March 3, 2024

Marine Mammals in Front of the Mirror—Body Experiences to Self-Recognition: A Cognitive Ethological Methodology Combined with Phenomenological Questioning


Fabienne Delfour


Abstract: Various research programs study and analyze self-recognition and self-consciousness in animals and humans. This article briefly presents and discusses experiments investigating self-recognition in several marine mammal species and aims to introduce a new dual conceptual framework that could be a useful tool to understanding complex phenomena like self-recognition and self-consciousness. Results of previous studies show that some marine mammal species can recognize their image in a mirror while others cannot. This discontinuity, also present in nonhuman primates, leads one to question the genesis and nature of the individual’s relation to the self. The relation of a subject to its environment is strongly associated with its perception of its own body. Sensorimotor interface of the subject enables it to get significant and relevant information from the environment; it then builds sense (meaning) through this particular relation. The complexity of underlying philosophical and ethical stakes related to this topic may demonstrate a need for multidisciplinary approaches. A recent attempt to point out the benefits of combining an ethological approach with phenomenological questioning has already been made (Delfour & Carlier, 2004). On one side, ethology takes an external perspective on the subject by studying and analyzing behaviors in the context of specific stimuli of the environment. On the other side, phenomenology allows a double “opening” (i.e., access) of subjectivity to the world and to others with an embodied, temporal, and imaginative consciousness (Merleau-Ponty, 1945). This paper describes the theoretical and conceptual difficulties in studying self-recognition and self-consciousness in animals and reports on some major epistemological and methodological pitfalls to these studies.


Document Type: Research article

DOI: 10.1578/AM.32.4.2006.517

Page Numbers: 517 – 527

Info SKU: _Vol__32__Iss__4__Delfour Category: