Anyone who says that life matters less to animals than it does to us has not held in his hands an animal fighting for its life. The whole of the being of the animal is thrown into that fight, without reserve.” (Elisabeth Costello, in J. M. Coetzee’s, The Lives of Animals)
This past weekend during a series of lectures I presented in Germany a number of people asked questions of the sort, “Isn’t it about time we accept that animals are sentient and that we know what they want and need, and stop bickering about whether they are conscious, feel pain, and experience many different emotions?” Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these queries, and my answer is always a resounding “Yes, we do have ample detailed scientific facts to declare that nonhuman animals are sentient beings and there are fewer and fewer skeptics.” People are incredibly frustrated that there are still skeptics who deny what we know, and they also want to know what we are going to do with the knowledge we have to help other animals live in a human-dominated world.
As I was flying home I thought of a previous essay I wrote called “Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings” in which I discussed the The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness that was publicly proclaimed on July 7, 2012 at the University. The group of scientists wrote, “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” They could also have included fish, for whom the evidence supporting sentience and consciousness is also compelling (see also). And, I’m sure as time goes on we will add many other animals to the consciousness club.
A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: Animal sentience is a well-established fact
Based on the overwhelming and universal acceptance of the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness I offer here what I call a Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience. For the purpose of this essay I am defining “sentience” as “the ability to feel, perceive, or be conscious, or to experience subjectivity” (for wide-ranging discussion please click here.)
I don’t offer any specific location for this declaration because with very few exceptions, people worldwide, including researchers and non-researchers alike, accept that other animals are sentient beings. However, a notable exception is Oxford University’s Marian Dawkins who continued as of a few months ago to claim we still don’t know if other animals are conscious using the same data as those who wrote The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. I call this Dawkins’s Dangerous Idea.
It’s also important to note that the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare is based on the indisputable fact that animals are sentient and that they can suffer and feel pain, as is the Treaty of Lisbon and the rapidly growing field of compassionate conservation.
“Evidence of animal sentience is everywhere”: It’s a matter of why sentience evolved, not if it evolved
A strong and rapidly growing database on animal sentience supports the acceptance of the fact that other animals are sentient beings. We know that individuals of a wide variety of species experience emotions ranging from joy and happiness to deep sadness, grief, and PTSD, along with empathy, jealousy and resentment. There is no reason to embellish them because science is showing how fascinating they are (for example, mice, rats, and chickens display empathy) and countless other “surprises” are rapidly emerging.
A large amount of data are available on an interactive website called the “Sentience Mosaic” launched by The World Society for the Protection of Animals dedicated to animal sentience. A systematic review of the scientific literature on sentience in an essay written by Helen Proctor and her colleagues at WSPA concluded, “Evidence of animal sentience is everywhere.” Using a list of 174 keywords they reviewed more than 2500 articles on animal sentience. And, what is very interesting is that they also discovered “a greater tendency for studies to assume the existence of negative states and emotions in animals, such as pain and suffering, than positive ones like joy and pleasure.” This is consistent with the historical trend of people who readily denied emotions such as joy, pleasure, and happiness to animals accepting that animals could be mad or angry (see also Helen Proctor’s “Animal Sentience: Where Are We and Where Are We Heading?“. There is also an upward trend in the number of articles published on animal sentience (using sentience-related keywords) from 1990-2011.
Solid evolutionary theory, namely, Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity in which he recognized that the differences among species in anatomical, physiological, and psychological traits are differences in degree rather than kind, also supports the wide-ranging acceptance of animal sentience. There are shades of gray, not black and white differences, so if we have something “they” (other animals) have it too. This is called evolutionary continuity and shows that it is bad biology to rob animals of the traits they clearly possess. For example, we share with other mammals and vertebrates the same areas of the brain that are important for consciousness and processing emotions.
We surely are not exceptional or alone in the arena of sentience and indeed, membership in the sentience club is rapidly growing. There are sound biological reasons for recognizing animals as sentient beings. We need to abandon the anthropocentric view that only big-brained animals such as ourselves, nonhuman great apes, elephants, and cetaceans (dolphins and whales) have sufficient mental capacities for complex forms of sentience and consciousness. So, the interesting and challenging question is why has sentience evolved in diverse species, not if it has evolved.
It’s time to stop pretending that we don’t know if other animals are sentient: We do indeed know what other animals want and need
“Those who define ‘us’ by our ability to introspect give a distorted view of what is important to and about human beings and ignore the fact that many creatures are like us in more significant ways in that we all share the vulnerability, the pains, the fears, and the joys that are the life of social animals.” (Lynne Sharpe, Creatures Like Us)
We need to stop pretending we don’t know if other animals are sentient. We also need to accept that we know what they want and need. Their minds aren’t as private as some claim them to be. Surely, we might miss out on some of the nitty-gritty details but it is safe to say that other animals want to live in peace and safety and absent fear, pain, and suffering, just as we do. Despite the erroneous claim that other animals are not known to worry, there is ample evidence that they do indeed worry about their well-being (please see “Do Animals Worry and Lose Sleep When They’re Troubled?“) and that excessive worrying and a lack of rest and sleep can be costly.
While some still claim that we do not know that other animals are sentient beings, countless animals continue to suffer in the most egregious ways as they are used and abused for research, education, food, clothing, and entertainment, for example. And indeed, animal sentience is assumed in many comparative studies and recent legislation protecting chimpanzees from invasive research is based on what is known about these amazing sentient beings. We really don’t need any more invasive research to move on and to strongly declare that other animals are sentient. For example, Farm Sanctuary has put out a call for proposals for observational research on the cognitive and emotional lives of farm animals. Some researchers are indeed looking into using brain imaging to access the minds of other animals (see for example Emory University’s Gregory Berns’s work How Dogs Love Us).
Raising sentience about sentience: Welcome to our world
We must raise consciousness — our sentience — and “their” sentience. For an essay I wrote for New Scientist magazine called “Animals are conscious and should be treated as such” about The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness there is a wonderful cartoon of animals sitting around a table discussing these issues. The print copy was called “Welcome to our world” and it’s about time we did so with open hearts.
The time is now to shelve outdated and unsupported ideas about animal sentience and to factor sentience into all of the innumerable ways in which we encounter other animals. When The Cambridge Declaration was made public there was a lot of pomp, champagne, and media coverage. There is no need to have this fanfare for A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience. It can be a deep, personal, and inspirational journey that comes from our heart and also has a strong and rapidly growing evidence-based foundation.
The animals will be grateful and warmly thank us for paying attention to the science of animal sentience. And, when we listen to our hearts we are recognizing how much we know about what other animals are feeling and that we owe it to them to protect them however we can. Please, let’s do it now. It is easy to do and we can do no less.
This article originally appears in Psychology Today.