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If Cows Were Time Travelers - The BioPolitics of Animal Consciousness
Dustin Eirdosh   Sep 11, 2012   Mythic Meats  

If cows were time travelers - I would stop eating most meat! Let me explain…. the ability to be a time traveller is a critical defining marker in how we must practically interpret the nature of any given animal consciousness.

Earlier this summer, a group of prominent scientists across fields connected to the Animal Sciences came together to sign The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness; a statement of consensus among the researchers declaring numerous assertions regarding the similarities between human consciousness and animal consciousness. As stated by the signatories - I agree most wholly with their assessment - indeed it didn’t even strike me as anything new. Animals have rich emotional lives- as rich or potentially richer than humans. I would imagine in many examples this case is easy to make. My problem comes with how this report is to be interpreted.

Consciousness is a complicated and nuanced world. I’ve been a farmer for the last decade - not a neuroscientist; but I am also an evolutionist - and I believe that from between these fields I can shed some light on the spin this story obligatorily induces from many involved in Animal Rights movement (including the highly respectable George Dvorsky - a fellow contributor to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology.)

My proposition here is quite simple - the ability to be a time traveller is a critical defining marker in how we must practically interpret the nature of any given animal consciousness. What I call time travelling here - is what linguists call displaceable symbols - the ability to break from the here and now of experience and map the world from it’s seemingly infinite past through it’s imagined infinite future. In his 2009 book, Adam’s Tongue; author and evolutionary linguist Derek Bickerton describes in magnificent richness the hard won freedom that humans earned from the animalian ‘prison’ of the here and nowness of experience. Without spoiling Bickerton’s wonderful story; he argues that our emergent culture and stone technology conspired with a changing landscape; propelling our lineage of great ape into an new ecological niche - a niche that needed both tools and talking - the niche of scavenging for the meats of ancient mega-fauna.

Many have asserted that the proto-human diet first shifted to meat; and following this transition - the dense nutrition of meat allowed our minds to grow. Whence grown - we began to speak. Bickerton says we have that all backwards. We needed to get meat, yes - but the only way we could get it at first was to talk. It was the talking that gave us access to meat (“hey buddy - come help me cut up this dead hippo!”); and it was this subsequent interaction of language and nutrition that gave us our brains. It was telling our tribal friends and family about our find of meat sources located across time and space that gave us displaceable symbols. The apprehension of displaceable symbols - or the ability for us to construct internal, mental maps of the world able to consider an infinite range of space and time -this was the quintessential mutation that spawned the bio-cultural arms race leading to our current human predicament. Bickerton points to bees and ants as the only other creatures to have constructed a niche needing displacement within their communications systems; hence bees and ants share some interesting cultural homologies with humans.

If we can believe that ‘real’ language is dependent on displaceable symbols; and if we can believe that language created our distinctly human form of consciousness; it follows that to posit claims of animal consciousness being remotely like ours - one must demonstrate a viable ecological niche over evolutionary time that would have selected for displaceable symbols.

Yes - without question a wide range of non-human animals have rich - and I would argue potentially and occasionally richer emotional - affective lives than human animals. But emotion does not equate consciousness and we must therefore be very careful how we than interpret what is in the non-human animal’s interest.

Does the Cambridge Declaration have implications for how and if we should conduct bio-medical research with a range of animals? Yes - without a doubt.

Does the Cambridge Declaration have implications for how livestock are raised? Yes - I think it and the science behind it should be at the forefront of animal welfare discourse.

Does the Cambridge Declaration have implications for the ultimate ethics of slaughtering livestock for human food sources - specifically animals raised under ‘humane conditions’? I would argue it does NOT.

Yes - animals - including cows - have rich emotional lives. We must treat them well and give them vibrant, safe, and fulfilling lives whilst they are under our care. However, in the absence of any evidence that that have achieved displaceable symbols - we must think through carefully what slaughter actually means to the cow herself, as well as her herd mates.

Take for example Prof. James McWilliams claim:

“no matter how they are raised—the animals we eat ultimately succumb to a violent death, one that they are smart enough to anticipate, sentient enough to suffer through, and, were they given an option, wise enough to avoid.” 

This is common among those in Animal Rights movements to express concern that the cow knows what’s coming and, given the choice, would choose not to die that day.

Of course it is true that if cows could understand what death is; and if it were possible to ask them - they would likely choose to continue grazing and die another day. But these if’s are pretty big - and the behavioural evidence leans in an contrary direction.

Take for example a research project being led by Katrin Schiffer in the Agrartechnik department at the University of Kassel in Witzenhausen Germany. Schiffer and colleagues are paving new ground through an action-research project exploring On-Grass slaughter of beef cattle. Now - you may have heard of “on-farm” slaughter - where a cow is walked to a small abbatoir on the farm. On-Grass slaughter takes it one step further and has the cow shot while she is grazing - unconscious before she even knows anything ever happened. The purpose of the project is to explore the technical and legal challenges to making this into a commercially viable system - yet an interesting off shoot has emerged in watching the behaviour of the herd mates who do not get slaughtered. POP - the gun goes off, the cow falls to the soft earth- eyelids non-reactive- her waking experience is over. The herd mates scatter at the sound of the gun - yet - unlike a reasoning self-reflective creature desiring at all costs to live - they don’t keep running. Invariably they stop after a few meters - regroup and continue grazing. Just meters away their less fortunate friend is being hoisted by a tractor, neck cut - and blood drained into a bucket. Cattle live in the here and now. Their herd mates provide critical social interaction and joy - but as the saying goes; out of sight, out of mind.

And what about the poor cow on the tractor? What about her rights? What about her interests? This is tough- and to be sure- I can not be 100% certain I am correct here; but I do think especially this type of slaughter can be navigated in an ethically acceptable manner.

Clearly on-grass slaughter (if not most proper methods of livestock slaughter) is a far less painful way to go compared any sort of “natural death” option. Degeneration, disease, dehydration, starvation, predation - compared with these options - I think it’s safe to say the cow prefers a quick bullet or spike to the brain - followed by the unconscious draining of blood. Even farm animal “sanctuaries” put their animals down - albeit via medication. So the question is not - should cattle death be delivered by the hands of man - it’s when should it be delivered. Now we’re down to a discrepancy of days (between the Animal Rights folks and the Animal Welfare folks). Sure - if we’re talking about killing a steer at 15 months vs. 10 years - we might be talking about a few thousand days this cow could otherwise live, but we’re still talking about a number of days. It comes down to what do these days mean to the cow. Does the steer have hopes and dreams for these future days? no. If the steer lives till age 10 - will he console his aging body with fond memories of strolling through the fields with his friends? no. Will more happy cows be able to use the grass he would otherwise consume? yes.

For sure - cows are individuals. They behave as individuals, with individual personalities. We must treat and care for them as individuals. But this does not mean they experience and value individuality in any sense of the way that we do. The concept of knowing that one’s self is an individual is, itself, a displaced symbol - it is something all science indicates our domestic farm animals do not have.

It may well be that the clearly preferable death-by-human hand is actually desirable to “cow at large” even if the individual cow lifespan is shortened. Cows live in the here and now; for us to halt beneficial grazing practices - and remove grazing lands from the earth’s agricultural coiffures based on a misinterpretation of their interests would truly be a crime against all creatures of the world. The rising challenges of meat production are steep - we must work together and we must get it right.

If cows were time travellers - I would stop eating most meat. But more than likely - they are not - so let’s treat them well, graze them properly, and eat them with the highest respect.


Image 1: A Cow in Madagascar; richly emotional, uniquely intelligent - yet when we talk about differences in the nature of consciousness - we must be very careful!  Evolutionary thinking helps.

Image 2: Cattle in a German research project for On-Grass Slaughter; Herd mates are calm and grazing while their friend is being bled and gutted just off camera.

Dustin Eirdosh, M.Sc., is the curriculum designer for the Berlin-based NGO Big Red Earth, working to cultivate capacity in Madagascar’s southwestern University of Toliara, supporting leadership in applied studies of sustainable development.


This article… it’s arguments are simplistic and wrong. The author does not realise that he’s judging legitimate consciousness from a purely human perspective. He is prejudiced by speciesism without ever realising it himself…

Nathan - let me reply by turning your arguments on their head….indeed I’ll do you one better and provide reasons rather than mere insults smile

So I would argue if you disagree in the way most readers have thus far - than it is your arguments that are ‘simplistic and wrong’. That it is you judging consciousness from a ‘purely human perspective’. All of which I suppose we could call ‘poor thinking’ smile

There is nothing simplistic in admitting that consciousness is ineffably complex - and that this complexity has direct implication for an organisms experience, meaning system, and interests. There is nothing simple is trying to weigh individual interests against the interest of a group - especially multiple, diverse, and global groups. That is all I do here - and conclude that - on balance- the ethics of humane slaughter of humanely raised cows may be more navigable than most Animal Rights folks will realise.

To assume I am wrong about the nature of cow consciousness is certainly to be stuck in a box of what it’s like to be human. As humans we live in a world of animal emotion tempered only just so recently by displaced symbolic reason….. this does not mean we are better in any way - it does mean we have a hard time getting beyond a ‘purely human perspective’ - something I feel this article gets at better than others.

Lastly - just to clarify again - there is absolutely NO judgement regarding the ‘legitimacy’ of any animals consciousness at all. This is something many are criticising but is a fantasy being dredged up from the Animal Rights playbook. There is no hierarchy in this model. It seem seeks to take a non-human centric perspective on what cow consciousness is like - what there interests geniuinely may be in the harsh reality of earth - and how to ethically balance on this on our complex and grass-rich planet.

If I am speciesist - it is in reverse - I think cows are great folks to be around most always - humans just sometimes wink


To clarify on Nathan’s comments and from many on Facebook - the argue is NOT “cows don’t ‘time travel’  and we do - so we’re better and we can eat them” - that would truly be ridiculous

The argument is that humans can raise AND slaughter cows in ways that reasonably appear preferable for the creature - and on balance with global needs and their own interests - it may be ethically navigable to conduct humane slaughter at an age younger than terminally old.

Hi Dustin. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude. I think I’m still missing the point of the article. In essence, are you saying that it’s OK to slaughter cows as long as they are raised and killed painlessly? If this is the case, then I don’t have issue with your argument. But it does make me wonder why on earth you talked about cow consciousness in the first place. Because then the crux of your argument really does rest on what Bentham pointed out - that suffering is what counts - and you’re simply reflogging an old horse. No?

There’s the additional argument that more or less every single option for natural death *sucks*.


Let us remember the perspective that was handed to us by Mother Nature.  She’s not really a nice lady.

Even current high-intensity agriculture is probably, from my lunch’s perspective, significantly preferable to “eaten alive by wolves”.  A well-placed sniper’s bullet to the brain reducing said organ to a fine pink mist is a significant improvement (in terms of decreased unpleasantness) over modern humane slaughter techniques, too.  If we can argue only that this is more ethical than the alternative, it should be adopted, even if only as a stopgap while we have a more in-depth discussion as a society about whether it’s right to raise animals as food.

This should probably also include a discussion on whether raising animals as food is more or less ethical than driving them into extinction (or a near miss costing most of their genetic diversity) due to competition with humanity.

Sorry for the delay - I’ve been away in the field.

@Nathan - no problem - I appreciate the heat, and these ideas should be rigorously debated!

I do think Chrontius has it right in his comments; and it is these multiple, if minute, complexities that I intended to outline - regarding the nature of suffering likely involved for the cattle. So while I agree with Bentham’s utilitarianism - my intent was simply to probe the complexities of the particulars of the situation from a cow’s eye view smile

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