the question of animal consciousness

AnguishJohn Jeremiah Sullivan at Lapham's Quarterly:

The modern conversation on animal consciousness proceeds, with the rest of the Enlightenment, from the mind of René Descartes, whose take on animals was vividly (and approvingly) paraphrased by the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche: they “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” Descartes’ term for them was automata—windup toys, like the Renaissance protorobots he’d seen as a boy in the gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, “hydraulic statues” that moved and made music and even appeared to speak as they sprinkled the plants. This is how it was with animals, Descartes held. We look at them—they seem so full of depth, so like us, but it’s an illusion. Everything they do can be attached by causal chain to some process, some natural event. Picture two kittens next to each other, watching a cat toy fly around, their heads making precisely the same movements at precisely the same time, as if choreographed, two little fleshy machines made of nerves and electricity, obeying their mechanical mandate.

Descartes’ view drew immediate controversy. Writers such as the naturalist John Ray, in The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation(1691), protested on behalf of “the common sense of mankind” that if “beasts were automata or machines, they could have no sense, or perception of pleasure, or pain…which is contrary to the doleful significations they make when beaten, or tormented.”

more here.