Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Are Animals Conscious? by Michael Tye (Oxford), £19.99/$29.95
After years of working in animal cognition, I finally decided to become a coherent moral person and stop eating my subjects of study. I became a pescatarian (eating only fish, other seafood and plants). My smug smile lasted until I attended a lecture on whether fish feel pain. I believe that Michael Tye’s Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Are Animals Conscious? will have a similar effect for any other fish-and-crab eating kindred-smug-spirit who reads it. However, this is not an animal ethics book; it is an exploration of the ways in which we can understand consciousness in non-human animals. Most books on this subject focus on mammals; Tye is part of a new generation of researchers who bring species such as insects, fish and arthropods, usually absent, into the discussion of consciousness.
The inspiration for Tye’s notion of consciousness is Nagel’s famous paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, and from it Tye derives what he calls “the simple view”, which argues roughly that a creature can only be considered conscious if it is capable of undergoing an experience; by experience Tye means a mental state such that there is something for that creature to undergo that experience. He argues that if we observe in a non-human animal a behaviour that is similar to a behaviour observed in humans, and if we agree that this behaviour is caused in humans by a certain experience, then we can assume that in non-human animals this behaviour is also caused by an experience. Drawing from recent empirical literature, Tye argues that behaviours observed in fish, birds, reptiles, insects and crabs are caused by experiences (e.g. the experience of feeling pain and anxiety) similar to the ones that produce similar behaviours in humans. Tye argues that, even though there are important neurophysiological differences between species, behavioural, neural and neurochemical similarities are enough to support this attribution of experiences to non-human animals. For Tye, the same kinds of attributions of experiences cannot be applied to protozoa, plants and caterpillars but could potentially be applied to future robots.
To argue this point, Tye, in his usual style, develops the arguments and counterarguments in a simple and clear way. These arguments are intended for both the experts and non-experts. He includes, in the style of the 1970s Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books, instructions that allow the reader to choose how far into specific arguments they want to dive but at the same time allows everyone to arrive at the same conclusions. Moreover, Tye’s choices of examples have the quality of bringing to the reader the experience of his argument. His description of the way children with congenital decortication interact with their caregivers, for instance, supports Tye’s argument for the existence of cognition in the (almost) absence of a neocortex. This stylistic choice, in an indirect way, illustrates his argument for the role that experience plays for mental states such as holding a belief.
Although the suggestions brought forward by Tye’s arguments are intriguing, there are two major limitations to the arguments presented in this book. First, even though he provides brief answers to the charge of anthropomorphism, Tye never fully explores the implications of using Newton’s second rule, “the causes assigned to natural effects of the same kind must be, as far as possible, the same”, to extend consciousness to non-human organisms. In particular, given Tye’s emphasis on the importance of finding the best explanatory inferences, he should have included a direct answer to Morgan’s Canon, which urges that the behaviour of animals should be accounted for using the simplest possible explanation.
The second element absent is a discussion of the role that the organism’s body plays in conscious states. One of the most common examples of conscious experiences are experiences of one’s own body; however, in understanding the mind, Tye seems to overlook the role of the organism’s body and the relationship between the body and the environment. This absence is puzzling. In his analysis of the empirical data, Tye neglects the difference that different characteristics of the organism’s body (e.g. being able to fly, walking bipedal, living underwater, having compound eyes, having eyes adapted to seeing under water) might make in the organism’s conscious experiences.
Tye finishes his book with some quick thoughts on the moral implications of his position for our treatment of animals. He argues that, in cases where the interests of human and non-human animals conflict (e.g. humans eating animals) we will always provide greater moral consideration to the human species; however, that does not mean that we can mistreat animals. This well intentioned but overly simplistic conclusion (perhaps due in part to Tye’s failure to include accounts of current debates in animal ethics) doesn’t do justice to the interesting arguments presented throughout the book. He could have said much more about the moral implications that can be derived, from the book’s main arguments, regarding our treatment of species such as fish, birds, crabs and insects that we encounter constantly in our daily lives.