Are animals aware of their own mortality

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Are animals aware of their own mortality

#1  Postby JackRussell » Jul 28, 2014 5:45 pm

I have been sitting at the pub this evening and a conversation started where one person stated as a fact that Homo Sapiens Sapiens are the only animal that are demonstrably aware of their own mortality. He argued that this is because Humans have the capacity to be taught about death and realize the implications for themselves at a very young age. He further argued that this had never been demonstrated in any other animal, including primates that are closest to us in the evolutionary sense.

I am by no means an expert about such issues in a biological framework and was wondering if anybody could teach me something interesting about this assertion and any relevant study that I might undertake to explore it more fully?

I thought it was an interesting question and wondered by what metrics one may try to examine any validity to the premise.

I hope it's not too boring and would welcome any elaboration.

If I have posted this in the incorrect subsection, please feel free to move it, I will not bleat. :)

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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#2  Postby Deremensis » Jul 28, 2014 11:47 pm

Elephants and a few other animals are known to mourn their dead. I can't really think of any high order mammal that isn't "aware" of mortality really - most animals understand death to some extent. Domestic dogs, as an other example, are known to have trouble dealing with the loss of another dog they cared for - and it's known that one way to help such dogs is to actually allow them to see, sniff, et cetera, their dead companion, so that it clicks with them that their companion is dead.

What specific criteria are you perhaps looking for? I've not (yet) heard of any animals going through an existential crisis, so we may have a leg up on them there - but, then, the only way to tell would be to have the animals communicate by language what they're feeling. We know of "depression" like symptoms in many animals, which may be attributable to, or at least linked with, death, especially the death of a familiar companion.

Edit: I believe that elephants actually are the only animals known to have a specific death/mourning ritual. This would imply a higher level of awareness of death - in order to make a ritual of it, one would necessarily need to attribute significance to it.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#3  Postby orpheus » Jul 29, 2014 1:32 am

I often hear this claim - "humans are the only species that is aware of etc." Too many people simply accept this without really asking: how do we know?
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#4  Postby Wimsey » Jul 29, 2014 5:35 am

I know dogs and cats mourn their dead children, and close companions. So do horses, if they know somebody they loved has died. In most cases, though, animals owned by humans are never allowed to see or smell the bodies of their dead loved ones - all they know is that someone isn`t around anymore.

We have no idea how much other species understand or what they feel about death, because we either don`t pay attention to them or control their circumstances to such an extent that all we can see is how they relate to us.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#5  Postby smudge » Jul 29, 2014 7:22 am

I think this ties in to the idea of consciousness - of being aware that one is an individual- aware that others are individuals.
Unless an animal has the ability to recognise itself and others as active thinking individuals it probably couldn't recognise a particular individual as being 'dead'.
The mirror test is designed to test an animals ability to self recognise and the wiki page gives a list of animals known to have the ability; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_test
Having a concept of 'self' and one of 'mortality' are not identical of course but it seems logical to imagine they are closely related.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#6  Postby Goldenmane » Jul 29, 2014 9:51 am

From Wiki

One of Washoe's caretakers was pregnant and missed work for many weeks after she miscarried. Roger Fouts recounts the following situation:

"People who should be there for her and aren't are often given the cold shoulder--her way of informing them that she's miffed at them. Washoe greeted Kat [the caretaker] in just this way when she finally returned to work with the chimps. Kat made her apologies to Washoe, then decided to tell her the truth, signing "MY BABY DIED." Washoe stared at her, then looked down. She finally peered into Kat's eyes again and carefully signed "CRY", touching her cheek and drawing her finger down the path a tear would make on a human (Chimpanzees don't shed tears). Kat later remarked that one sign told her more about Washoe and her mental capabilities than all her longer, grammatically perfect sentences." [23]
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#7  Postby Sendraks » Jul 29, 2014 10:11 am

Aren't the answers given examples of animals being aware of the mortality of others and responding accordingly? The few examples above are but a snapshot of the wealth of evidence out there that animals are acutely aware of the mortality and suffering of their fellows.

But, to what extent is an animal aware of its own mortality i.e. does it think about whether it will one day die? Animals are aware, to varying degrees, of the things in life which might cause them harm although this list isn't exhaustive. I have a dog which is terrified of heights, but very relaxed in its attitude towards speeding motor vehicles.

I have another dog which seemingly has no understanding of the concept of "dogs which are ten times his size" and is utterly fearless towards them depsite his age and infirmity. I've my doubts as to whether his doggy brain grasps that his lifespan is finite.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#8  Postby Goldenmane » Jul 29, 2014 3:34 pm

Sendraks wrote:Aren't the answers given examples of animals being aware of the mortality of others and responding accordingly? The few examples above are but a snapshot of the wealth of evidence out there that animals are acutely aware of the mortality and suffering of their fellows.

But, to what extent is an animal aware of its own mortality i.e. does it think about whether it will one day die? Animals are aware, to varying degrees, of the things in life which might cause them harm although this list isn't exhaustive. I have a dog which is terrified of heights, but very relaxed in its attitude towards speeding motor vehicles.

I have another dog which seemingly has no understanding of the concept of "dogs which are ten times his size" and is utterly fearless towards them depsite his age and infirmity. I've my doubts as to whether his doggy brain grasps that his lifespan is finite.


Nah, that's arguably simply an inability to grasp what shit is likely to result in his mortality. Not the same thing. Though maybe he's just like a teenage boy - incapable of grasping that he, too, can die.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#9  Postby Sendraks » Jul 29, 2014 3:50 pm

Goldenmane wrote:
Nah, that's arguably simply an inability to grasp what shit is likely to result in his mortality. Not the same thing.


Except, if you have no grasp of mortality you are unlikely to grasp what might bring about your demise.

Goldenmane wrote:
Though maybe he's just like a teenage boy - incapable of grasping that he, too, can die.

Which is pretty much the thrust of what I was getting at above. I'm not sure there is evidence that individual animals realise that they will one day die.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#10  Postby scott1328 » Jul 29, 2014 6:12 pm

I wonder how many humans actually grok their own mortality... For myself, I can't fathom non-existance.
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Re: AW: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#11  Postby Scar » Jul 29, 2014 6:33 pm

scott1328 wrote:I wonder how many humans actually grok their own mortality... For myself, I can't fathom non-existance.

I can. Which is why I'd prefer to stay alive as long as possible and as I enjoy it.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#12  Postby THWOTH » Jul 29, 2014 10:57 pm

Deremensis wrote:Elephants and a few other animals are known to mourn their dead. I can't really think of any high order mammal that isn't "aware" of mortality really - most animals understand death to some extent. Domestic dogs, as an other example, are known to have trouble dealing with the loss of another dog they cared for - and it's known that one way to help such dogs is to actually allow them to see, sniff, et cetera, their dead companion, so that it clicks with them that their companion is dead...

Horses too.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#13  Postby DougC » Jul 29, 2014 11:40 pm

The dog I nearly ran over two days ago might be able to answer that question.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#14  Postby DougC » Jul 30, 2014 12:00 am

This Koala?
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#15  Postby orpheus » Jul 30, 2014 2:06 am

Sendraks wrote:Aren't the answers given examples of animals being aware of the mortality of others and responding accordingly? The few examples above are but a snapshot of the wealth of evidence out there that animals are acutely aware of the mortality and suffering of their fellows.

But, to what extent is an animal aware of its own mortality i.e. does it think about whether it will one day die? Animals are aware, to varying degrees, of the things in life which might cause them harm although this list isn't exhaustive. I have a dog which is terrified of heights, but very relaxed in its attitude towards speeding motor vehicles.

I have another dog which seemingly has no understanding of the concept of "dogs which are ten times his size" and is utterly fearless towards them depsite his age and infirmity. I've my doubts as to whether his doggy brain grasps that his lifespan is finite.


It's a complex issue, certainly. One thing is to be aware of other possible explanations. For example, we humans tend to be afraid of falling from a height, yet we experience nothing like that fear when riding in a car - even though we may be traveling at the same velocity. Natural selection has seen to it that we have a healthy fear of falling, but our ancestors never (or rarely) encountered dangerous high-speed horizontal motion, so we haven't developed the deep-rooted fear. Similarly, our species doesn't have much of a history with motor vehicles, so we need to be taught, as young children, to be afraid of them. It doesn't mean that we don't have an awareness of and/or fear of our own mortality.

Also, another point comes to mind: our awareness of our own mortality is not a constant. On a day-to-day, moment-to-moment level we could not function with a continual awareness of our own mortality. Much of the time we have healthy and necessary denial mechanisms in place. But their effectiveness and appropriateness changes at different stages of life (and, of course, with changing circumstances such as serious illness, the illness or death of a loved one, or other circumstances that are perceived to threaten one's stability in life).

If anyone is interested, a large part of Irvin Yalom's excellent book Existential Psychotherapy is devoted to this issue.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#16  Postby trogs » Oct 29, 2014 6:21 am

If those goddamn happy-derpy animals don't know, we can fix that.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#17  Postby Spearthrower » Oct 29, 2014 6:47 am

JackRussell wrote:I have been sitting at the pub this evening and a conversation started where one person stated as a fact that Homo Sapiens Sapiens are the only animal that are demonstrably aware of their own mortality.


It's a perfectly good argument because it's very carefully worded - 'demonstrably aware' , when you get right down to it, would require them to be able to confirm their awareness, which only humans can do. QED.

Of course, there is plenty of evidence to suggest a number of other creatures seem aware of mortality, whether that extends to a concept of their own or not is difficult to establish.


JackRussell wrote: He further argued that this had never been demonstrated in any other animal, including primates that are closest to us in the evolutionary sense.


Laying aside the problem I already noted, you can show him the film of a female chimp carrying around the body of her deceased infant for days, occasionally laying it down and apparently trying to inspect it. Of course, we can't know what was going through her head (ergo the problem with 'demonstrably aware'), but there was some struggle going on inside her to relinquish her infant. When she finally did so, it was quite emotional.

This behavior has been seen in a number of primates, and elephants seem to mourn the loss of companions. Again, it has to be 'seem' because we can't actually know the workings of their minds, whether they're thinking or just engaging in an unrelated behavior that appears to be mourning.

There's also the gorilla (forgotten his name right now) trained to communicate who allegedly once explained that thoughts of his own death made him sad.

Lots of circumstantial evidence suggests that there is some degree of awareness, but again the argument is carefully crafted because demonstrating a thought is inherently problematic unless you can interrogate the subject.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#18  Postby Rachel Bronwyn » Oct 29, 2014 7:05 am

I don't know for certain whether any other species understands that they will cease to exist at some point. I can't see why most highly intelligent mammals would know death is a thing, having experienced it around them. Whether they know an individual who has died is no longer exists, I don't know.

I don't think the vast majority of animals sit around fearing impending death. Most don't posess the intelligence to understand it.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#19  Postby trogs » Oct 30, 2014 1:42 am

Rachel Bronwyn wrote:I don't know for certain whether any other species understands that they will cease to exist at some point. I can't see why most highly intelligent mammals would know death is a thing, having experienced it around them. Whether they know an individual who has died is no longer exists, I don't know.

I don't think the vast majority of animals sit around fearing impending death. Most don't posess the intelligence to understand it.

There's fairly good indication that at least elephants have a good concept of the death of individuals:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5RiHTSXK2A
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAs-5D6OdGk
http://www.youtube.com/results?search_q ... their+dead


Elephant brain is upwards of 3x the weight of ours.
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Re: Are animals aware of their own mortality

#20  Postby The_Piper » Oct 30, 2014 1:57 am

What about squirrels, who often run as fast as they can in open spaces to avoid getting plucked by a bird of prey, or running from something chasing it? Is that like our fear of heights, or just natural selection favoring squirrels who are afraid of open spaces? Or is that are both the same thing?
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