Gov. Neil Abercrombie says the biggest obstacle facing his administration is — himself.

Addressing a crowd at a Washington Middle School town hall meeting Thursday, the governor told attendees he has “shortcomings,” but that he’s able to get beyond them through the practice of self-reflection.

The fact that he’s a bona fide homo sapien, he says, grants him the ability to judge and modify his actions.

“We are the only species that make judgments on ourselves,” Abercrombie said.

But is the governor right that humans stand alone?

Doubts

“I’m a pretty empirical scientist,” said Dr. Paul Nachtigall, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. “And I wouldn’t debate (the governor) on it. Because I can’t think of an experiment that has demonstrated that animals can self-reflect… I know of no experiment that I would trust that would contradict what he said.”

Nachtigall said tests arguing dolphins, porpoises, and elephants have been done that may prove self-awareness, but that self-awareness doesn’t equate to self-judgment. Referring to what’s known as a “mirror test” — where an animal attempts to identify its reflection — Nachtigall said:

“That may be self-awareness, but that doesn’t go the next step. The next step from self-awareness to self-judgment is a big step. That’s why I say you’d need a philosopher. You don’t need a scientist. You need a philosopher.”

Judgments on Environment

Manuel Mollinedo, director of the Honolulu Zoo, noted that the issue of self-judgment in animals is “a matter of opinion.”

“I know from my observations that animals are sentient, they do communicate,” Mollinedo told Civil Beat. “Given certain types of situations, environmentally, they probably can respond to these types of environmental challenges better than you or I can.”

Mollinedo, a physical anthropologist, offered the example of gorillas in Africa to explain how animals might judge their personal situations.

Citing research pioneered by Dian Fossey, Mollinedo told Civil Beat: “On the Rwanda side of the Virunga Mountains, you’re starting to see a larger population of gorillas living on that side of the mountain, and there’s actually fewer gorillas living on the Congo side of the Virungas.”

On the Congo side of the Virungas, Mollinedo says, there is more poaching of gorillas.

“This is, again, only my opinion — I think these gorillas are seeing that there’s danger being perpetrated on them in these particular areas, and because of that, they’re gradually migrating to these safer zones.”

Assuming the apes are, in fact, changing their behavior based off their environment, they’re not alone.

“When human measures for intelligence are applied to other species, dolphins come in just behind humans in brainpower,” Discovery News reported last year. “Dolphins demonstrate skills and awareness previously thought to be present only in humans.”

The article discusses research by Lori Marino, a lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University. According to Marino, dolphins are capable of human-like skills.

“These include mirror self-recognition, cultural learning, comprehension of symbol-based communication systems, and an understanding of abstract concepts,” the article states.

The video below shows how dolphins have changed hunting habits based off changes to their surroundings.

But is this the type of self-judgment Abercrombie was referring to? Or was he talking about the more subtle: Am I happy? Am I sad? Did I say the right thing?

Animal Altruism?

They may not be philosophers, but welfare campaigners say animals are capable of feats such as altruism.

In 2003, BBC News reported that animals living in communities can show signs of morality. The article quotes a paper presented by the group Compassion in World Farming, which argues:

“There is evidence that some animals do have some level of morality and some concern over other animals… Living within a group requires a moral code of behaviour (sic)… Most animals that live in communities exhibit similar moral codes to humans… Zoologists who have spent their professional lives studying animal behaviour (sic), either by observation or by experiments to test their mental capacities, believe that many animals feel and think.”

In 2009, US News reported that there is evidence that some animals have conscious “self-reflection.” The article cites evidence collected by David Smith, a comparative psychologist at the University at Buffalo.

Smith argues that: “there is growing evidence that animals share functional parallels with human conscious metacognition — that is, they may share humans’ ability to reflect upon, monitor or regulate their states of mind.”

You can purchase and download Smith’s academic paper here.

The Bottom Line

It’s apparent animals can react to their environment, going so far as to invent new hunting habits, as with the dolphins described above. It’s even been shown that chimps will make weapons to hunt, or tools to navigate a forest clearing.

It has also been shown that some animals can recognize themselves in mirrors. They are aware they are looking at themselves.

But the key question was highlighted by Nachtigall: Is self-awareness the same thing as self-judging?

We’re still debating on this one, but wanted to hear your thoughts. What do you think? Are humans the only species capable of making judgments on themselves?