If a lobster feels no more pain than an alarm clock, why should we worry about boiling it alive? Scientist NICHOLAS HUMPHREY on why new Animal Welfare Bill risks dragging us into a pointless legal minefield
In 1876, Queen Victoria gave Royal assent to the Cruelty to Animals Act, restricting the use of animals for scientific experimentation.
When the Act was first drafted, it was meant to apply only to mammals.
But legal advisers, mindful of the Queen’s prudishness, thought she might take offence at the word ‘mammals’, which stems from mammaries, or breasts. So, to spare her blushes, they substituted the word ‘vertebrates’.
For the next 100 years, if scientists wanted, for example, to shine a light into the eye of a minnow, they were legally required to have a Home Office Licence, just as they would have been if they’d wanted to do brain surgery on a chimpanzee.
When human sensitivities become the issue, rather than the wants and needs of animals themselves, legislation for animal welfare is in trouble.
We might hope that the guiding principle of the controversial new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill now in Parliament would be to achieve a scientifically informed balance between the interests of animals and people. But after half a century spent researching animal consciousness, in the lab and the field, I am far from optimistic.
Is it all right to boil a lobster alive? The Bill proposes to set up a committee of experts whose job will be to answer just such questions and keep an eye on any aspect of Government policy that ‘might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’
The Bill is in danger of becoming little more than a feelgood gesture for MPs. Urged on by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, of which the Prime Minister’s wife is a patron, it seems quite likely they will give lobsters, squid and herring the same protection as hedgehogs and swans.
Such an outcome would be sentimental, unjustifiable, and a legal minefield.
Unlike any previous legislation in this country, the emphasis in this new Bill is on the idea of ‘sentience’. To explain: sentient animals are those we can reasonably assume to enjoy life’s pleasures or suffer pains in some of the ways that we humans do.
For us, conscious sensory experience is crucial to our sense of self. We feel, therefore we are. We relish the sweetness of honey, bask in the warmth of a fire, endure the agonies of a broken limb. That’s what it’s like for us to be alive.
But for other animals, it’s an open question. Do they, too, have sensations with the quality of ours? Is the light of consciousness on or off?
We can all agree that consciousness matters. It matters whether it’s our own or someone else’s.
We humans have a moral duty not to trample on the lives of other sentient creatures. But our obligations to insentient creatures are much less. We needn’t have qualms about destroying a wasps’ nest if wasps aren’t conscious. But we should refrain from destroying a bat roost if bats are.
Is it all right to boil a lobster alive? The Bill proposes to set up a committee of experts whose job will be to answer just such questions and keep an eye on any aspect of Government policy that ‘might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’.
So who will be the members of the committee, and from where will they draw their authority?
We might hope that the Government will appoint expert scientists and philosophers, who can be presumed to know what they are talking about.
But I’m afraid that’s where the problems are going to start. The fact is that academic opinion remains deeply divided about what sentience in animals really amounts to and who has it.
Four hundred years ago, philosopher Rene Descartes declared that animals – lacking a God-given soul – are no more conscious than a clockwork machine.
We humans have a moral duty not to trample on the lives of other sentient creatures. But our obligations to insentient creatures are much less. We needn’t have qualms about destroying a wasps’ nest if wasps aren’t conscious. But we should refrain from destroying a bat roost if bats are
More recently, philosophical opinion has started swinging to the other extreme. It’s now commonly claimed that sentience, far from being restricted to humans, exists right across the animal kingdom.
An article in July by two American philosophers about the ethics of farming insects for food, concludes that ‘our current view is that insects are about 20-40 per cent likely to be sentient, given the evidence available’.
So, they argue, it would be wrong to grow and harvest insects such as crickets and meal worms for food, even if such a step could help reduce global warming.
Can we do better with the science? I believe we can.
In my forthcoming book, Sentience, I approach things from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. I start from the assumption that sentience is a biological trait that, like digestion or intelligence, has evolved by natural selection. This means it must confer benefits on those animals such as humans that are privileged to have it
As I see it, the value lies in how, revolving around conscious sensations, it establishes a sense of self. Sentient animals come to regard themselves as uniquely important individuals – an importance they then confer on others in their family and social group.
I feel therefore I am. You feel, therefore you are too.
But which other species of animal have a psychological use for this kind of self-concept – or a brain that can deliver it?
Against what’s generally believed by other scientists, I think that sentience, far from being a primitive trait, is a relatively recent evolutionary innovation that requires a sophisticated brain.
In fact, I’m led to conclude that it didn’t arrive until the evolution of warm-blooded mammals and birds some 200 million years ago.
If I’m right, for the vast majority of animals there’s no one at home. There’s no conscious self.
Maggots, lobsters, octopuses, herring, frogs – these creatures just don’t feel things the way parrots, dogs and humans do.
This isn’t to say they must be unintelligent, or mentally dull. Nor – which is the issue often raised – that they don’t respond to noxious stimuli that we humans would experience as pain.
All animals – and indeed some plants – have been programmed by evolution to do whatever they can to escape from harmful situations. Fish, for example, will guard parts of their body that have been injured, and they will even seek out analgesic drugs if they are made available. You can see similar behaviour in a machine.
Take the case of your car. The car’s ‘mind’ diagnoses potential threats and gives the alarm – for a lack of petrol, over-heating or under-inflated tyres. The car might flag a more serious problem: ‘Engine failure. Stop and seek assistance.’ And if it detects there is likely to be a crash, it will slam on the brakes and deploy airbags.
Yet none of these self-protective actions implies that the car has conscious feelings.
Then what’s so different about a lobster? If the lobster is no more sentient than a car, why should we have qualms about boiling it alive?
Arguably, when it comes to conscious feelings, boiling the lobster is no more offensive than boiling an alarm clock. How about a mobile phone? Interestingly, an informal survey shows that while most people don’t think it would be unethical to drop their phone in boiling water, they’d want to turn it off first.
We certainly have a natural tendency to see consciousness all around us. It’s our default mode. When it comes to legislation, this is by no means the first time human values rather than those of animals have driven the debate.
In the Middle Ages, the shoe was on the other foot. Animals weren’t protected, they were prosecuted.
In many parts of Europe, ecclesiastical lawyers would seek out evidence of animal malfeasance. A pig murdering a human baby, for example. Rats eating grain, weevils destroying grapes. The miscreants – pig, rat or token weevil – could be charged and brought to court, where they were given legal representation.
The result was a field day for ambitious lawyers. Sometimes they argued so successfully that the animals were given damages for false prosecution. The weevils, for example, might be awarded a field of their own in compensation. It was absurd, of course.
But 600 years on, we find or own Parliament heading for absurdity, too. It’s not so hard to imagine animals returning to the British courts. But this time it will be humans in the dock.
Quite right, you may say. Humans who abuse sentient creatures deserve it. I don’t disagree.
But until we can agree on which animals are sentient to start with – while it’s open to anyone’s interpretation – those with the most to gain from the new law will be the lawyers.
Nicholas Humphrey’s book Sentience will be published by Oxford University Press next year.
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