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A Case Study of Parrots: Are Animals Conscious? Essay


Defining consciousness in relation to animals and human beings is a complex task for researchers and other experts. Scientists have failed to agree on a common definition of the term. In addition, they continued to disagree on the constructs of consciousness (Shriver 253). The reason for this is mainly because consciousness is not a neat and homogenous entity like other scientific phenomena. On the contrary, it exists in different forms and degrees (Shriver 253). Attempts to answer the multitude of biological, psychological, and neurological questions concerning consciousness have occupied intellectuals for centuries (Shriver 253).

Alex and Griffin are African gray parrots. They show humanlike capabilities of speech and intelligence (Caldwell and Lowe 2). The birds’ advancement in speech is astonishing to many people, especially due to their ability to associate different words with specific objects (Caldwell and Lowe 3). One cannot help but wonder whether or not their ability to comprehend complex and alien language represents a form of originality. The originality would help determine the similarity between how animals and human beings view the world in relation to consciousness. It is also unclear whether or not the two gray parrots recognize what they are doing. Perhaps they have just refined their skills to depict the pachyderm form.

In this essay, the author argues that it is reasonable to conclude that the African gray parrots in the Caldwell and Lowe article have consciousness. The reason is that they portray various attributes associated with human consciousness. To support this argument, the author will take a critical and in-depth look at different articles touching on this topic.

Consciousness among Animals: The Case of Two African Gray Parrots

Ability to Portray Emotions

Scientists associate consciousness with the ability to show emotional feelings and factual thinking about objects and events (Dawkins 10). The link was made after a study on human emotions highlighted their importance in cognitive ethology (Dawkins 13). In the case of the African parrots, Alex and Griffin, the existence of this phenomenon can be seen in different instances. Alex, for instance, displays a wide range of emotions. He exhibits agitation and impatience while playing the role of a tutor to Griffin in one of the experiments. Griffin splutters “ay-urn” as he tries to say the word “paper”. Alex’s agitation and impatience can be noticed as he immediately orders him to “talk clearly!” (Caldwell and Lowe 3). His ability to portray emotions is a strong indicator of his consciousness.

Human Shared Experiences

Some scientists argue that shared experiences between humans and animals are based on such factors as complexity in behavior, as well as ability to think intelligently and demonstrate that what happens to them matters (Griffin 12). Consequently, such scientists as Dawkins claim that some human attributes like complexity, thinking, and minding are present in some animal species. As such, consciousness is also present in animals since it arises from such traits and activities (Griffin 12). In light of this, Alex and Griffin can be said to be conscious since they portray these characteristics. For instance, Alex displays his ability to think when he differentiates between shapes and colors. When the bird wants to play, it orders “Go see tree!”. Consequently, it is evident that the parrot cares about what happens to it.

Existence of Perceptual and Reflective Consciousness

It is another element that indicates consciousness among animals. Natsoulas argues that several types of consciousness are ignored by experts. He refers to them as conscious 3 and 4 (Griffin 22). The former refers to the act of being aware of something. On the other hand, the latter is defined as the ability of a thinking person to recognize their acts and affections (Griffin 31). Natsoulas goes ahead to specify that one can only be said to experience conscious 4 if they are aware of their perceptions, thoughts, and any other occident mental episodes (Griffin 22).

Animals have proved that they can think consciously about things. It is a fallacy to assume that they lack conscious awareness of experiences. They do not just react to things. Tests carried out on the African gray parrots show that the animals are aware of what they are thinking and they are feeling in a particular kind of way (Caldwell and Lowe 2). For instance, when Alex is asked a question, he does not hesitate to answer even if the one asking it insists he is wrong. The bird sticks to the same correct answer. What this shows is that the parrot has not only crammed the words, but also learnt their deeper meanings (Caldwell and Lowe 4). As such, animals can be said to be conscious since they are aware of their thoughts and perceptions.


Experts emphasize that animal behavior cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration their cognition. Donald states that animals are seen to have full cognition of their actions only when they are deciding whether or not what they are doing will help achieve a particular goal for them (Griffin 12). They can then be said to be conscious. In light of this, Alex, the African gray parrot, is seen to be carrying out a lot of cognitive tasks that have previously be seen only at the level of chimpanzees and humans. Alex also portrays cognition when he finds nuts using the mirror test. His consciousness is made evident given that he is able to identify himself in the mirror and trace his way to the nuts (Caldwell and Lowe 2).

Neural Correlates and Animal Consciousness

Experts argue that this element creates a connection between animals and human beings with regards to consciousness (Low 1). Experts adopt empirical strategies to analyze this phenomenon in their subjects (Low 1). The major criteria used helps to determine whether or not the brain of the subject is able to elicit any form of conscious occurrence. When this happens, the experts then make attempts to identify the components responsible for this experience. Findings and conclusions from studies conducted in Cambridge University indicates that these components are not unique to humans (Low 2). In addition, they are not limited to cortical regions of the brain (Low 2). Experiments conducted to prove this in both humans and non humans have produced similar behavioral and feeling states.

The African gray parrots are seen to offer a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness as suggested by the Cambridge scientists. It is mainly evident through the description of the human-like and intelligent behavior of the parrots (Caldwell and Lowe 4). The two birds present a dramatic display of human-like levels of conscience.

The Problem of Pre-Emption in Animal Consciousness Studies

The article by Caldwell and Lowe almost convinces the reader that the African gray parrots are conscious owing to the arguments presented by the experts. However, it is important to acknowledge the major weaknesses associated with the assessment of whether an animal is conscious or not. One of the major limitations is the subjective and private nature involving conscious experiences (Dennett 692).

It means that the experiences pertaining consciousness are only known to the individual organisms (Griffin 16). In the study involving the gray parrots, there is no proof that the researchers had enough knowledge on how conscious subjective experiences arise from brain tissue in bird species. The study also raises the question of whether scientists are well equipped or have enough knowledge on how to study consciousness in animals. In the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, it is claimed that this field is evolving and a number of new strategies to conduct human and non-human research have being developed. However, there is no evidence to support the fact that the new strategies have been used to study the gray parrots (Low 1). When one goes past the confines of the parrots described in the articles, confusion arises. For instance, one of the articles states that human consciousness is more complex than that of animals. However, none of the scholars provides means of quantifying the two.


It is clear that in spite of intensive studies conducted in this field, animal consciousness remains a thorny issue. Scientists have failed to provide evidence to prove that animals are conscious. However, some of the studies carried out on animals, such as the African gray parrots, strongly indicate that these organisms are conscious. The birds’ intelligence levels and ability to comprehend and use complex and alien language in different scenarios show that animals are aware of what they are doing. The ability of the gray parrots to associate human words with meanings and to intelligibly apply the concepts of shape and color is incredible. Consequently, one can reasonably conclude that that the African gray parrots described in the article by Caldwell and Lowe have consciousness.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Mark, and Jeffrey Lowe. . 2000. Web.

Dawkins, Marian. “Animal Welfare and the Paradox of Animal Consciousness.”Advances in the Study of Behavior 47 (2014): 1-34. Print.

Dennett, Daniel. “Animal Consciousness: What Matters and Why.” Social Research 62.3 (1995): 691-711. Print.

Griffin, Donald R. Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.

Low, Philip. . 2012. Web.

Shriver, Adam. “Why Animals Matter: Animal Consciousness, Animal Welfare, and Human Well-Being by Marian Stamp Dawkins.” Environmental Ethics 36.2 (2014): 253-254. Print.

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