Sentience: a matter of life and...

A new bill has found lobsters and crabs to be be sentient. So... what are the parameters when talking about animal sentiency?

Mukilan Suresh
15th December 2021
Credits: Wikimedia Commons
When someone says the word “Sentience”, the first thing that will pop up in anyone’s mind is ourselves as humans. This is where the complications of defining sentience begin. An anthropocentric approach to every scientific concept not only restrains our capability of higher understanding but also shows human arrogance.

Even though philosophers coined the word “sentience” only in the 16th century, the idea of what makes any living organism “conscious” has been debated by countless great minds from the dawn of humanity.  This concept is still boggling scientists, policy makers, philosophers and everyone else until this very date, as a common understanding is far from being reached. Ironically, as we struggle to understand our own human sentience, we move on to map the sentience of other living creatures and to create artificial ones (AI)!

Sentience here is defined as the ability to feel positive and negative states of being

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in the UK has already included vertebrates (think of cattle, birds and any other creature with a spinal cord) as it is now widely accepted that a creature with a central nervous system is sentient. Sentience here is defined as the ability to feel positive and negative states of being. When an animal is proven sentient, then there are ethical implications on how they are raised, handled and culled. As vertebrate animals have been used by humanity through millennia, they feel approachable and acceptable in regards to concepts like sentience.

When it comes to invertebrates, the concept of sentience has always been widely debated even within the scientific community. However, many invertebrates have a certain extent of a nervous system. One can argue that this by itself is an evidence to show that invertebrates do feel pain. It gets quite tricky in this regard, as the way we define “sentience” does not really relate to creatures that share less similarities with humans. The raise of advanced interdisciplinary scientific fields and approaches are slowly helping unravel these limitations.

After analysing 300 independent scientific studies, the London School of Economics and Political sciences published a report in support of invertebrate sentience. Some interesting scientific studies that were analysed in the report range from how hermit crabs choose their shells to how crush injuries affect octopuses. This report has recently led to the successful amendment of Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in the UK. This amendment has finally categorized lobsters, crayfishes, crabs and octopuses as sentient beings.

The bill has not been passed as law yet, but this is a good foundation in how we, as humans, understand sentience.  If this law will pass there will be social, cultural and economic changes on how we view and handle these invertebrates.

This raises the question on whether other invertebrates also have sentience. I could debate that several social insects have complex behaviours that we have not completely comprehended. Bees, for example, have waggle dances to show nest mates of nearby source of food and even have a colony wide defensive behaviour when threatened. This is not limited to insects communities: solitary insects also have intriguing life cycles and very fascinating behaviours that can attest for sentience. If this is the case, then no living organism could be exploited or killed. Now this opens a new can of worms, pun intended.

Example of alternative food - Credits: Open Food Facts

For example, as climate change is ravishing our world, we will have 9.7 billion mouths to feed in 2050 (UN report). Going vegan sounds commendable, but has its pitfalls especially in developing and under developed countries. A suitable source of protein would be required for these nations as cattle farming would be unsustainable.

An alternative to insects as food is being suggested in the western world as several industries have recently popped up. Insects as food has been a norm in several parts of the world for ages but a niche in the western world, even now. Insects as food represent a low impact high benefit solution. If this were the case, then I would hypothetically ask the reader to ponder the question of killing a thousand insects is morally higher or lower than killing any one vertebrate for food?

The more we delve into the topic of sentience looking for answers, the more questions we are left with. Living in harmony with nature is the best way forward for the future of humanity. While we attempt to do this, we must put conscious effort into understanding how every living creature is sentient in its own way. By doing this, we can eventually frame the ethical and moral implications of us as a species on how we will treat the fellow inhabitants of our pale blue dot.    

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