In Why Animals Matter: Animal Consciousness, Animal Welfare, and Human Well-being, author Marian Stamp Dawkins challenges her readers to radically rethink their attitudes toward animals, and she justifies this challenge on two pretexts. First, there is a pressing need to feed an everexpanding global population, which causes us to focus on food production and environmental protection without proper consideration of animal welfare. Second, we are singularly confused about the consciousness of animals and inconsistent in how we view and treat different groups of animals within our society. Given these two concerns, Dawkins, professor and medal recipient of animal behavior at Oxford University, aims to simplify our approach to understanding animal welfare so that clear and persuasive solutions can be found.
The author's exploration of the basis for anthropomorphism in chapter 3 asks how justified we are in projecting human emotions onto animals. In an age when computers can be “trained” and even programmed to “train” other computers and to “heal” themselves, we realize that it is not out of the bounds of reason to ascribe human characteristics to nonhumans. Dawkins also distinguishes anthropomorphism from consciousness, which she argues should be openly and directly considered in animals on a scientific basis. Our failure to understand animal consciousness, however, should not be used as an excuse for not making progress in understanding the needs and wants of animals—that is, animal welfare.
In chapters 4–6, Dawkins courageously explores what we know about animal minds and the complexity and plurality of consciousness. In chapters 7 and 8, she frankly considers what science has been able to tell us so far and acknowledges that much of our understanding of consciousness is beyond what current science is able to explain. This acknowledgment, she claims, frees us to develop more practical and applied approaches to the study of animal welfare without a full understanding of the complexity of consciousness as a prerequisite.
Animal welfare is not only about good health, nor is it only about avoiding death. The ability of animals to anticipate danger and to cope with threats is a separate and equally important issue. It is the behaviors that have no obvious function that demonstrate the complexity of understanding even simple responses. The needs that animals have (e.g., to satisfy hunger with food) may relate on a life—death scale directly to their health; however, their wants may stem from more primitive instincts (e.g., to hunt in the absence of hunger), which have evolved over millions of years. Needs and wants form the two pillars of animal welfare, and both must be considered carefully.
In Why Animals Matter, Dawkins reaches a conclusion that good welfare resides in an animal that is both healthy (i.e., its needs are satisfied) and has what it wants. She argues that modern animal welfare science often approaches these two pillars in complicated ways. By measuring either positive or negative emotions, the common goal is to understand how to address both animal wants and needs.
Understanding what animals need in order to be healthy is one relatively simple question. By contrast, Dawkins dedicates the whole of chapter 9 to attempting to understand what animals want, accepting that this pursuit moves us precariously back toward considering consciousness. Can we ever scientifically study such questions? Few animals, even in the wild, live permanently in a state where their needs and wants are perfectly met. Modern technology, such as radio tracking, allows us to observe minute details in the lives of animals, both wild and domestic. We learn where they choose to go naturally, what they choose to do, and what they choose to avoid. Choice experiments can also be designed to explore these wants in a fruitful way, although full understanding of what makes a life worth living will probably remain elusive. The results will often be surprising and counterintuitive, especially if we ask animals to pay a price for what they want. It is, therefore, all the more important that experiments asking these questions are well designed.
Positive and negative reinforcement are powerful tools in understanding what animals want and what they do not want and how strong their preferences and aversions are, but poorly designed experiments may lead to misleading conclusions. For example, simple choice experiments may not take into account complicating factors such as cognitive bias—whether the animals take an optimistic or pessimistic view of the choices they are being asked to make. Studies by Mike Mendl, professor of animal behavior and welfare at Bristol University, and others (e.g., Mendl et al. 2009) would suggest that this predisposition in animals could be an underlying factor that is critically important to consider. Results may thus be influenced by the richness of the environment in which the animal lives and may vary from animal to animal within a species or type.
Dawkins concludes that we can boil down difficult concepts such as mental health, positive affective state, and quality of life into this one simple concept of what an animal wants, but she reemphasizes that this is not the same as conscious awareness. Pronouncing herself a consciousness skeptic, she reiterates that the problems of understanding animal welfare can be resolved without having first to answer the big question about animal consciousness.
Why Animals Matter is not an easy read, but the questions being asked are not simple ones. I applaud Dawkins for her ability to look afresh at old problems and to painstakingly pursue a deeply analytical course through the many complex factors associated with animal welfare. She provides a clearer pair of lenses through which we should endeavor to visualize a new future for our relationship with animals, especially when they are producers of our food, companions in our lives, and diverse occupiers of our natural environment.