic year, professors and local experts have given talks on the ethics of climate change, marijuana and cancer care, clinical practice, and Tibetan medicine.

Erin’s seminar explored the questions of what consciousness is and how the “bombshell controversy” around whether nonhuman animals have conciousness could change the way humans treat animals, particularly in terms of animal testing and pet ownership.

Psychology professor Erin Colbert-White
Psychology professor Erin Colbert-White.

There is no standard definition of consciousness, so Erin provided insights from philosophers such as David Chalmers—who defines consciousness as a movie constantly playing—and neuroscientists. She said that there are others in the scientific community who believe that consciousness “just exists” and cannot be quantified.

Despite a “Declaration of Consciousness” signed by prominent brain experts in 2012 that states many animals are very likely conscious, disagreements continue. Researchers have tried to settle the matter and judge consciousness by testing different behavioral correlates of consciousness, such as self-awareness and the concept of fairness.

To illustrate, Erin showed Emory University researcher Frans de Waal’s TED Talk about his colleague’s work with two monkeys. Both animals were asked to pick up a rock and hand it to the researcher in exchange for a treat. The first monkey completed the task and received a piece of cucumber, which it ate happily. The second monkey completed the same task and was given a grape, a higher-value reward. The first monkey saw that, and eagerly handed the researcher a rock in expectation of the grape. When it received cucumber again, the monkey threw the lesser treat at the researcher and reached through its cage, banging its hand on the table and trying to reach the grapes.

The interaction elicited laughter from the students, but Erin said the experiment raises an important ethics question: If recognition of the concept of fairness is one way scientists approach studying animal consciousness, and these monkeys being researched are conscious beings, “would you change your perspective about the process or procedures used [in animal research]? Do you think society would?”

Bioethics Club president Emma Goldblatt ’18
Bioethics Club president Emma Goldblatt ’18.

Bioethics Club president Emma, a senior biology student, spoke up to say that her thoughts on the ethics of animal research depend on her connection with a particular animal. She has done experiments with both fish and mice, and found that she had a harder time watching the mice go through the research process, while feeling “very disconnected” from the fish. She’d had to “sacrifice” both in experiments, and considered whether knowing they had consciousness would change her willingness to do so.

Erin has worked with a variety of animals herself. She showed photos of the monkeys she’d worked with as a graduate student and asked the audience to identify the emotion shown on their faces. Joy, fear, and anger were called out. Erin noted that because mammals have facial expressions that are similar to humans’, it’s easier for us to relate to them.

Emma agreed. “If [the fish] had aspects to their face that I could read, like eyebrows or mouths, I would have a harder time with it,” she said of her experiments. “If I found out one day that [fish] were just as smart as we were, it would be a lot harder to conduct my research.”

Emma is on a pre-med track and has taken classes in nearly every field of science. She discovered bioethics through an intro class that she found engaging in part because the subject can be applied to many different scientific disciplines.

“I love engaging in bioethics because scientists can get tunnel vision so easily,” Emma says. “Even doing non-human animal research like we were talking about tonight, I wouldn’t have thought about the consciousness of the fish that I was working with if it weren’t for my conversations with Erin. It makes you pick your head up and look at what you’re doing—and what the implications are.”

For Erin, the implications of scientific discovery became very real when she started to dream about her monkeys. “They would talk to me and tell me to let them out, and that was horrible,” she said. But dreams and doubts aside, Erin believes that research on animal behavior is important and could have a long-term benefit for animals. She leads an animal research program at Puget Sound and teaches the class Exploring Animal Minds, which allows students at the university to grapple with these ethical questions and reach their own conclusions.


By Anneli Fogt
Published April 25, 2018
Photos by Anneli Fogt