Dive into a dialogue on animal sentience and ethics with Jonathan Birch. Learn from his role as a leading mind behind the “Foundations of Animal Sentience” initiative, influencing invertebrate welfare and UK policy. Gain insights into the intricate relationship between science and ethics, and how this work is transforming policy, law, and societal attitudes towards invertebrates.

Which wall does your research break?

The question of how we should treat invertebrates is a pressing one for the whole of humanity. Are invertebrates just resources that we can use as we wish? Or are they sentient beings with feelings, needs and interests? These are fundamental questions that occur to all of us but have been neglected in academic research. One reason for their neglect is that, until recently, the evidence needed to address them rigorously has been very thin, and conceptual frameworks for integrating the evidence have not been in place. The work of my “Foundations of Animal Sentience” team combines synthesis of the latest science with sustained ethical reflection on its implications. On the scientific side, we have been laying the foundations for a systematic science of animal sentience by developing standardized frameworks that can be used to compare evidence across different species and that can help us understand the ways in which sentience varies. For example, we have constructed a framework for evaluating evidence of pain (https://www.wellbeingintlstudiesrepository.org/animsent/vol7/iss32/1/). We applied it to cephalopod molluscs (such as octopuses, squid, cuttlefish) and decapod crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters), and then to insects, and in the future we will apply it to an even wider range of animals. This helps people to understand the similarities and differences between these cases, while highlighting the evidence gaps that remain. On the ethical side, we have developed the “Animal Sentience Precautionary Principle” (https://www.wellbeingintlstudiesrepository.org/animsent/vol2/iss16/1/), a principle of far-reaching scope that calls on all governments to take precautions in cases of uncertain sentience. When this principle is applied together with the scientific evidence, it has important consequences for society. It implies, for example, that we should include animals like octopuses, crabs and lobsters in our animal welfare laws.

What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?

In my earlier work, I studied the evolution of cooperation and became very interested in social insects like bees, ants, wasps and termites – animals that seem to sustain levels of harmonious cooperation far beyond our own, despite having brains a fraction of the size. I naturally started to wonder about the capacities of individual insects. If small brains could support incredibly rich behaviour, might they also support forms of sentience or consciousness? There is also an ethical motivation. I worry that humans have a tendency to dismiss animals very different from us (and very far away from us, in evolutionary terms) as resources we can use as we wish, with no ethical limits. In fact, if there is a serious chance that an animal is capable of suffering, ethical limits do apply, even if we are not certain. I see a close relationship between the science and the ethics of animal sentience. Ethical reflection needs to be informed by an accurate scientific picture. At the same time, the science also needs to be done with a view to what its ethical implications might be. We should not shy away from difficult questions (like whether insects feel pain) just because we are afraid of getting inconvenient answers.

In what ways does society benefit from your research?

Our work has already shaped the law in the UK. Following the UK’s exit from the European Union, the government pledged to introduce new legislation to enshrine respect for animal sentience into UK law. They quickly ran into a problem: which animals should be protected? An early draft of the law only included vertebrates, leading to criticism. They commissioned a team led by me to review the evidence of sentience in cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans. We were asked to come to a recommendation: should these animals receive legal protection or not? We recommended that all animals in these groups should indeed be protected, and the UK government implemented our recommendation in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/lobsters-octopus-and-crabs-recognised-as-sentient-beings). Going forward, we hope to start a much wider conversation about what we can do to protect the welfare of invertebrate animals. People sometimes think there is nothing we can do. In fact, a lot of improvements are possible in this area. We can take steps to enforce humane slaughter (e.g. banning the worst methods, like live boiling without prior stunning), we can introduce evidence-based rules for transport, handling and storage (e.g. do not send live crustaceans through the post), we can work with industry to develop codes of best practice for shrimp aquaculture and insect farming, and we can think hard about whether it is a good idea to proceed at all with new, experimental kinds of farming, like octopus farming.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?

There are still many evidence gaps concerning invertebrate sentience. Some very commercially important species, such as crickets and black soldier flies, have barely been studied in relation to these questions. We want to address some of these key evidence gaps. It’s also very important to ask: what role can the science of animal sentience play in informing public attitudes towards animals, including people’s consumer choices and behaviour? Do the latest scientific results about octopuses (for example) actually change the way people think about octopuses, and, if so, how? Through collaborations with psychologists, I hope to gain a better understanding of these relationships. The long-term vision is a fully integrated science of animal sentience that combines insights from the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. A science bold enough to address basic questions about sentience using the best behavioural and neural techniques currently available, while at the same time connecting outwards to policy, law and society, leading to transformative change in how people see, interact with, and care for other animals.

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