Are insects sentient?

June 25, 2023 • 9:45 am

The Oxford English Dictionary gives three relevant definitions of the adjective “sentient”:

a.) That feels or is capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses.

b.) Conscious or percipient of something.

c.) Physiology. Of organs or tissues: Responsive to sensory stimuli.

(“Sentience” itself is defined only as “The condition or quality of being sentient, consciousness, susceptibility to sensation.”)

The question that the Scientific American article below asks (and for once it’s written by a scientist in this field) is whether insects fit the definition of the first two definitions: do they have feelings and sensations experiencing qualia like pain, joy, pleasure, or the sensation of “redness”?  Or are insects merely chitinous robots that are programmed by evolution to act (to us) as if they have feelings—programmed reactions that we anthropormophize as similar to our own sensations? After all, you can be “responsive to sensory stimuli” (the third sense above) without actually feeling the sensory stimuli the way humans do.

Answering the question of whether a bee or a fly is sentient in the first two senses, or has consciousness (the ability to be sentient and perceive stimuli), is difficult. Some would say it’s impossible. After all, we all know that we ourselves have consciousness  and feel pain and joy, because we experience those things personally. But can I prove that, say, another person is conscious? Not directly, because we can’t get inside their brains. We infer that they’re conscious because they tell us they are; they are physically constructed with the same neurons that give us consciousness; and they act as if they experience qualia.  It’s inference, but of a Bayesian sort, and the question has high priors.

But can we extend this to other species?  Chittka uses the example of dogs:

Although there is still no universally accepted, single experimental proof for pain experiences in any animal, common sense dictates that as we accumulate ever more pieces of evidence that insects can feel, the probability that they are indeed sentient increases. For example, if a dog with an injured paw whimpers, licks the wound, limps, lowers pressure on the paw while walking, learns to avoid the place where the injury happened and seeks out analgesics when offered, we have reasonable grounds to assume that the dog is indeed experiencing something unpleasant.

This is a Bayesian approach to the question, and it’s really the only way to go. Yes, I think it’s highly probable that dogs, and most mammals, feel pain. But what about insects, reptiles and amphibians? They certainly avoid unpleasant stimuli and gravitate towards pleasant ones, which you could interpret as feeling joy, pleasure, or pain, but do they feel these sensations? If you say that the behavior denotes sentience, well remember that protozoans do these things, too (see below).

I’m fully aware that philosophers of mind have probably discussed this issue at length, and I haven’t followed that literature, so my musings here may seem childish to these philosophers.  But this Sci. Am. article (click below to read, or find it archived here) is not written for philosophers of mind but for people like me: folks interested in science and wanting to see what’s happening in other fields.  I found the article quite interesting, and for me it slightly raised the probability that insects can feel pain. But the answer remains far from settled—or even of having a high probability. And the author admits that. But he cites a number of cool studies.

Here are the lines of evidence that, to Chittka, raise the Bayesian probability that insects have sentience: experiencing pain, pleasure, and even joy.

a.) They learn and can do really smart things. (All quotes from Chittka are indented):

The conventional wisdom about insects has been that they are automatons—unthinking, unfeeling creatures whose behavior is entirely hardwired. But in the 1990s researchers began making startling discoveries about insect minds. It’s not just the bees. Some species of wasps recognize their nest mates’ faces and acquire impressive social skills. For example, they can infer the fighting strengths of other wasps relative to their own just by watching other wasps fight among themselves. Ants rescue nest mates buried under rubble, digging away only over trapped (and thus invisible) body parts, inferring the body dimension from those parts that are visible above the surface. Flies immersed in virtual reality display attention and awareness of the passing of time. Locusts can visually estimate rung distances when walking on a ladder and then plan their step width accordingly (even when the target is hidden from sight after the movement is initiated).

All of these responses, of course, could come from computers programmed to learn from experience, which is exactly what we and other animals are. Natural selection has endowed us with a neuronal network that will make us behave in ways to further our reproduction (or, sometimes, that of our group—like an ant colony). We can program computers to do this, too: robots that avoid aversive stimuli and gravitate towards good ones. And clearly we behave in such a way that furthers our reproduction, of which survival is one component. But do insects experience the world, with its pleasures and pains, by having qualia similar to ours?

A related question is this: is consciousness like we have (feeling pain and joy) something that’s merely an epiphenomenon of having evolved a sufficiently complex nervous system, or is consciousness itself a product of natural selection to further our reproduction? We don’t know the answer, but it’s pretty clear that some of our conscious experiences, like pain, have evolved by selection. People who can’t feel pain as a result of neurological conditions or disease (like Hansen’s disease) quickly start getting infections, hurting their bodies without being aware, losing fingers, and the like. If you didn’t experience pain when putting your hand in boiling water, you’d damage your body. But if consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of a complex evolved nervous system, then we can’t automatically say that bees that act as if they’re conscious really are conscious.

I’m prepared to believe, based on what I said above, that mammals feel pain.  Maybe even reptiles or amphibians, though there are suggestions that fish don’t feel pain, at least in the way we do. All these creatures gravitate towards adaptive things and avoid nonadaptive ones, but again, they could be programmed to do so without the ancillary conscious experience that we have.

More evidence from Chittka:

b.) Insects act as if they can alter their consciousness:

Many plants contain bitter substances such as nicotine and caffeine to deter herbivores, but these substances are also found in low concentrations in some floral nectars. Researchers wondered whether pollinators might be deterred by such nectars, but they discovered the opposite. Bees actively seek out drugs such as nicotine and caffeine when given the choice and even self-medicate with nicotine when sick. Male fruit flies stressed by being deprived of mating opportunities prefer food containing alcohol (naturally present in fermenting fruit), and bees even show withdrawal symptoms when weaned off an alcohol-rich diet.

Again, seeking out things that are good for you, like curing you of illness or infection, could be programmed, either directly or as part of programs involved in “learning what gets rid of harmful conditions”. Now if bees are partial to coffee and cigarettes because it gets them high, then yes, it seems to show that they want to alter their consciousness, which implies that they have consciousness. But these facts aren’t that convincing to me, because nicotine and caffeine may have other beneficial physiological effects.

c.) Bees appear to be “optimistic”. Here’s the experiment Chittka adduces to support  that:

We trained one group of bees to associate the color blue with a sugary reward and green with no reward, and another group of bees to make the opposite association. We then presented the bees with a turquoise color, a shade intermediate between blue and green. A lucky subset of bees received a surprise sugar treat right before seeing the turquoise color; the other bees did not. The bees’ response to the ambiguous stimulus depended on whether they received a treat before the test: those that got the pretest sugar approached the intermediate color faster than those that didn’t.

The results indicate that when the bees were surprised with a reward, they experienced an optimistic state of mind. This state, which was found to be related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, made the bees more upbeat, if you will, about ambiguous stimuli—they approached it as they would the blue or green colors they were trained to associate with a reward.

This is not a meaningless experiment, but to me shows only that bees conditioned to approach a color after a sugar reward are more likely to approach something like that color than those who weren’t conditioned.  To call this “optimism” seems to me hyperbolically anthropomorphic.

d). Bees appear to experience “joy”.  This experiment is more suggestive to me:

Other work suggests that bees can experience not only optimism but also joy. Some years ago we trained bumblebees to roll tiny balls to a goal area to obtain a nectar reward—a form of object manipulation equivalent to human usage of a coin in a vending machine. In the course of these experiments, we noticed that some bees rolled the balls around even when no sugar reward was being offered. We suspected that this might be a form of play behavior.

Recently we confirmed this hunch experimentally. We connected a bumblebee colony to an arena equipped with mobile balls on one side, immobile balls on the other, and an unobstructed path through the middle that led to a feeding station containing freely available sugar solution and pollen. Bees went out of their way to return again and again to a “play area” where they rolled the mobile balls in all directions and often for extended periods without a sugar reward, even though plenty of food was provided nearby. There seemed to be something inherently enjoyable in the activity itself. In line with what other researchers have observed in vertebrate creatures at play, young bees engaged more often with the balls than older ones. And males played more than females (male bumblebees don’t work for the colony and therefore have a lot more time on their hands). These experiments are not merely cute—they provide further evidence of positive emotionlike states in bees.

It’s hard to understand these results without thinking that bees, like panda cubs, are playful, messing around with balls that give them pleasure. And since bees don’t experience balls in their natural state, they could be enjoying the novelty. On the other hand, they could simply be encountering something they haven’t experienced, and are following neuronal instructions to manipulate it to see how it operates, which could be useful knowledge in the future. This second interpretation means that no “pleasure” need be involved. Remember, play behavior in animals is often there to prepare them for what happens when they become adults, and isn’t just there for pleasure.

Again, it’s hard to judge from such studies whether bees are feeling pleasure in the way we do. But to me this makes it marginally more likely.


e). Bees appear to weigh pain against pleasure, and change their behaviors when the balance is altered.  Here’s another experiment:

We decided to do an experiment with only moderately unpleasant stimuli, not injurious ones—and one in which bees could freely choose whether to experience these stimuli.

We gave bees a choice between two types of artificial flowers. Some were heated to 55 degrees Celsius (lower than your cup of coffee but still hot), and others were not. We varied the rewards given for visiting the flowers. Bees clearly avoided the heat when rewards for both flower types were equal. On its own, such a reaction could be interpreted as resulting from a simple reflex, without an “ouch-like” experience. But a hallmark of pain in humans is that it is not just an automatic, reflexlike response. Instead one may opt to grit one’s teeth and bear the discomfort—for example, if a reward is at stake. It turns out that bees have just this kind of flexibility. When the rewards at the heated flowers were high, the bees chose to land on them. Apparently it was worth their while to endure the discomfort. They did not have to rely on concurrent stimuli to make this trade-off. Even when heat and reward were removed from the flowers, bees judged the advantages and disadvantages of each flower type from memory and were thus able to make comparisons of the options in their minds.

To me, this really shows nothing more than that animals are attracted to adaptive stimuli and repelled by harmful ones, with the addition of being able to balance harms versus advantages. (This is like the “flight distance” of animals, with some individuals able to give more weight to attractive stimuli. That’s probably how cats got domesticated!) But it doesn’t tell us whether animals are feeling the pain or attraction the way we do.

And we should remember that even protozoans show avoidance of some external stimuli and can be induced by electrical shocks to avoid light. So these animals can be trained. Do they feel pain or pleasure? I doubt it—not protozoa!  They may not show “play” behavior, but perhaps they can be trained to weigh aversive versus adaptive stimuli, as in section “d” above.  I doubt anybody would conclude with confidence that protozoa feel pain the way we do (they don’t have a nervous system) or are even conscious.

Against the doubts that I’ve raised, Chittka offers a counterargument:

Critics could argue that each of the behaviors described earlier could also be programmed into a nonconscious robot. But nature cannot afford to generate beings that just pretend to be sentient. Although there is still no universally accepted, single experimental proof for pain experiences in any animal, common sense dictates that as we accumulate ever more pieces of evidence that insects can feel, the probability that they are indeed sentient increases.

The first sentence is what I have said already. And I’m willing to go along with the third sentence, too: as we learn more, the Bayesian probability that other species experience pain or pleasure can increase or decrease.

But I’m not willing to go along with the idea that “nature cannot afford to generate beings that just pretend to be sentient.”  What does he mean by “afford”? My interpretation is this: he’s saying that natural selection cannot produce organisms that act as if they’re sentient unless they really are sentient. And I cannot see any support for that, for we already know that protozoans act as if they experience qualia, but almost certainly don’t. And saying “pretend to be sentient” is pretty anthropormorphic! It implies, for example, that programmed robots that do what bees do are “pretending to be sentient” when in fact we know they are NOT sentient.

Finally, that leads to the Big AI Question: if we generate robots sufficiently complex that they respond exactly as humans do in complex situations requiring consciousness, does that mean that they have become conscious?  I say “no”, but others disagree.  After all, there are those panpsychists who say that even electrons and rocks have a rudimentary form of consciousness.

I’m writing this on the fly, so forgive me if my thoughts are half-baked.  I do think that Chtittka’s experiments are clever, and, over time, may give us a sense of sentience in other species. But I’m not yet ready to throw in with him on the claim that insects are conscious.  It’s enough for me now to realize that they do experience some aspects of the environment as things to be avoided. And that is why I have always anesthetized my fruit flies before killing them. (When I was an undergrad I used to take them to the biology department roof and let them go, but my advisor Bruce Grant nixed that on the grounds that I was polluting the natural gene pool of Drosophila.)

The last bit of Chittka’s paper is a thoughtful analysis of how these kinds of studies should condition our behavior towards insects. But even if they don’t feel pain, aversion or attraction itself should help us confect a philosophy of “insect ethics.”

h/t: Howard, who brought this paper to my attention and wanted my take on it. I’m sending him this link as my take.

Ruffed grouse at the feeder

February 20, 2020 • 3:00 pm

Here’s some light entertainment for the afternoon: 11 minutes of a lovely Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) visiting an Ontario birdcam. I’ve added the YouTube notes (indented) so you can see when it erects its plumage, which is a stunning sight. Such beautiful feathers!

I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these in the wild, though I’ve mostly lived out of their range (map below). They are nonmigratory, and don’t seem to be near Chicago.

Well hello there! It’s always a treat when a Ruffed Grouse stops by the Ontario FeederWatch cam, and this individual isn’t shy about showing off its cocked crest and beautifully mottled plumage while strutting around the platform. You absolutely don’t want to miss when the grouse begins to display at 6:33 by fanning its tail feathers and erecting the glossy black feathers on its neck into a ruff!

Watch online with highlight clips and information about the birds at

Thanks to Perky-Pet for helping to make the Ontario FeederWatch Cam possible! The FeederWatch cam is located in a residential neighborhood in Manitouwadge, Ontario. This northern site is an excellent location to see winter finches like redpolls and grosbeaks as well as two species of Jays and even Ruffed Grouse!

The feeders sit in the middle of a large backyard with a large birch tree that the birds love, as well as a mixed stand of conifers and several fruit and berry producing shrubs. There’s a small swamp just beyond the backyard as well as larger stands of woods and a small lake.The feeder system is the product of the camera hosts’ ingenuity, making use of plastic piping to support the feeders high enough above ground to foil the occasional squirrel, and a rotating set of feeders that provide black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer seed, whole and shelled peanuts, and peanut butter suet in a homemade hanging log to the dozens of species that visit.

The range map from the Cornell Bird site:

Interior Department proposes legalizing cruel and previously prohibited hunting methods

May 23, 2018 • 1:15 pm

NBC News has highlighted some of the Interior Department’s proposed changes to the federal regulations about hunting. First designed to take effect in Alaska, but now proposed for the entire U.S., these changes (proposed regulations here) will overturn the following Obama-era prohibitions and thus allow barbaric forms of hunting (well, many forms of hunting, like using bows and arrows, already are barbaric):

The Trump administration is moving to reverse Obama-era rules barring hunters on some public lands in Alaska from baiting brown bears with bacon and doughnuts and using spotlights to shoot mother black bears and cubs hibernating in their dens.

Under the proposed changes, hunters would also be allowed to hunt black bears with dogs, kill wolves and pups in their dens, and use motor boats to shoot swimming caribou.

These and other hunting methods — condemned as cruel by wildlife protection advocates — were outlawed on federal lands in 2015. Members of the public have 60 days to provide comment on the proposed new rules.

From the regulations themselves; this will now be allowed (note that you can use light to lure bears too). It’s horrible!

The Final Rule codified prohibitions on certain types of harvest practices that are otherwise permitted by the State of Alaska. The practices are: Taking any black bear, including cubs and sows with cubs, with artificial light at den sites; harvesting brown bears over bait; taking wolves and coyotes (including pups) during the denning season (between May 1 and August 9); taking swimming caribou; taking caribou from motorboats under power; taking black bears over bait; and using dogs to hunt black bears.

I don’t understand the mentality of people who would permit these things. They value trophies more than the lives of animals, and as for shooting mothers and hibernating cubs, well, I have no words except it’s Trump and his environment-hating minions.

The rationale for the regulations, at the Federal Register, includes “increasing outdoor recreation.” How “recreational” is it to lure bears with donuts and then kill them? Or slaughter hibernating mothers and cubs? CUBS, for crying out loud:

Part of the stated purpose of Secretarial Order 3347 is to increase outdoor recreation and improve the management of game species and their habitat. Secretarial Order 3347 directs the Department of the Interior to identify specific actions to (1) expand access significantly for recreational hunting and fishing on public lands; and (2) improve recreational hunting Start Printed Page 23622and fishing cooperation, consultation, and communication with state wildlife managers.

What can you do about this? Here’s what:

You may submit comments, identified by Regulation Identifier Number (RIN) 1024-AE38, by either of the following methods:

Federal eRulemaking Portal: Follow the instructions for submitting comments.

Mail or hand deliver to: National Park Service, Regional Director, Alaska Regional Office, 240 West 5th Ave., Anchorage, AK 99501.

Instructions: Comments will not be accepted by fax, email, or in any way other than those specified above. All submissions received must include the words “National Park Service” or “NPS” and must include the docket number or RIN (1024-AE38) for this rulemaking. Comments received will be posted without change to, including any personal information provided.

Docket: For access to the docket to read background documents or comments received, go to

In short, go the the link, put RIN: 1024-AE38 in the search box, and then make a comment and submit it. I ask readers who are opposed to this proposed legislation to at least say a few words. Please!

h/t: Ken

Theresa May wants to revive fox hunting in Britain

May 10, 2017 • 2:15 pm

This video came from The Independent:

Fox hunting was banned in Britain a while ago, but now some Tories want to bring it back so they can indulge in upper-class ritualized murder.

In the video above, the odious May says this:

“As it happens, personally I have always been in favour of fox hunting, and we maintain our commitment, we have had a commitment previously as a Conservative Party, to allow a free vote.”

Well. some things, and fox hunting is one of them, should not be up for a vote.  And do the foxes get to vote? After all, they’re the ones who get chased down and torn apart by dogs. What kind of heartless boobs would do that for fun?

Maybe they should bring back bear-baiting, too.

Stop the gratuitous slaughter of Alaska’s wildlife

February 19, 2017 • 10:15 am

According to the Dodo, the Sierra Club, and other sites, the U.S. House of Representatives just voted to overturn a prior ban on hunting in the wildlife refuges of Alaska. The resolution allows hunters to enter dens and slaughter entire families of bears and wolves, as well as to lure animals with food and shoot them at point-blank range. They can also use the unspeakably cruel leg traps, and even shoot from helicopters!

There seems to be no genuine conservation reason for overturning this ban, which was previously applauded even by hunters, as well as the citizens of Alaska. As the Sierra Club notes, there’s no scientific evidence that killing these animals will effect any kind of needed change, for these mammals are already being managed by the state of Alaska. Rather, this seems to be a Republican-inspired sop to hunters who want to put a grizzly-bear rug on their floor, or simply to blast away at wolves. As The Dodo notes:

Now it’s unclear why the push to overturn the ban was introduced in the first place, as a 2016 poll of Alaska voters showed that most agreed that those practices should be banned. Alaska’s Representative Don Young (R-AK), who has trapped animals in the past, introduced the measure, known as H.J. Resolution 69, anyway.

Congress voted 225 to 193 in favor of it on Thursday, some citing states’ rights as the reason for their vote in favor, despite the resolution being about federal lands.

“Special interest groups are quietly working at the federal and state level to lay the groundwork for federally managed lands to be handed over wholesale to state or even private ownership,” Dan Ashe, then-FWS director, wrote last year in an op-ed. “Unfortunately, without the protections of federal law and the public engagement it ensures, this heritage is incredibly vulnerable.”

The Dodo asked Rep. Young for a comment as to why he would push to allow these practices when so many voters oppose them. His office did not immediately respond.

Young is a jerk; he can’t even be arsed to answer the question. Most likely he wouldn’t want to answer publicly.

Here’s the final House vote on HJ 69, which, as usual, is very strongly divided along party lines;




Here’s the Sierra Club’s statement on the new resolution:

The U.S. House of Representatives today passed a Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution to overturn the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska National Wildlife Refuges Rule. Voiding the rule undermines the management of public lands in Alaska, including not only national wildlife refuge lands, but also national park lands in Denali and other places. It cedes control of wildlife management on national public lands to a narrow set of extreme hunting interests. If passed out of Congress, it could have drastic implications for national public lands across the country.

In response, Alli Harvey, Alaska Representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign issued the following statement.

“The resolution passed today undermines the very premise of wildlife refuges as places for wildlife conservation. The extreme hunting measures promoted by this resolution– from targeting cubs with their mothers to baiting and gunning animals down from planes, are opposed by the majority of Americans and Alaskans. These measures threaten the future of bears, wolves and other predators that are so much a part of the Alaskan identity.

“Across the country wildlife refuges and other public lands support an amazing array of wildlife, recreation opportunities and outdoor economies. They provide refuge not just for wildlife, but people as well. There is value in the existence of wild places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the opportunities they provide to connect with the natural world. Our public lands must not be sold-out to narrow special interests, but preserved to inspire the hopes and dreams of future generations. We have a responsibility to ensure our parks and wildlife refuges remain protected by basic national environmental safeguards.”

Now this isn’t over yet, for the resolution has to be approved by the Senate, and SJ Resolution 18 is now being considered. There are two things you can do. First, sign the Sierra Club’s petition against the Senate bill, which you can find here.

Second, you can contact your Senator, as the bill hasn’t yet passed. The names and sites of your Senator can be found here, and, if you want, you can simply paste in the language from the Sierra Club petition, below. It’s dead easy to write Senators, as every one has a “contact” site where you can fill in your details as a constituent and leave a message. The site even allows you to enter your state in a pull-down menu and find your two senators directly.

Email header: I oppose the slaughter of wolves and grizzly babies in Alaskan wildlife refuges

Email contents:

Please oppose the CRA joint resolution, S.J. Res. 18, which would allow the cruel slaughter of wolf pups and grizzly cubs.

These proposed resolutions to strike the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges Rule would allow wolves and grizzlies to be chased down by air and sprayed with bullets under the false pretense of “predator control.” Repealing this rule would also allow the slaughter of hibernating grizzlies and their cubs and targeting of wolf dens where pups are sheltered from natural predators.

The state of Alaska claims that these so-called “predator control” activities will increase populations of game animals like elk, moose, and caribou but there’s just one problem – there is no scientific evidence to back up that claim. Additionally, polls show most Alaskans do not support the use of these barbaric methods in National Wildlife Refuges.

Please reject the CRA joint resolution — S.J. Res. 18 — to protect grizzlies and wolves from this horrifying practice.

I don’t often ask readers to take action, and I never ask for money. But if you’re an American who opposes this resolution, as do the voters of Alaska themselves, then please drop a note to your Senator and sign the Sierra Club petition. We progressives can fight back against the Republicans, but the animals of Alaska have no such voice in issues concerning their very survival.

h/t: Nicole Reggia

A Mancunian New Year

January 1, 2016 • 2:00 pm

by Matthew Cobb

New Year’s Eve in UK cities can be a pretty horrendous experience. The Manchester Evening News has just published a delightful selection of photos by Joel Goodman, showing what happened last night. They are generally pretty grim, but this photo, taken on Withy Grove, stands out. As various people on Tw*tter have commented, it looks like a Renaissance painting. Click twice to get the full glory:

Photo (c) Joel Goodman.

Long-standing Manchester DJ Dave Haslam tw**ted:

The unfair treatment of the animal rights movement

November 22, 2015 • 11:45 am

It seems to be a common opinion among atheists and scientists that the animal-rights movement is ridiculous, and I’ve seen it criticized and mocked on many secular websites. And indeed, the tactics of some animal-rights groups, like PETA, have been such as to offend or turn off many people. PETA, for instance, shows ads featuring semi-clad women, and even though the ads are promoting vegetarianism and the non-wearing of fur, I know women who find them sexist, for where are the naked men? More important, PETA and other groups have engaged in violent activities, threatening researchers and trashing labs, and freeing lab animals that could never find an alternative home. Finally, some animal-rights groups decry owning pets (excuse me, “companion animals”), on the grounds that this leads to overpopulation of unwanted pets as well as stressful confinement of animals like cats and dogs, who still have their evolutionary instincts to roam free.

But regardless of the invidious tactics of some animal-rights groups, the general point stands: if you think animals are capable of suffering, and they are, then don’t they at least have some of the “rights” that we reserve for humans? Isn’t the criticism of groups like PETA, or the kneejerk feeling that any experimentation on animals is justified so long as it has potential to save human lives, simply something that we espouse to avoid thinking about the important issue of animal suffering?

Yesterday I saw a photo in the New York Times of a turkey farm (Thanksgiving is upon us); in it a farmer was standing in a huge building in which turkeys, obviously stressed, were packed wing to wing. (See photo at boottom.) The birds had no room to roam, and it was disturbing. Experiments have shown that chickens, for instance, much prefer wandering on grass than standing in wire cages. And what we do to chickens—confining them in cages, clipping their beaks, and crowding them horribly—is unjustifiable if you think that these animals suffer. The evidence suggests that they do, and who with a scientific and empathic turn of mind could deny that suffering, or the proposition that animals feel pain?

And the suffering we inflict on chickens also applies to many of our other food animals. Driving through Texas and the Midwest last summer, I saw cows crowded together in feedlots, getting fattened up before the slaughter. The lots were simply bare expanses of mud filled with stinking cow dung that you could smell miles away. I have no doubt that those animals were stressed.

These thoughts were prompted by a good book I’m reading, Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life, by Steve Stewart-Williams (2010; Cambridge University Press). The book is the best discussion I’ve seen about the philosophical implications of the theory of evolution; and believe me, there are philosophical implications—dealing with issues like the existence of the soul, the nature of morality, and human exceptionalism. I recommend it highly: Stewart-Williams, an associate professor of psychology at Nottingham University, Malaysia Campus, writes very well and has thought deeply about these issues. Even if you think you understand the implications of evolution for your own worldview, you’ll still learn a lot.

At any rate, Chapter 13, “Uprooting the doctrine of human dignity,” contains this paragraph near the end:

Singer [Peter Singer, author of the excellent book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals] makes the extremely interesting and challenging point that the amount of suffering and pain caused by the tyranny of human beings over animals (particularly in food production) far exceeds that caused by sexism, racism, or any other existing forms of discrimination, and for that reason the animal liberation movement is the most important liberation movement in the world today.  Women and disadvantaged ethnic groups have never been farmed, killed for sport, or systematically experimented on in anything like the numbers that non-human animals have. Furthermore, unlike women and slaves, non-humans cannot talk or campaign for their own liberation, and, because they can’t vote, they’re not a high priority for most politicians. This further underscores the importance of the animal liberation movement.

I see a lot of sense in that. For, when you think about it, evolution teaches that for some traits we’re different quantitatively but not qualitatively from our animal relatives, and that they, like us, can suffer and feel pain. Perhaps humans, because we have greater rationality and the presence of culture, may suffer more than some animals, but can you really say that a gorilla or chimp who is captive in a zoo, or subject to experimentation to cure human diseases, isn’t suffering? (Recognizing this, the US National Institutes of Health just joined many other countries in ending “invasive research” on chimpanzees.)

Those are our primate relatives, but what about guinea pigs, mice, and laboratory cats and dogs? They are subject to horrible procedures that cause them to suffer, not even considering just their confinement. People automatically assume that this is okay if such experimentation will save human lives, but how many dog, cat, or mouse lives are worth one human life? Could it be justified, as Stewart-Williams asks, to experiment on humans, killing a few humans to save thousands of chimpanzee lives? If not, why not? Why is the saving of human life worth the expenditure of vastly more animal lives, and perhaps—adding it all up—the greater suffering of animals than of humans?

It’s even less justifiable to eat factory-farmed animals, I think, for we can live without eating them. Why—and I am complicit in this—do we simply ignore all that suffering so that we can have a nice roast chicken or a plate of fried eggs on our tables? In our hearts we know that animals suffer to give us that food. Is their suffering truly worth nothing?

We need to face the fact that if we really care about suffering, there is no justification to limit our concern to the suffering of Homo sapiens. That’s especially true because, as Stewart-Williams argues, we cause immensely greater suffering of animals, and they have no representation save groups like PETA. If evolution and science tell us anything, it is that animals suffer as we do—perhaps not as intensely in cases like the death of a relative—and that many species are apparently conscious, and surely many feel pain. By what right do we ignore all of that when doing so is just a convenience for our own species? Is any amount of animal experimentation and suffering justified by its potential to save human lives? If so, why?

Few people have come to grips with these issues. Singer is one, Stewart-Williams another. But we need to face those issues if we’re to be consistent in our concern for the suffering of the disadvantaged. As for me, I feel pretty bad about all this, and consider myself a hypocrite for eating eggs and meat. I don’t know if I’ll do something about that, but at least we can oppose the confinement of animals in zoos, and agitate for humane treatment of the animals we put into our stomachs.

Here’s the picture from the New York Times that disturbed me; it’s from an article called “After bird flu scare, plenty of turkeys for Thanksgiving.



Woman saves fox from bloodthirsty British fox-hunters who violate the law

September 5, 2015 • 10:30 am

You may recall that there has been a ban on fox hunting in the UK for over ten years—since February, 2005, to be exact. As the Torygraph reports, there can still be “sham hunts”, in which dogs follow chemical trails and there is no killing, but the old ritual of “riding to hounds” remains as a largely covert and illegal activity—with the hapless fox torn to shreds by dogs. Matthew Cobb informs me, however, that fox-hunting is legal in a few circumstances:

You can still hunt with 2 dogs (I think thats the number) in England and Wales, and with larger packs in Scotland. Although the days of large packs have gone, they still drag hunt (ie follow a laid scent) and sometimes “accidentally” catch and destroy a fox. Tories have promised a vote on increasing the size of legal packs.

Damn Tories! How can they justify increasing the size of packs?

Regardless, how anyone can enjoy this “sport” eludes me, and the argument that it’s a country tradition (by patricians, of course) cuts no ice. Fox hunting is banned, and those who inflict such cruelty on wild animals should be fined and given a few days in the slammer. But the Torygraph’s piece, first published in February and then re-published in July, gives the gory details:

What is certain is that, far from dying out, the process of hunting has prospered, with some 45,000 people regularly taking part and 250,000 turning out across the country for the most recent Boxing Day meets. Officially these are “drag hunts”, where hounds follow a chemical trail laid across the countryside, or “trail hunts”, where the hunt’s path loops and overlaps to simulate unpredictable vulpine meanderings. Yet it would be wrong to say that hunting is now a bloodless sport, because – whisper it – some foxes are still pursued to their deaths.

There’s no way to know for certain how often this happens. If you ask Lee Moon, the answer is “all the time”. Moon is the spokesman for the Hunt Saboteurs’ Association (HSA), an umbrella body for 40 or 50 local groups who spend their winters chasing, tracking and disrupting hunts. Saboteurs, or “sabs”, spray oils on the ground to mislead the dogs, crack whips to deter them, and blow hunting horns to confuse them.

. . . Moon, who has been sabbing since the late 1990s, and whose groups have attended thousands of hunts since then, believes many prominent hunts routinely break the law. “They do exactly now what they used to do before the Hunting Act,” he says. “Some of it changes slightly when we or the police are there, but we believe that when there’s no one watching them – and often when we are there – they continue to hunt illegally.”

Paul Tillsley, head of investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports, agrees. His staff spend much of their time covertly recording hunts, though he cannot say how many have been referred to the police because it would compromise their work. Still, he says: “Hunts are breaking the law quite regularly. As far as we can tell, when hunts think they are not being watched, they get on as they always have done.”

Most who engage in illegal fox-hunting are apparently not punished, which is of course why the tradition continues.

Below is a video of an illegal hunt filmed in 2012, well after the ban was enacted. Watch as these horrible, evil toffs are enjoying the sight of their dogs cornering a fox.  Fortunately, a brave and stalwart British woman runs in at the last moment, drives away the dogs, picks up the fox, and runs away with it. As she does so, the hunters cry, “Leave it!” They want to see its death. I hope the fox was okay.

Click on the video to see her act of bravery and defiance (actually, it’s the hunters who are defying the law), or go to The Dodo, which has a longer piece on this incident and a copy of the video at bottom.

Screen shot 2015-09-05 at 5.58.23 AM

If you want to do something, even if it seems ineffectual, there’s a petition to Prime Minister David Cameron that you can sign, demanding that this practice be stopped for good via enforcement of the law. By filling in the boxes (name and email only) at the upper right, you’ll be affixing your name to this letter:

Dear Prime Minister David Cameron,

As an animal lover, I must turn your attention to the issue of fox hunting. This sport, which has deeply embedded itself into British tradition, has been deemed by many to be brutal and inhumane. Foxes are not being killed because they are pests, but simply because many hunters enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

While a ban exists on fox hunting, it is not heavily enforced. Hunters are still able to kill foxes without receiving punishment. I beg you to enforce this law. Humans should be willing to share their living space with animals, not kill them needlessly.


[Your Name Here]

I’ve already signed it, and I hope many readers will, too. You can share it on Facebook, which I’ve done as well.

h/t: A tw**t from Ricky Gervais via Randy via Matthew Cobb