Animal sentience workshop

Mark Fisher

Advocating for the devil – bees, jumping spiders, and the emperor's new clothes? (16:36)

Mark comes from a sheep and beef cattle farming background. He is now a principal adviser in animal welfare with MPI. Before this he was a senior scientist with AgResearch (reproductive physiology of red deer) and a private consultant (ethical evaluations in science and farming). Mark has served on NAWAC, the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching, and the Bioethics Council, and was a president of the NZ Society of Animal Production.

[This video was filmed during a workshop in front of an audience. The speaker stands at a speaker’s podium and talks into a microphone. Sometimes, he looks or points to a screen with slides containing information to support his talk. The slides aren't shown in the video.]

Mark Fisher: My understanding of sentience is that its inclusion in the Act was largely symbolic. And so my role here today is to uncover flaws in creating anything more than a symbolic inclusion in the act, or a symbolic understanding of sentience.

Now the devil's advocate position is very, very important in the Catholic Church when you're giving out sainthoods, that is where it came from. I'd like to use it today as I said to look at sentience and in the spirit of perhaps the greatest philosopher of science of all times, Sir Karl Popper I'd like you to listen to this presentation today and think about how you can make it better. I've chosen to concentrate on three aspects of sentience: 1, what we understand by it, 2, the limits of sentience, and 3, the issue of non-sentience which is perhaps going into science fiction.

So our common understanding. This is what my dictionary says sentience is; having the power of perception by the senses, and it's a good dictionary. And just to show that I'm a man of the world, this is Tibetan Buddhism's word for it; 'gro ba' which means 'to go', toward pleasure and away from pain. Now we seem to be getting a range of interpretations of the term sentience - capable of experiencing positive and negative states, aware of their feelings and emotions, and even the fact that they're not commodities.

The only problem with defining anything is that the real danger is that you start to exclude people or dismiss other views. And I think if we start coming up with lots of different definitions of sentience we should appreciate and acknowledge them all. I just like to take a little bit of time this morning talking about the history from philosophy and science, and thankfully philosophers and scientists that I'm talking about didn't take people with them, we had more clues. In the two I'm going to concentrate on are Rene Descartes and John Watson. I think in a way it's people like them which is why we are here today.

So this is Descartes, he's a very cool guy from a couple of hundred years ago. It gets a lot of stick which was why he had sunglasses nowadays. It was he who came up with the idea, his monstrous thesis that animals are machines and totally without feeling. But academics have got a lot of discussion, or have done a lot of discussion of thoughts about what Descartes actually said. And this is Sir Anthony Kenny a philosopher in Britain, his translation of Descartes, which I think you'll find quite interesting. All the things which dogs, horses and monkeys are made to do are merely expressions of their fear, their hope or their joy and consequently they can do these things without any thought. I don't see much of a machine in there, I don't know what you do?

The second one is a scientist, John Watson. He was, he set out to make psychology into a really good science, an objective science and he determined that things like sensations, perceptions, images, desires and even thinking and emotions could not be measured. And that's slowly morphed into 'they do not exist', and that was a school of behaviourism, which had a very big impact on science for a long time.

Now at the same time, William McDougall, came up with this theory of motivation. Where emotions like fear, sexual desire and maternal tenderness motivate animals to do things like escape from danger, courtship and copulation and care for their young. McDougall was an opponent of Watson but yet Watson had the bigger influence. It was not until the likes of Ruth Harrison, Donald Griffin, Marian Stamp Dawkins and Jaak Panksepp, that science really started to engage in the idea that animals had feelings and the real word I want to stress there is that science started to engage.

Not surprisingly, common sense was alive and well through all this time. This first quote that animals have senses, emotions and consciousness, demonstrates sagacity, facility, memory, association of ideas and reasons etc, etc, came from William Youatt in 1839 and he was a veterinary surgeon in London. And the second one from George Romanes, who was a pupil of Charles Darwin's in 1884 - pleasures and pains evolved in animals to allow them to seek the one as shun the other. So like Ian said these ideas have been around for at least 200 years. So I'll just ask the first question, what are we responding to today? Is it philosophy? Is it science? Or is it common sense?

In this delightful little quote from Ian Duncan "If sentience is necessary for a consideration of welfare, surely it is sentience that welfare is all about". To me some sums it up, it's a nice little circular thing, but what are we doing here today? So my first little conclusion is; that we should learn the lessons of the past. If we want to take responsibility, as Ian said, for positive emotions, or give animals the opportunities for normal behaviour, appreciate or acknowledge their likes and dislikes, well do so, but don't for God's sake put it on sentience! You'll lose people.

The second one is; the degrees and limits of sentience and for this little segment, a couple of slides, I'm going to talk about insects. This is Jeff Lockwood, he's an entomologist in the University of Wyoming and Jeff is a good guy. He's not an off-the-wall type person. He did a sabbatical at AgResearch in Dunedin a few years ago - so he's kosher.  And this is Jeff's idea of insects, he's studied them for a long time. They can see, hear, smell, taste, feel and respond to pressure, shock and heat. Recognise that? They also respond to ultra violet wavelengths in the polarisation of light. They have endorphins and they're susceptible to neurotoxic insecticides and here's the really creepy bit, those insecticides were developed in World War 2 for use against humans.

They can feel pain and they can learn, even when they are headless. And the cockroach is really, really good. It's evolved knowing that scientists are going to come along at some stage and cut off his head, and he's got neural tissue outside his head. And what Jeff does in his classes, is he makes his students anaesthetise his insects, just in case they feel pain.

But it gets a lot more interesting than Jeff. The first example was honeybees. You're probably aware of the normal experiments we did in zoology classes - you put sugar down, the bees go out pick it up go back and do a dance in their hive and tell their hive mates where it is. These people in the States did something different. They put that honey or sugar solution in two spots, one on the lake-shore and one on a boat also at the lake-shore but gradually over time they moved the boat out into the lake. So when the bees came back and told their hive mates where the food was, the hive mates rejected the source of food that was in the lake. Bees aren't dumb, they know there's no flowers in the lake for goodness sake. And what they were doing was integrating their information with their mental map of the world. And if you think that's complicated, in terms of what we're talking about today, they possess a belief-desire cognitive architecture.

My second example is the jumping spider. People have put them in a laboratory and put them on platforms were they can observe prey at the other end of the laboratory also on platforms. So this jumping spider can sit up on the platform and work out how best to get to his prey down the end of the lab on another platform. And they've also monitored the eyes of the spider, so you can work out exactly what the spiders doing, or looking at, and they map out a way in reverse order of the way that they have to go. And because it's a lab and because it's full of scientists you can do lots of interesting things. Like what barriers in the way etc, but what the jumping spider can do is recall from different perspectives how to get to his prey. In other words, they plan their routes to their prey in advance.

I'll just go quickly over this one. There's some information from Steven Wise about the degrees of mental complexity linked to sentience, and there are four different categories of mental complexity – those animals can use symbols, language deceive people, recognise himself in the mirror, down to those that have a stimulus-response machines. Most animals we don't know what their mental complexity is. And Steven Wise made the conclusion there's no sense in using science to draw the line here.

And what it really does is raise the really big question, does sentience justify moral concern? And if you think it does, go easy on your spiders and bees tonight. Those of you thinking about retiring from NAWAC and NAEAC, be interested in the new government quango - the National Insect Welfare Advisory Committee, but be warned, Stephen Wise is a lawyer, has had 20 years head start on you.

And the last one is happy hens. If you imagine genetically altered and sentient pseudo-chickens and it's not hard to imagine that, we're already got blind chickens, featherless chickens or perhaps more realistically, we have birds that their needs are provided for, but they can only experience positive emotions. The real happy hen. Intuitively we think it's wrong, its yuck, but maybe we'll get used to it, we got used to the dining fork, margarine, artificial insemination etc.

What I think it does is tell us more about us as humans than the animals themselves. So to conclude then, really want you to wonder, NAEAC and NAWAC, whether you're going feral here or whether you're progressing animal welfare? We seem to have gone from what Jeremy Bentham said "it's not whether they can talk or can they reason, it's can they suffer." We seem to be turning the clock back. Can they think about themselves?

What I really want to do is make you think about what's the most or the best way to inspire respect for animals. Is it law? Is it philosophy? Is it science? Is it common sense? etc. Is sentience going to prevent this sort of thing?

And my last slide, the title comes from the track of the Rolling Stones, 'sympathy for the devil' that was coined about the atrocities we commit on each other. And that line is "what's puzzling is the nature of the game." What are we trying to do here?

I said at the start I thought it was largely symbolic that sentience was included in the Act, and I just looked at some material in Norway who included the term 'animals have an intrinsic value' in their Animal Welfare Act. And after - you, better sit down Monica I've got the devil on my side here, - after their inclusion they said that it did not have any effect on the consequences for animal welfare.

And the last one is the Emperor's New Clothes - the horse is still the same, it's still being ridden but I just wonder whether we're starting to look about our appearance and it's this little guy in here, that's common sense that's maybe he's the only one in this scene. Thank you.

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Last reviewed: 22 Nov 2021