NewsInsects may be sentient...

Insects may be sentient…

Bees play by rolling wooden balls — apparently for fun. The cleaner wrasse fish appears to recognize its own visage in an underwater mirror. Octopuses seem to react to anesthetic drugs and will avoid settings where they likely experienced past pain. 

All three of these discoveries came in the last five years — indications that the more scientists test animals, the more they find that many species may have inner lives and be sentient. A surprising range of creatures have shown evidence of conscious thought or experience, including insects, fish and some crustaceans. 

That has prompted a group of top researchers on animal cognition to publish a new pronouncement that they hope will transform how scientists and society view — and care — for animals. 

Nearly 40 researchers signed “The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness,” which was first presented at a conference at New York University on Friday morning. It marks a pivotal moment, as a flood of research on animal cognition collides with debates over how various species ought to be treated. 

The declaration says there is “strong scientific support” that birds and mammals have conscious experience, and a “realistic possibility” of consciousness for all vertebrates — including reptiles, amphibians and fish. That possibility extends to many creatures without backbones, it adds, such as insects, decapod crustaceans (including crabs and lobsters) and cephalopod mollusks, like squid, octopus and cuttlefish.

“When there is a realistic possibility of conscious experience in an animal, it is irresponsible to ignore that possibility in decisions affecting that animal,” the declaration says. “We should consider welfare risks and use the evidence to inform our responses to these risks.” 

Jonathan Birch, a professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics and a principal investigator on the Foundations of Animal Sentience project, is among the declaration’s signatories. Whereas many scientists in the past assumed that questions about animal consciousness were unanswerable, he said, the declaration shows his field is moving in a new direction. 

“This has been a very exciting 10 years for the study of animal minds,” Birch said. “People are daring to go there in a way they didn’t before and to entertain the possibility that animals like bees and octopuses and cuttlefish might have some form of conscious experience.”

From ‘automata’ to sentient

There is not a standard definition for animal sentience or consciousness, but generally the terms denote an ability to have subjective experiences: to sense and map the outside world, to have capacity for feelings like joy or pain. In some cases, it can mean that animals possess a level of self-awareness. 

In that sense, the new declaration bucks years of historical science orthodoxy. In the 17th century, the French philosopher René Descartes argued that animals were merely “material automata” — lacking souls or consciousness.

Descartes believed that animals “can’t feel or can’t suffer,” said Rajesh Reddy, an assistant professor and director of the animal law program at Lewis &

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