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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Mirror Test (p. 301)

From chapter "Self-Awareness"

Many human supremacists love to talk about the “mirror test” of self-awareness, in which you put a mirror in front of some nonhuman to see if the nonhuman recognizes itself, in which case it is declared to be self-aware (though not as self-aware as us, of course!). Very few nonhumans pass this particular test, which is I’m sure one reason the test is so beloved by so many human supremacists. I’m sure it’s also a reason this test is sometimes called the “gold standard” of indicating whether some creature is “self-aware.”

The test is fraught with problems. First, there’s our old friend tautology: humans conceptualized the experiment presuming that humans are self-aware and nonhumans are not, and then devised a test humans can pass and nonhumans cannot. Great job. My understanding of my nonhuman neighbors is so much greater now.

Next, there’s our old friend anthropomorphization: the presumption that the self-awareness of others must match the form of our own self-awareness, and further that it must match one specific chosen form of self-awareness. Can there not reasonably be said to be other ways to be self-aware? I know that for myself, I am at least on occasion self-aware even when not looking at a mirror. Imagine that! And I think we can say that humans were probably still self-aware before the invention of the mirror. Or what about the self-awareness of a caterpillar who knows she has a parasite egg in her and that she must eat certain foods or she will die? Do you know when you have parasite eggs in you? If not, then gosh, you must not be very self-aware. Or what about the self-awareness of plants who know how to change the taste of their leaves? Can you change the taste of your own flesh to make yourself less palatable to predators? To this latter you can reply, “Yes, that’s why I eat at McDonald’s.”

And of course there are lots of beings whose primary experience of the world is not visual. How well could you pass a self-awareness test that involves you being able to hear and respond to your own echolocation signals? What? You say you can’t hear your own echolocation signals? That’s a sure sign of a lack of self-awareness.

For crying out loud, anyone who feels hungry is self-aware, obviously, or they wouldn’t know they’re hungry. Anyone who attempts in any way to stop pain or discomfort or to continue to receive pleasure is self-aware, or they wouldn’t know the state they’re trying to change or perpetuate.

Ah, the human supremacists insist, we understand that the tiger is aware of its hunger, but is the tiger aware that it is aware of its hunger? That is the question. To which I ask, are the human supremacists aware of their own hunger? Are they aware of the violation imperative that drives this culture? Are they aware that they’ve indentured themselves to authoritarian technics and that they are no longer fully human, that they are, to use the Buddhist term, hungry ghosts: undead and unliving spirits of the greedy, “who, as punishment for their mortal vices, have been cursed with an insatiable hunger”?