How The Hen House Turns: Knowing Self

How the Hen House Turns—Knowing Self
Formerly of Los Alamos

Recently I talked about Theory of Mind—how some animals obviously recognize that others are aware. There’s good evidence that animals are aware of what other critters are thinking or planning.

Whenever my duck Ms. Khaki came close to me with a soft “quack quack,” she knew I would get the trowel and dig up damp spots in the Hen House mud to provide her with the juicy worms she loved. Once, she showed me where I had left the trowel.

There is a good case to be made for some animals who are also self-aware. Great apes, elephants and two-year-old humans recognize themselves in a mirror when they use it to explore an odd mark on themselves.

Hunger or itches that get scratched could be called indicators of self-awareness. And at a higher level, chickens are certainly aware of their role in the flock. Wolves are aware of their status in the pack. Their interactions are based on that awareness.

Is animal awareness anything like the self-consciousness of a human teenager worrying about how she looks? Are animals self-conscious when they groom themselves or preen their feathers or lick their wounds? I wonder if it has similar roots in the brain.

When a dog “asks” for a walk or wants to go outside or wants his dinner at 4 pm as usual— Is that simple creature awareness? Is it a difference in degree, not in essence, from our human awareness, as Darwin suggested?

Author Gary Kowalski writes that we share with animals a “…dread of the inexplicable.” He points out that animals are like mirrors, “… a reference point in nature…” to help us understand ourselves. The tragedy is that our denial of animal consciousness has allowed us to use them—too of ten without kindness or mercy.

How did that wild sparrow know that it was safe to ride my finger around the open door to the backyard. Was it my quiet voice? It’s tone? What kind of universal awareness resides in simple “knowing” like that?