Optimistic bees and anxious fish: the animal sentience debate

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Frobisher Auditorium 2Scientific skirmishes

The UK has long positioned itself as a world-leader in animal welfare. There was a public outcry last year when the government rejected an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill that would have explicitly recognised animal sentience, mirroring text in the Lisbon treaty. In response, Michael Gove rushed out the draft Animal Welfare Bill 2017 to recognise animal sentience, with the official consultation stating that the bill ‘will embed the principle that animals are sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and pleasure. It contains an obligation, directed towards government, to pay regard to the welfare needs of animals when formulating and implementing government policy.’ This reflects considerable support among the public to recognise the seemingly common sense notion that animals are sentient and deserving of protection from suffering.

However, the draft bill does not define either ‘animal’ or ‘sentience’, leaving it open to a wide range of interpretations with potentially far-reaching effects. In relation to what is an ‘animal’, current legislation defines which animals are granted protection and in which circumstances, but the proposed legislation is unrestricted in scope. This has the potential to bring a much wider range of animals under the law. For example, neuroscience researchers have claimed that ocean acidification can lead to ‘anxious fish’. Recent research suggests that insects like bees are capable of much more complex behaviour than previously thought, including the possibility of subjective mental states such as optimism. Are insects and fish worthy of legal protection?

The definition of ‘sentience’ is similarly unclear. Dictionary definitions range from ‘responsive to sense impressions’ to ‘capacity for feeling or perceiving; consciousness’. The former could include any organism capable of responding to the environment; indeed, even plants’ ability to respond to the environment in complex ways has been called a form of sentience. The latter definition sets the bar higher, requiring consciousness, but there is little consensus as to which animals are conscious of their experiences. As the organisation Understanding Animal Research has argued, a mosquito may display an escape behaviour (flying off when we try to hit it), but that does not imply conscious decision-making or an ability to suffer.

How broadly should we define ‘sentience’? Does this challenge conceptions of which species might possess sentience and be capable of suffering? Have we lost sight of what we mean by consciousness and lowered the bar too far? How much do we really know about animal sentience and how do we make law when even scientists don’t agree on what it means?