If Octopuses Are Self-Aware, Are You Less Likely To Eat Them?


Photo via Brian Gratwicke via Flickr Creative Commons

Does the intelligence of an animal factor in on your decision whether or not to eat them? Many people consider pigs to be incredibly intelligent, but they're still mostly factory farmed in often abhorrent conditions. Scientists are pushing for dolphins and other cetaceans to have non-human person status, complete with inalienable rights. But they're still hunted every year as a fish stock, as the documentary The Cove has highlighted. And what about cephalopods, a.k.a. octopuses and squid, which are known to be highly intelligent -- solving puzzles, using tools, and even predicting the outcome of soccer games? If you knew that they were self-aware the same as humans are, would you decide to stop eating them?Cephalopods Are Smart
io9 has an article with three arguments for the consciousness of cephalopods like octopuses and squid. Pointing to the Cephalove blog and neuroscience student Mike Lisieski, the article points out that "The problem with measuring something like "consciousness" is that there is no agreed-upon definition. However, scientists can use a few basic tools to determine whether animals think in ways that humans would recognize as similar to themselves. You can measure (to a certain degree) whether a creature has self-awareness, independent problem-solving abilities, and exhibits brain activities that resemble "thinking" in the human brain."

The tests include learning and object recognition, tool use and adaptive behavior, and brain behaviors similar to those of known conscious creatures like, ahem, humans. There is strong evidence that cephalopods pass the tests.

How Does That Factor In To Food?
Annalee Newitz, the author of the post on io9 states, "So are cephalopods conscious, or even intelligent? The jury is still out on that one. But I stopped eating cephalopods several years ago - even though they are very tasty - because I don't want a hyperintelligent cyberoctopus telling me one day that I ate her great-grandmother."

It's interesting to examine just how intelligent or aware an animal is compared to humans. But that is almost a secondary point to this particular post. The question in io9's article really is, does it take expressed human-like self-awareness to remove an animal from your menu?

When we talk about cutting down our meat consumption, it usually has to do with how humanely it was raised or caught, the environmental footprint of the animal (how big is the carbon footprint; how many are left on the planet), and the negative health impacts of eating it. But do you factor in the intelligence of the animal when deciding if it'll be (dumb) chicken or (smart) pork for dinner?

If we factor intelligence into whether or not we dine on an animal, where do we draw the line? And why is human intelligence a standard? Could there not be complex social structures, levels of awareness, language use and interactions that we simply don't comprehend and therefore don't recognize the "intelligence" of the lifeform? Is this a more important factor than, say, the population level of a species, how dependent other species are on their survival, the the carbon and water footprint of eating these creatures, and so forth?

What should be the most important factors in deciding what to eat for dinner?

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Tags: Animals | Conservation

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