• Isaac yelchin

Lizard Mind

My specialty is herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. People generally study them as a means to look at overall ecosystem health. I take a more in-depth approach. I am interested in the life experience of these creatures. Life experience is the second part of the Webster definition, with a little more added on. Life experience is this: the experience had by an organism, built by an awareness of its surroundings, and an awareness of self in relation to these surroundings. They are especially interesting as in the wild many herptile species are loners. Although not all of them, the blue tongue skink of Australia mates for life. These fascinating skinks will not only remain with the same partner for decades, but have close family ties. They will only associate with siblings and first cousins. It is believed they can smell the difference between closely related members, and will live in close proximity with family but chase off any outsiders. A one foot long skink with this high level of clanism? Just you try and keep thinking humans are the only animals with some form of consciousness.

Western Fence Lizard Sceloporus occidentalis


These blue tongues are special and otherwise most herptile species are left as eggs in some forlorn pond or hole, and are on their own from that point on. This solitude makes their life experience more fascinating. As never being mothered or having any form of family relationships, these creatures have no companionship training in their life experience, it is not built into their DNA, like a dog or an ape. The second reason why they are interesting is that they are generally a size that can be easily captured by hand and studied. Birds and mammals are too quick and vicious. Some insects I love too, but herptiles are my favourite. I’ve spent years exploring the woods and capturing all kinds of these guys. Occasionally I’ll catch an exceptionally friendly lizard, and after calming him down by rubbing his belly I can put him on my shirt and let him run around. I have had lizards stay on me for hours on end, and when letting them go at the end of the day find it hard to get them off my hand. What sort of bond is formed there? In the lizard's life experience it first believes it has been captured and soon will be eaten. Once it feels the strokes on its belly, oftentimes it will calm down, this feeling is new for most lizards and for some reason it calms them. If you do it long enough and leave the lizard on its back it will remain in a paralyzed state. But flipping it back over entirely revives it. Sometimes the lizard enjoys the rubs so much it stays with me. What does this look like from the lizard's life experience? When being rubbed it must feel something nice, and then when flipped over and not being held by my fingers it must understand that some level of threat is gone. If you hold a lizard on your open palm up to your face and swivel your hand around, the lizard's head will stay trained on yours, watching. This means in its life experience it recognizes you as one being, and your head as being important, like us, they have eyes, it might even recognize ours. They look directly into your eyes, and if they want to escape they make a break for it right when you blink. However, the lizard I caught enjoyed the belly rubs and calmed down. I put him on my shirt and he ran up to my shoulder to remain perched there. In his life experience he understands me as a large entity, and chooses to sit on my shoulder, due to some reason he created. Some lizards will leap from me at the first opportunity, a different personality, a different life experience. The one that stays, must understand that I am not a threat, a big idea for a small lizard.

Side Blotched Lizard Uta stansburiana elegans

Now let’s look at pet lizards, these would have been habituated to their owners for the majority of their life. Essentially, their life experience includes an understanding of their owner. Please watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImK7w8lmDhY. This chameleon is quite a character. As the man approaches the cage the chameleon begins to move in anticipation. It knows the daily routine that the man comes and takes it from the cage. Rather, the man puts his hand near the chameleon and it climbs right up his arm. In the chameleon's life experience it is sitting in its cage, and then like every morning, the man comes and reaches its arm out, and the chameleon feels some affection clearly for the man. Now, that’s interesting, can a chameleon feel affection? Can it like something? Not just prefer something over something else, but can it actually like the man? Have an affinity to being with him? In this video this seems plausible. The chameleon keeps climbing up the man’s arm. He tries to place it onto a couple different plants but the chameleon is most interested in climbing on the man. In its life experience, it wants to be on his arm. For the chameleon this is an active decision about where it wants to spend its time. To recap, this chameleon’s life experience holds the knowledge of routine, recognizing the man, and actually preferring the man to other objects.

Woodland Alligator Lizard Elgaria multicarinata webbii

Most people would say that dogs are the most conscious behind apes and humans, and they are probably right. If you are looking in terms of consciousness dogs have a very similar one to humans, as they have actually evolved while interacting with humans, developing a life experience similar enough to consciousness to adequately fit in with human society, (Grandin 2005). Calling a dog over and having him run at you and allow himself to be pet is a key staple of the dog's life experience; its want for, and its understanding of the interaction with you. Now please watch this second video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-zGIS-WWZQ. The title says it all. The man treats the lizard like a dog, and the lizard acts like one. Rather, the lizard has a life experience that allows for this type of communication. The lizard reacts to the calls, it hears them, processes that it is the voice of its man friend, and comes over to receive pats and pets. The lizard's life experience includes the understanding of this man as a friend, it understands a verbal que, and it seems to enjoy the physical interaction with the man. It doesn’t matter much that the lizard is a lizard. It matters how it is treated. The man recognized the lizard's potential for interaction. The man understood and respected the lizard's life experience. The man worked with the lizard on the lizard's level, and from there, was able to come to a common understanding.

At this point I am beginning to repeat myself, but it is for the sake of argument. I want to make it clear that I am arguing that many animals have a life experience as vivid and complete as ours. No they probably are not considering Descartes famous quote, “I think, therefore I am” and that's because they do not have a consciousness. They have a specifically lizard, or chameleon life experience. All I am really trying to say is that these animals are as awake and aware of the world as we are. They exist as vividly as us in time and space. They have feelings, wants, and the ability to make decisions based on careful consideration. These animals are as awake and a part of the world as we are, regardless of their lack of human consciousness.

Skiltons Skink Plestiodon skiltonianus skiltonianus

This argument for animal life experience being similar to ours brings up a moral question. If the majority of creatures on the planet can experience relationships and wants and semi-complex thinking, then what is their moral standing? They clearly can feel pain, so then how is taking away their environment without any consideration, morally okay? Is it even just? In our system, humans are protected, and actually animals too. There are laws about animal cruelty, but deforestation to build a home is one of the biggests animal cruelty events that can take place. It’s the clear decision by humans that their comfort and living space is more valuable than the livelihoods of the thousands of life-experiencing animals living there. How do we adjust our character to face these facts? What are our values? Sandler brings up the “ethic of character” and “ethic of action.” (Sandler, 287). How should we form these ethics based on the findings I relayed today. Should we sacrifice ourselves for the wellbeing and positive life experiences of other animals, or do we deserve what we’ve got? I think understanding that animals have a vivid life experience can be an essential argument in gaining them and their natural environments some rights. In the end, we cannot survive without this thriving environment as we are a part of the global ecosystem. So even from a selfish place, it is in our best interest to reconsider how we treat the environment that nurtures us.

Blainville's Horned Lizard Phrynosoma blainvillii


Recommended Reading:

Temple Grandin, Catherine Johnson 2005. “Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.” Simon and Schuster.

Ronald Sandler 2005. “Environmental Virtue Ethics.” The International Encyclopedia of Ethics.




Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.








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