On redefining "sentience"

Feb 24 2010 Published by under Animals in Research

You may have noticed a rash of posts around the ScienceBlogs decrying the ARA terrorist extremists who have vowed, again, to target the children of a UCLA neuroscientist. Dario Ringach famously gave up his nonhuman primate research in 2006 because of threats against his family. His participation in last week's dialog held at the UCLA campus apparently induced the extremist attention seekers, angry at having the momentum and PR shift to their slightly more rational co-travelers, to renew their threats. This is utterly despicable. Utterly.
This would be a great time for people who purport to be non-extremist animal rights advocates or sympathizers to do some deep soul searching. Soul searching that does not just easily write off the terrorists as a crazy fringe but asks penetrating questions about the nature of their own beliefs.
I cannot help you with this difficult work but I noticed something a little odd and new to me popping up in comment threads following the posts linked above. It has to do with the concept of sentience.


Wandering over to the Wikipedia entry I find a rather interesting set of observations.

Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive subjectively. The term is used in philosophy (particularly in the philosophy of animal ethics and in eastern philosophy) as well as in science fiction and (occasionally) in the study of artificial intelligence. In each of these fields the term is used slightly differently.
In eastern philosophy, sentience is a metaphysical quality of all things that requires our respect and care. In science fiction, sentience is "personhood": the essential quality that separates humankind from machines or animals. Sentience is used in the study of consciousness to describe the ability to have sensations or experiences, known to some Western academic philosophers as "qualia".
Some advocates of animal rights argue that many animals are sentient in that they can feel pleasure and pain, and that this entails being entitled to some moral or legal rights.

Well this certainly explains my confusion. To me, "sentience" has always been the science fiction concept. I suspect quite strongly that for most people, this is the connotation of the term.
Interesting, is it not, that animal rights people would co-opt this term to mean "can feel pleasure or pain"? Why create this new use for the term, particularly when it has such strong associations with the full-human capacity, different from animals and machines science-fiction type of definition?
Just another dishonest ploy to sway people to their way of thinking on something other than the merits. Of course they know what they are doing. Of course they know that they are creating this blurring of definitions in the minds of the undecided public. And of course they are hoping to lure everyone into using their terminology so that when people who are in favor of animal research say, well of course animals can feel pain, the ARA nut can claim that such people are admitting to sentience.
When of course they are doing no such thing.
Challenge anyone who uses this "sentience" gambit, eh? Get them to specify exactly what they mean. And ask what they are trying to pull with this redefinition nonsense.

52 responses so far

  • ginger says:

    I apologize in advance if this summons (further) loads of wackos to your comments section, but the animal rights folks borrowed this rhetorical gambit from abortion protesters. The violent branches of the two movements justify threats, harassment and damage as righteous war, with the contention that processing sensorineural input as pleasure or pain confers sentience. Such "sentience" confers the full slate of human rights, with the added expectation that as these unrecognized humans are rendered vulnerable through their inability to speak for themselves, and so their rights must be considered before those of other humans. Conveniently, the nobility of protecting the helpless puts any other motives of the individuals acting on behalf of the "humans" beyond question; no such person could possibly be masking his or her desire to hurt or oppress actual people (researchers, gynecologists, women's clinic patients, families of any of these people) in the effort to protect the supremely innocent "sentient but speechless".

  • Rook says:

    Like you, I was only ever aware of the sci-fi meaning of 'sentience' as 'possessing self-awareness or conciousness'. Etymologically, however, the 'able to experience sensation' definition bears a closer relationship to the original Latin. This is unfortunate, as it's allowed reckless conflation.
    There's a perfectly good synonym for 'sentient' in the sense of 'self-aware': 'sapient'. Ordinarily I would hate to suggest abandoning the connotation of a word for purely etymological reasons, but given the way it's become politicized, it might be a better strategy to let it go and start talking in terms of 'sapience' instead of 'sentience' as a basis for possesing rights: it's an uglier word as less popularly-understood, but it would also, I think, be much harder to co-opt.
    (And a lot of old sci-fi would make a lot less sense, but to hell with it, the language survived losing 'gay'.)

  • Joe says:

    Let's not confuse things here, ginger.
    It does not matter whether animals are 'sentient', 'feel pleasure or pain', or anything else. In fact, anyone who does NOT think animals (and most definitely mammals) feel pleasure & pain is an idiot or psychopath.
    ...but none of that justifies certain actions by animal rights extremists. I am a biomedical researcher. I am very open to debate about animal use in research. In fact, I'm quite sympathetic to animal rights and do what I can for animals from within the system. So I'm on the same side as most animal rights activists. Except I care about people too. So if you threaten people or bomb labs, I'm going to want to see you hunted down and put away same as any other terrorist.
    http://www.petakillsanimals.com/
    ...but we're not going to be swayed by terrorism.

  • becca says:

    "Why create this new use for the term, particularly when it has such strong associations with the full-human capacity, different from animals and machines science-fiction type of definition?"
    Those Latin BASTARDS, always creating new meanings for terms!!!!
    I mean, come on, it's supposed to be linked to "Proto-Indo-European *sent- (“‘to head for, go’”)"?? Why, using that definition any dog playing fetch could qualify! Curse you terrorist ARA-PIEs, CURSE YOU!!!!!!!!!11 I mean, 3000-5000 BCE is totes new. Way more recent than scifi and your personal ideolect, right?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    this has nothing to do with ancient etymology as you well know becca. it has everything to do with how most people who are not steeped in AR wackaloonery understand the meaning. and given that, why AR nuts insist on this particular word.
    it is particularly interesting that as recently as a year or so ago around the blogosphere the AR defenders were not found using this term but they were using arguments about degree of pain perception. now, all of a sudden, it is all about sentience. veddy interesting.

  • SurgPA says:

    I'd always thought of sentience as third-person awareness of self, but looking at a couple of online dictionaries the definition seems less stringent:
    Thefreedictionary.com defines sentient as "Having sense perception; conscious"
    Merriam-Webster: "responsive to or conscious of sense impressions"
    yourdictionary.com: "of, having, or capable of feeling or perception; conscious"
    macmillandictionary.com: "capable of feeling things through physical senses"
    Ok, so let's explore that a bit. What do we mean by "feel" and how do we know an organism "feels"? Because they withdraw from (what we presume to be) painful stimulus? People with HSN - hereditary sensory neuropathy - can't feel pain; kids chew their lips and tongue bloody without awareness of the damage they are causing. Do they lack sentience? Conversely, some plants curl their leaves in response to being brushed. Does this make them sentient?
    The other half of the definitions is the simple word "conscious," defined as "Having an awareness of one's environment and one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts." This is that third-person self-reflection I've viewed as integral to sentience. Wikipedia notes the difficulty humans have had throughout millenia in defining what constitutes consciousness, and this becomes the bugaboo in defining sentience. Makes me this is a land-grab on the part of ARMers trying to claim sentience for their cause. I agree, they need to be pinned down on what they mean by sentience.

  • Perhaps I am not most people and I am most definitely not steeped in ARA wackaloonery, but I have to say that I have always understood sentient to mean "can feel" or "having sensation", from the Latin, as per becca above and Merriam Webster et al. In which case this is not an inaccurate descriptor. Then again, I'm not an aficionado of sci-fi either.
    If "most people" do indeed understand sentient to mean human-like, then I get why this is problematic. You point stands, but I think you may be riding the "most people" and sci-fi thing a little too hard.
    That nit being picked, this trend toward terrorizing people's children is indeed despicable. Latin or sci-fi definitions of words notwithstanding.

  • I worked at an institution that had the pleasure of having some ARA demonstrations for a few days. In a measure to taunt them, my roommate and I rented costumes and went out front to screw with them. He dressed up as an ape suit and I dressed up as a mouse. He went outside holding a pro-animal research poster (thanks to animal research you live..) and since I'm an asshole, I had a poster that said fuck PETA to taunt them. The department chair got such a kick out of it, he reimbursed me for the costumes out of his own pocket. Needless to say the ARA folks were shitting bricks but public safety couldn't do anything as we had a right to be on campus.

  • becca says:

    "To me, "sentience" has always been the science fiction concept."
    Interesting ideolect. And why, pray tell, do you think your conceptions are universal? Oh, excuse me, universal with the exception of "people who are not steeped in AR wackaloonery". Face it DM, you took a prescriptivist linguistic stance, and you got it exactly wrong.
    Semantic fail aside, I'm sure you perceive this as a "new tactic"; I certainly don't keep track of everything on the ARA internets, so I can't contradict that. But let's put that aside. Isn't pain perception a relatively easy argument for animal rights advocates to win?
    Why would They Collude to shift the debate to "animals are sentient (subtext: sentient in the sense of different from animals and machines)"? Assuming that's what they meant, aren't they wrong by a tautological definition? I mean, it's so odd and easy to knock down a position for them to take. It's almost like it's not *real* animal rights advocates who are taking it. Like maybe it's an argument some mock-animal rights advocates might make. Like maybe those made of... straw?
    "I agree, they need to be pinned down on what they mean by sentience."
    And then, when they reply: ""The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they speak?' but, `Can they suffer?"" where are you? You are still left with the fact that even when both side are weighing the same sorts of things (suffering of all animals- human and others), they come up with different conclusions. Now, the 'moral calculus' of the people that came up with this 'pamplet the kids schools' bullshit is pretty damn screwed up. I personally don't find it unfathomable (the "speaking for those that cannot speak" view that ginger pointed out should appeal to those of us who grew up with The Lorax), merely completely abhorrent.

  • Brian Slaby says:

    I'm honestly not sure what point you're trying to make with this post. Obviously the difference in opinion between ARA extremists and the majority of scientists that regularly use animals in their research is vast. Personally I haven't nailed down a side which I relate to "more," and probably never will. It's a complex ethical issue, and quite honestly I'm often surprised by how little researchers that use animals (who are generally well-educated people) seem to take the other side of the argument into consideration. Perhaps it's because they're on the defensive because yes, ARA extremists usually come off as antagonistic and (in the most extreme cases) can be accurately described as terrorists. But should their irrational attitudes really provoke equally irrational arguments from the opposing side?
    I've never equated the word "sentience" very strongly with humanity or personhood, as the sci-fi definition implies (which is a generalization in and of itself, as I've been exposed to some sci-fi and never got the impression of the word's meaning that the Wikipedia entry states). So I'll just chime in by saying that here's 1 more vote in favor of "having sensation," "can feel," or "is conscious" as being the common meaning of the word. Of course I haven't done any polls, so I have no way of proving which connotation is more prevalent.
    Which is why I don't really see the point of the original blog post; ARA may use the term "sentience," but in my opinion they haven't twisted the meaning of the word as you seem to imply. In fact, though you may not care to admit/agree with me, it seems pretty obvious that their argument is logically sound. Of course the majority of vertebrate animals are sentient, that's not really where the difference of opinion lies (or rather, it's not where it should lie). The fundamental disagreement stems from an ethical difference with regard to how much that sentience matters. Should animals be made to suffer for "a greater purpose?"
    It's not surprising that most researchers would take it personally when their research is essentially accused of not serving a great enough purpose. I understand that it's only human to become emotionally invested in one's work, but isn't the point of science to look at the world through the lens of objectivity? In other words, if you're going to question the philosophy of ARA, shouldn't you at least avoid questioning assumptions that seem to be self-evident? Of course animals are capable of suffering, and no ARA rhetoric that I've heard has suggested that they're applying the word "sentience" to anything but this meaning.

  • slp says:

    I'm honestly not sure what point you're trying to make with this post.
    Seems pretty simple to me. Animal rights activists like to use sentience to explain why animals deserve the rights they claim for them. DM was pointing out that the term 'sentience' can have varying definitions that can unnecessarily complicate discussions.
    So I'll just chime in by saying that here's 1 more vote in favor of "having sensation," "can feel," or "is conscious" as being the common meaning of the word.
    Except that in the context of animal rights discussions, each of those three you suggest have are vague, wooly statements that have vastly different implications. For instance E. coli can sense their environment and adapt to it, would you consider them to be sentient?
    What about "can feel"? The term 'feel' is too poorly defined to be of any use in diagnosing sentience. Is a sea anemone sentient if it can withdraw from touch? If so, does that suggest that the plants that respond to touch are sentient?
    And then we get to being "conscious". Have you got a good definition of what consciousness is? Because I don't. I personally like SurgPA's description @6 of third-person awareness of self. This would create problems for animal rights activists though, because many experimental animals cannot be said to experience this form of consciousness, making it difficult to justify them as being sentient.
    Of course the majority of vertebrate animals are sentient, that's not really where the difference of opinion lies
    Except that you are making this bald assertion based on your own definition of the word sentient. As I read your definition, I could just as easily claim that everything from bacteria on up are sentient. Or, using a different reading of the same definition, I could claim that only animals that are capable of self recognition and cognition are sentient.
    Should animals be made to suffer for "a greater purpose?"
    I agree that this is the most important ethical question that needs to be answered. However, if people want to claim that an animal's sentience needs to be taken into account when asking that question then they had better have a pretty good way of defining sentience that actually stands up to a bit of scrutiny.

  • becca says:

    "But should their irrational attitudes really provoke equally irrational arguments from the opposing side? " That's what fear will do.
    DM, when you're irrational, the terrorists win!

  • Jefrir says:

    The problem is that when they describe animals as "sentient", they claim to be using the term to mean "feels pain", thus being correct, but while fully aware that many people will understand this to mean "self-aware", and therefore more deserving of rights.
    It's a dishonest use of language that takes advantage of ambiguities and multiple meanings. Either meaning is fine, but you have to be clear and consistent about which one you mean.

  • Rogue Medic says:

    While I am not engaged in any animal research, I do rely on a lot of research that does involve animals. I believe that all of these studies describe the method of anesthesia used on the animals and whether they are later killed.
    The main exception would be research on pain, where it would be pointless to study the effect of any pain treatment on an anesthetized animal.
    Animals do appear to feel pain. Farmers have known that for a long time, but that does not seem to prevent most farmers from daily inviting at least one of these sensitive mammals to dinner as the main course.
    Maybe we should just counter these arguments with statements along the lines of, if you define sentient as responding to stimuli, then the point is that animals are not self aware.
    Regardless of the definition of sentient, these terrorists may benefit from being introduced to some inmates, who do not worry about such distinctions.

  • Dacks says:

    I basically agree with ambivalent academic at #7. Parsing sentience may lead to a distinction without a difference. I think most people are concerned with causing suffering to animals, although some of us see a greater good that comes from a judicious use of animal experimentation. Few would extend human-like self awareness, i.e., awareness of being conscious, to any animals other than possibly primates.
    OTOH, it seems increasingly clear that the boundary between human consciousness and animal consciousness is fuzzier than previously thought. Animals share with us many of the traits that we think of as defining our "humanity" - the ability to feel emotion, the ability to interact in complex social structures (think of wolves), even behaviors that indicate altruism or deceitfulness. We should not deny the sentience of animals in order to continue progress in science and medicine; rather, an awareness of how our manipulations impact the animals should be paramount in weighing experimental alternatives.

  • evobuff says:

    "In science fiction, sentience is "personhood": the essential quality that separates humankind from machines or animals."
    What is this bullshit? There is no "essential quality that separates humankind from animals" or at least there is no known such quality. It's all a matter of degrees, unless you believe in the divine spark or whatever christian bullshit, evolutionary theory demonstrates this is the only rational conclusion.
    As humans, we have to decide if it is worth it to kill/maim/whatever animals with a lesser degree of sentience in order to make our lives better or to save human lives. If you look at the policies that exist, I think it's clear that the consensus is that animals which are more closely related to us ("higher" animals) have a higher degree of sentience and should be treated with more care. Do people give a shit about how many fruit flies you kill? No. Frogs? Eh, well try not to kill too many. Mice? Kill as few as possible and be humane in your treatment. Monkeys? You'd better have a goddamn good reason to use that model instead of something else, and carefully document everything.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    What Jefrir said. It's also worth noting that while many (most?) of the people reading this are familiar with the technical definition of "sentience" and the distinction betweeen that and "sapience," you're not the audience these people are worried about. You've already figured out where you stand on the use of animals in research. The audience you need to worry about are those people whose exposure to the word is only through science fiction, where it's used very much as DM describes it.
    evobuff, it's not bullshit. One of the main tropes of SF over time is colonization. The discussion of it in SF is very much informed by European colonization, which was often excused by treating the indigenous people as less than human. A big concern of SF writers has been how we understand who is our equal so we don't repeat the horrors of our own history. The absence of bright lines doesn't change the fact that this is the discussion that forms the context for most people's experience with the word "sentience."

  • c. s. says:

    Pain and pleasure are qualia, therefore the "animal rights" definition there is equivalent to the philosophical definition (if not more strict).
    I'm going to have to agree with evobuff any idea of an "essential quality that separates humankind from animals" is inherently mysterian and comes from a long line of Christian thinking that justified mistreatment of animals-- for example, the belief that animals lack a soul. I'm afraid I don't understand Stephanie Z's response. If the question of sentience is "who is our equal", then how can you justify any presupposition that animals (or machines) can't possibly be equal to humans?

  • Stephanie Z says:

    c. s., I'm not sure what you mean about justifying a presupposition. I'm not talking about any kind of philosophy of humanity. I'm talking about a history of the ruling elite of humanity treating out-group people as less than human and an attempt to grapple with this in literature. It's only a subset of people who read or view science fiction, but it's far greater than the set of people who indulge in philosophy.

  • Brian Slaby says:

    "evobuff, it's not bullshit. One of the main tropes of SF over time is colonization. The discussion of it in SF is very much informed by European colonization, which was often excused by treating the indigenous people as less than human."
    Yes, history has shown that cultures throughout time have repeatedly de-humanized other cultures that happen to be either in the way of their own goals (wiping out indigenous people) or can be used to further their own goals (slavery). Thus, even the definition of "humanity" has been sketchy throughout the ages, as it's been used to achieve a specific end more than to accurately describe a suite of qualities possessed by a species. And in the end the only reason why we value this particular suite of qualities is because OUR species possesses them (of course it's circular logic, because these qualities are only grouped together BECAUSE our species possesses them).
    "Humanity" has recently come to encompass all members of Homo sapiens in the mainstream (at least the Western mainstream that I'm exposed to), likely because of globalization. But even now we still don't treat all groups of humans equally. The US funnels manufacturing to China, knowing full well that Chinese laborers aren't being justly compensated according to US standards. But it's cheap, so it's done anyways. Not to mention the fact that such a system is worse for the environment as it exploits looser environmental regulations in China and uses vast amounts of cheap fossil fuel for transportation. So complying with this system is also acknowledging that future generations don't deserve the same equal rights as those of us in the present. Now, for most people all of this happens halfway across the world so out of sight, out of mind, but they shouldn't fool themselves. The founding principles of our country that "all men (humans) are created equal" are not even being adhered to in modern times.
    I guess what I'm saying is that, given the fuzziness of even a seemingly self-explanatory term as "humanity" (which again, is just a way to lump the traits that evolution has happened to confer on our species and make us feel "special," or even "divine"), is it any wonder that the term "sentience" doesn't have a completely clear-cut definition? It's fuzzy by definition, as we have no way of knowing to what degree a given species experiences it.
    "Except that you are making this bald assertion based on your own definition of the word sentient. As I read your definition, I could just as easily claim that everything from bacteria on up are sentient. Or, using a different reading of the same definition, I could claim that only animals that are capable of self recognition and cognition are sentient."
    The point I was trying to make was that the alleged "sci-fi" definition of sentience isn't necessarily the mainstream one. If I was unclear on how I feel sentience should affect animal rights, I apologize, as it was late when I made that comment. I don't claim to have any easy answer, but I guess "consciousness," "cognition," and possibly "self-awareness" are the traits worthy of consideration when dealing with animal rights. I'd argue that these should be given even greater weight than capacity for suffering, which as you stated is vague since bacteria and even plants can respond to stimuli. Particularly consciousness and cognition, as I'm not convinced that self-awareness can be accurately quantified with things like mirror tests. Just because an animal doesn't respond to a mirror doesn't necessarily mean that it has no sense of self, particularly for animals that don't perceive the world in the same way that humans do (i.e. rely less on vision and more on smell, as is the case for most mammals). To me cognition seems less ambiguous, as its results (solving simple puzzles in a lab, or even cooperative pack hunting in situ) are easily observable.
    And to go off on a tangent somewhat, I don't see a problem with the idea of securing more rights (to an extent) for non-human animals, but a) the methods employed by ARA extremists are counter-productive, and b) animal research is NOT the greatest offender, as CAFOs cause vastly more suffering and animals are given far less respect for their entire lives. Furthermore, while animal research does usually benefit some "greater good," CAFOs don't haven have that merit. The way that they provide food for people is completely backwards. Note that I'm not advocating vegetarianism, quite the contrary, in fact. It's just that livestock raised in a pasture consuming grass (a resource that we cannot otherwise use) is more humane, more efficient, and more environmentally beneficial (sustainable, if done right). Feeding livestock grain (a food source that they haven't evolved to eat and causes them constant health problems) is simply wasteful, as that's a resource that we CAN use, and as most people know it takes several times more grain to produce a given quantity of meat.
    As far as I know CAFOs have not gotten as much attention from ARA extremists, and it makes me question how well they've thought their actions through. If you're going to resort to terrorism, why not go after the biggest offender? It just makes me wonder how they've rationalized their actions.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    any idea of an "essential quality that separates humankind from animals" is inherently mysterian and comes from a long line of Christian thinking
    Untrue. In fact the notion that humans are exactly the same as nonhuman animals is what is a "mysterian" viewpoint that derives more from faith than evidence. If you want to engage objectively than we start with each quality proposed to be a uniquely distinguishing property of humans and go down the evidence.
    how can you justify any presupposition that animals (or machines) can't possibly be equal to humans?
    Straw argument. Scientists don't argue this. They argue that the available evidence suggests that, on specific proposed traits, humans are very, very different from all nonhuman animals. Even if the trait is presumed to be a continuous one, the argument is that humans are different enough to be qualitatively distinct from the next closest species. And in some cases that the next closest species is far closer to laughably-absurd-example than they are to humans.
    You may start with language if you require a specific example. The sort of third-person self-awareness version of consciousness/sentience/sapience is the next one. Those are simplicity itself and, more importantly, set your straw argument afire. These are areas in which the Evul Scientist clan has worked very hard indeed to find language (language is not equal to communication), consciousness, etc. The results of the best possible single exemplars from nonhuman investigation is quite illuminating when contrasted with even a fairly developmentally impaired human. The mirror-dot experiment is another favorite example of the AR theologians but when you look at the data the notion that we are looking at human-similar qualia is patently absurd.

  • Principle Investigator says:

    I have to agree with evobuff, too. It seems to me that every time we find evidence of a "uniquely human" trait being exhibited by non-human animals, albeit in a less complex/sophisticated fashion, the hunt is on for a new scientific-cum-moral justification for exploiting animals for food, clothing, research, etc. I am not claiming that we should not exploit other species... but let's acknowledge that it's because our collective abilities allow us to perch at the top of the food chain and use non-human animals as means to our ends, not because we're radically distinct and therefore more worthy of humane treatment, no pun intended.
    By complete coincidence, I had to take an online course on animal care this morning to perform an experiment in class on fish behavior that might cause temporary emotional distress to the fish. Clearly there is a comprehensive system in place to try to ensure that animals are used for research only as necessary and that their pain and suffering are minimized.
    And I am SO glad that I do my research on flies so that I can drown or freeze them by the hundreds and ignore their tiny screams.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It seems to me that every time we find evidence of a "uniquely human" trait being exhibited by non-human animals, albeit in a less complex/sophisticated fashion, the hunt is on for a new scientific-cum-moral justification for exploiting animals for food, clothing, research, etc.
    and it seems to me that there is a lot of straw argumentation going on with respect to "uniquely human" traits or qualia. It is, in my view, an unrealistic and evolutional biologically ignorant perspective to think that there are not continua. Continua which contain many animals including humans. The "unique" part is the degree to which humans distance themselves from the rest of the distribution. What is fascinating to me is how unable some allegedly scientific and skeptical people seem to be at assessing those distances along the qualia distribution every time some new geewhiz demonstration of an amazing!!!! animal capability gets distorted in the newsmedia.
    It is fascinating, for example, how little response I received when I posted this observation. A historical case, true, but it seems to repeat.
    and speaking of "the hunt is on" it is also amazing how the animals-are-just-zactly-like-human crowd goes hunting for new qualifications and justifications when their triumphalist examples pan out to show something different than they thought. The chimpanzee termite fishing example being the classic (and related to my observations on Kohler's famous work) example. Aha! The *species* uses tools so they are just like us!!! ...oh, wait. It is just the one troop and there is evidence it is a meticulously trained behavior making it, save for the unknown original antecedents, no more or less than the rather complex behaviors that humans incrementally shape in other animals..like Epstein's pigeon.
    It is highly entertaining in a situation like this to watch the backfilling and post-hoc denial of the original position vis a vis what was supposedly being demonstrated.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Once again, we're discussing propaganda. The fact that they're speaking of sentience correctly is only half the point. That's the half that keeps you from arguing with them while they do their mischief. The other half of the point is that their target audience is not going to hear anything that's remotely technically correct. That's the half that builds their political base.
    Here's a little experiment. Find someone, preferrably unarmed, without a ton of scientific knowledge. Ask them, "What would you say if I told you I experiment on sentient creatures?" If they stick around, ask them what they think "sentient" means.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    As far as I know CAFOs have not gotten as much attention from ARA extremists, and it makes me question how well they've thought their actions through. If you're going to resort to terrorism, why not go after the biggest offender?
    My hypotheses:
    1) ARA wackaloonery is, of course, a conceit of privileged people who are detached in many ways from the realities of the world. There is an urban slant to this. There is a university/college slant to this. Scientific institutions tend to be located near the wackaloons and agribusiness is elsewhere.
    2) The people at the point of agribusiness are more likely to be armed in comparison with scientists. Even if not true, I'd argue this is the perception on the part of the ARA wackanuts.
    3) At some level the wackanuts realize that going after meat eating is a very stupid issue to attack with the general public. Can you imagine what would happen if they tried the throwing paint stuff they used on the fur-wearing on anyone who happened to be seen in public eating a burger? Research is a niche activity, the public has little direct familiarity with it and is therefore more easily lied to about it.

  • c. s. says:

    Drug Monkey, what observable quality is it that humans have that justifies the label "sentience"? Given those qualities, how to you justify the idea that humans are morally superior to other animals and therefore may treat them in ways that would be unacceptable to treat a human?
    You are complaining about the use of the word "sentience". The way I see it, any sentient being, and only sentience beings, should be given rights, so saying animals are sentient is just another way of saying they should have rights. Maybe it is rhetoric, but I don't think it is deceitful rhetoric.
    It is true that there are many behaviors that humans are capable of that other animals are not. But I don't think that justifies any moral difference. If it is wrong to needlessly inflict pain on a human, then it is wrong to needlessly inflict pain on anything capable of experiencing pain. This would include mammals, along with many other animals. I don't believe it would include plants or bacteria; the examples given here of E. coli and plants that respond to touch don't involve the same degree of processing or complexity of response as you would see in, for example, a dog. The similarity of response to pain stimuli is evidence that these animals experience pain qualia similar to what humans experience.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    what observable quality is it that humans have that justifies the label "sentience"?
    The fact that they exhibit sentience, of course. The sci-fi, third-party awareness of self kind. Did I not make this obvious? The label itself is not obligatory, you can call this quality whatever you like as long as we are clear this is that to which we refer.
    Given those qualities, how to you justify the idea that humans are morally superior to other animals and therefore may treat them in ways that would be unacceptable to treat a human?
    I don't recall saying anything at all about moral superiority Or for that matter anything about my justifications for animal research, animal eating, animal products in various consumer goods, vermin control, willful destruction of habitat to plant vegetables for the vegan crowd, etc. My focus in the internet discussion is on the inaccurate depictions of 1) the conduct of animal research and 2) the actual experimental knowledge of animal behaviors, traits and qualia.

  • Vicki says:

    Self-awareness is tricky, and not just because there is always going to be someone prepared to assert that in this case, it's not real self-awareness, it's automatic, or it's behavior that has some other purpose. (Or, if you're an AI person, Searle's "Chinese room," the problem with which is that once someone has shown that I can't be sure an AI is conscious, they're left trying to convince me that they themselves are conscious.)
    My hunch--and it is only a hunch--is that humans aren't the only self-aware organisms on the planet, but that self-awareness is extremely rare.
    That said, I think that plus some amount of abstract and/or environment-manipulating intelligence is what constitutes sentience (or sapience, if you prefer). I suspect that the two go together, but with only one definitely-identified species that has the former, it's hard to tell: all we know is that they aren't mutually exclusive.
    I tend to err on the side of caution here: I wouldn't eat elephant or porpoise. That doesn't apply to the rest of Artiodactyla, though; and the reason I wouldn't touch lemur isn't sapience or even relatedness, it's preservation of rare species (call it a taboo if you like: I doubt I could bring myself to even if I absolute knew the animal had died of natural causes).

  • SurgPA says:

    #26 "...it is wrong to needlessly inflict pain on anything capable of experiencing pain..."
    Do you think this is a uniquely human trait? Have you seen a housecat play with a mouse? Or an Orca with a seal (or trainer)? Why aren't you protesting against orcas and cats? If humans have no moral superiority/inferiority to other species, aren't other species equally culpable for the actions the ARA objects to in humans? Or is there something uniquely human that makes us feel we should be held to a different standard of accountability?
    Although the argument about whether humans are uniquely and qualitatively different from other species (sentience/ sapience?) is beside the original point of this thread, I would note that this very conversation eloquently illustrates just how unique humans are.

  • becca says:

    Here's a little experiment. Find someone, preferrably unarmed, without a ton of scientific knowledge. Ask them, "What would you say if I told you I experiment on sentient creatures?" If they stick around, ask them what they think "sentient" means.
    Well argued. I knew the 'correct' definition for sentience (and indeed, can't imagine anyone getting past the SATs without that level of vocab) and the "scifi" connotations are strong enough that putting it that way skews it. For extra-oomph, use sentient "beings" rather than "creatures"
    I will, in fact, do this experiment in my Toastmasters club. Will you do one for me? Find someone, preferably unarmed, without a ton of scientific knowledge. Ask them, "What would you say if I told you I eat sentient beings?"
    DM- I, for one, don't think humans are exactly like non-humans. Nor do I think eagles are exactly like non-eagles. Let's assume that, given a related but somewhat different world, sentience could have evolved in eagle-like creatures. Do you really think they wouldn't all be sitting around saying "Of course we can eat humans! Anything that doesn't have advanced vision by definition can't have real perception like ours. I mean sure they can see, but they can't really *do* much with that."
    Do you really think that if the Formics came, and we're grappling with whether they meet OUR definitions and getting ready for xenocide, they won't be assuming that the mosquitos are the beings sending out the radio signals? Do you really think our physical appearance is so different from bonobos that they will immediately identify us a very distant relative? (If so, take a look at Ed Yong's post today on yellow fish and tell me that we aren't evolved to pay attention to the differences between our species and others and therefore by our natures going to have blind spots about how similar we are?)
    Geeze DM. Do you EVER even ASK yourself about your assumptions?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    yes becca I do. Just about every day. how about you? somehow I doubt it...
    your science fiction scenarios* are trite because they are premised on a fundamental flaw in the argument. can you spot it?
    *don't get me wrong. I like to read that stuff too. and occasionally it has some real world relevance. but that doesn't change objective reality. no matter how totally much cooler Brin's world of Uplift would be...

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Becca, I can do one better. I can tell them I butcher them for food. Rather than let them starve. I can also tell them I've killed sentient beings I had no intention of eating because it was a less painful death than they'd have experienced if I'd released them in another animal's territory.
    I'm well aware of what goes into my being a predator. It isn't a decision I made out of ignorance. It isn't a decision I made passively. It isn't one I'm going to explain to you in detail, because it's my decision, not yours, just as I would never urge you to eat meat (unless you were harming yourself by refusing). And it's made.

  • Jimbo Jones says:

    Vicki, @28:
    Self awareness isn't that hard to test, but it isn't black and white either.
    Stick an toddler in front of a mirror. Given a short period of time, they figure out that the other toddler is, in fact, its self reflected. Now take the mirror away for a while, draw a red dot on the toddler's face where it can't see. When you re-introduce the mirror, the toddler has to re-establish what it looks like, so it takes a little longer. At that point, the toddler usually tries to rub the mark off.
    This has been done on primates, and it generally takes five minutes for the brighter primates to realise that the other primate with a mark on its face is a reflection, and thus attempt to remove the mark. So primates show some degree of self-awareness... but taking five minutes to recognise that other being is your own reflection doesn't show much self-awareness.
    This, though, means that if you base the ethicalness of using research subjects on self-awareness, that it becomes a murky soup of greys. Are primates self-aware enough to warrant different treatment? Personally, I say no.
    None of this, of course, warrants terrorist tactics.

  • Brian Slaby says:

    "This has been done on primates, and it generally takes five minutes for the brighter primates to realise that the other primate with a mark on its face is a reflection, and thus attempt to remove the mark. So primates show some degree of self-awareness... but taking five minutes to recognise that other being is your own reflection doesn't show much self-awareness."
    I'm curious whether the researchers who conduct these experiments address the assumption that a given animal actually cares if it has a dot on itself. After all, when cats get dirty they generally put a lot of effort into grooming themselves, thus it's reasonable to assume that they actually care. Dogs, on the other hand, rarely seem concerned about being dirty; in fact, it's not uncommon for them to roll around in the mud if they're not dissuaded from doing so.
    I know it's not exactly the same situation, but it's a fairly clear example of 2 different species responding very differently to a given situation. The point is, just because humans and chimps care that they have a dot on themselves doesn't mean that every sentient (or self-aware) species does.
    Also, isn't it just as reasonable to assume that chimps (who take longer to try and remove the dot) care less about the dot as it is to assume that they're self-aware to a lesser extent?

  • Epistaxis says:

    I'm sorry you're more familiar with sci-fi than philosophy, but people who think about these things a lot need different words to talk about sentience vs. sapience. There are plenty of reasons to hate animal-rights terrorists, but don't get your panties in a bunch just because you and they hang with different crowds that use different jargon.

  • Hermenauta says:

    I like the concept of AR, albeit I probably don´t qualify as an AR militant (since I, like many brazilians, enjoy meat a lot).
    Yet it fails me to see how it would be less problematic to us as sentient beings to inflict pain in non-sentient, but pain-aware, animals, since we as sentient beings are fully aware of what pain is and can have empathy enough to know the suffering of an animal subjected to pain.
    I think this is the core of the ethical problem here.

  • prasad says:

    Oh for heaven's sake. 'A: Nonhuman animals feel pain and suffer' is a much *easier* sell than 'B: Nonhuman animals are self-aware and rational'.
    So, on your account, the evil, disingenuous, genius strategy that the ARA's have hit upon is to use a word in a sense different from how (you claim) most understand it, and whose effect is to make those people reject ARA-type thoughts more strongly, since they're being made to swallow the less plausible claim.
    Can anyone believe this bizarre thing? What on earth could ARAs possibly gain by seeming to defend an even harder claim before a hostile audience?
    Let me suggest a simpler and less crazy story. Philosophers have always used the words 'sentient' and 'sapient' in ways consistent with their Latin etymologies. As academic philosophy started examining animal rights issues, it naturally carried over those terms to the discussion. Many ARAs have read people like Peter Singer, and have in turn internalized the terms of the academic discourse. See? Much simpler, no evil genius, and even better, no idiotic evil genius.
    Also what Becca said at #9.

  • Nice strawman.
    Domestic cruelty to animals is a criminal act in most states, and a felony in some, depending on the severity of the cruelty.
    This ship has long sailed.
    Give it up and grow up.

  • dryad says:

    In light of what is now known about the ability of certain plants to perceive the difference between self and an attacker and initiate a defensive response tailored to a variety of attackers, it is arguable that these plants demonstrate a form of sentience. It is also worth noting that while defending against an attacker, resources throughout the entire plants can be diverted from growth to defence.
    It is also arguable that defining sentience as being unique to organisms with a central nervous system is needlessly anthropocentric. Sentience can be more broadly defined as the ability to distinguish self from non-self and having the ability to defend self from a source of injury.
    This said, sentience should not be used as the basis for possessing rights. Membership in a group and the ability to respond to and respect the rights of others in the group of membership are far more important requisites for possessing rights than mere sentience.

  • prasad says:

    Oh for heaven's sake. 'A: Nonhuman animals feel pain and suffer' is a much *easier* sell than 'B: Nonhuman animals are self-aware and rational'.
    So, on your account, the evil, disingenuous, genius strategy that the ARA's have hit upon is to use a word in a sense different from how (you claim) most understand it, and whose effect is to make those people reject ARA-type thoughts more strongly, since they're being made to swallow the less plausible claim.
    Can anyone believe this bizarre thing? What on earth could ARAs possibly gain by seeming to defend an even harder claim before a hostile audience?
    Let me suggest a simpler and less crazy story. Philosophers have always used the words 'sentient' and 'sapient' in ways consistent with their Latin etymologies. As academic philosophy started examining animal rights issues, it naturally carried over those terms to the discussion. Many ARAs have read people like Peter Singer, and have in turn internalized the terms of the academic discourse. See? Much simpler, no evil genius, and even better, no idiotic evil genius.
    Also what Becca said at #9.

  • Dale Husband says:

    Nice strawman. Domestic cruelty to animals is a criminal act in most states, and a felony in some, depending on the severity of the cruelty. This ship has long sailed. Give it up and grow up.

    With a totally shallow and rediculous statement like that, how can this animal rights zealot be expected to be taken seriously here? What specific examples of animal cruelty by researchers can he give, if any?

  • Animals already have legal rights, regardless of bloggers navel-gazing about 'sentience.'
    The issue of 'sentience' is as irrelevant as "African" or 'Caucasian" in a job interview.
    You're stuck in the 1930s.

  • The Raven says:

    I remember science fiction writer CJ Cherryh once commenting that the word for intelligence is "sapience;" the word for feeling is "sentience." Ummm...the OED gives cites back to 1632 for that usage of sentient.
    I don't think you're going to win this one.
    Croak!

  • Dale Husband says:

    Animals already have legal rights, regardless of bloggers navel-gazing about 'sentience.' The issue of 'sentience' is as irrelevant as "African" or 'Caucasian" in a job interview. You're stuck in the 1930s.

    And you are stuck in saying nothing useful about nothing useful, including the animal rights movement. It is anti-human and therefore you are a traitor to the human species.

  • David Jentsch says:

    To briefly address Mr. Watts last point, the philosophical arguments against animal use (whether in research or for food) are, of course, quite inter-twined with the concept of sentience; you can see this articulated at length by Drs. Jones and Greek when they participated in the Panel Discussion on the Ethics and Science of Animal-Based Research at UCLA (http://www.pro-test-for-science.org/feb2010panel.html). It also bears mentioning that this concept figures pretty centrally into Peter Singer's early arguments, as well.
    Putting the word aside for the moment, it seems simple-minded to conclude that animal use is unethical just because they are capable of feeling pleasure and pain, and therefore, of establishing preferences. Indeed, do we really think that sentience (and consciousness, to which this phenomena is somewhat related) is determined by our ability to feel pain? I don't think so. I think a better, though still weak, case could be made for sentience being linked to the ability to experience the subjective consequences of pleasure and pain (happiness and sadness, for example), but of course, these things are exceptionally more difficult to assess. The strongest argument comes if one articulates a position that some animals exhibit multi-dimensional manifestations of cognitive and socioemotional function that underlie their ability to function as a "moral actor" (as Janet Stemwedel nicely put it) in society.
    Overall, a strong ethical challenge to animal use is hinged on the idea that the criteria for "moral relevance" being used to justify it are arbitrary in light of the strong similarity of socioemotional and cognitive processes (and linked moral relevance) between humans and higher animals. Crucially, I think the data does not support that view. Indeed, this recent article really takes this issue on directly and provides (*gasp*) data to rebut some of the long-made arguments about the relationships between human and primate cognition (Penn et al. [2008] Darwin's mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behav Brain Sci. 31(2):109-30; discussion 130-178). Simply put, they are overstated.
    So, "sentience" or not... it's a word. What matters are the concepts that one thinks matters in light of these ethical arguments. Everyone should struggle to think that matter through for themselves and not hide behind a word that - as DM has argued - is (at best) narrowly construed by those opposed to animal use.

  • David says:

    So much deliberation over a word. Most of you commenters and the author should spend some quality time with animals before judging them, which its clear, you have not. Animals share a great deal with humans, family responsibilities, hierarchy, and their own language and instincts superior to humans. The average pet dog knows more English words than people know of dog expressions. Clear inequity. Koko the guerilla knows over 2,000 English words and she communicates her likes and loves and preferences clearly. There is an unexplained superiority implicit in most of the dickering here. Lack of understanding animals leads to lack of regard for their lives. Animals are personas. Is it too hard to get the message sent by the killer whale in a splashing pool? Respect their lives.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    And here I thought the message sent by the orca was, "I'm too dumb to tell the difference between the person who feeds me and food."

  • Cleveland says:

    Most of you commenters and the author should spend some quality time with animals before judging them, which its clear, you have not.
    What a joke. The people who spend the most time with a vast array of species are 1) farmers, 2) "exhibition" folks- circuses, zoos and 3) animal researchers.
    Many of these people have pets at home as well.
    They have a tremendous amount of respect and affection for animals. A knowledgeable respect.
    Their understanding of what animals are and are not is informed by direct and in many cases daily experience.
    Have you ever been responsible for the care of an orca or dolphin? For a chimpanzee or gorilla? For an african grey parrot? Have you ever raised a human child?
    Or are you just making stuff up about which you know nothing whatsoever?

  • angela says:

    I believe you are over-analyzing the use of the word "sentient." It isn't necessary to believe that animals have human-like consciousness in order to want to reduce the pain and suffering of living things. Is it "wrong" to be sensitive to the suffering of nonhuman animals; to have a highly developed sense of empathy and compassion? I'm not talking about those who engage in extremist activities, but some of you seem to extend your bile to anyone who would prefer that animals be treated as humanely as possible and rationalize your stance by making some rather dubious and unscientific statements. There is no current method I know of to determine whether a species or individual animal is "self-aware" or "conscious." We tend to define self-awareness in human terms. Most of all, I am surprised that many who are commenting here, who I assume are scientists in some form (like me), do not seem to understand that much of human behavior is unconscious. The more research is done on the subject, the more we see that there is no magic threshold between humans and non-humans. It surprises me that any scientist would think there is! Here are two recent examples concerning fish, which most would toss into non-sentient category (if used in the narrow definition you propose).
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090616205515.htm
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090430161242.htm
    Non-human animals exhibit mental processes such as cognition, learning, sense, and perception. Even if they are not "conscious" or introspective as humans are, it is enough for me to know that they feel pain and suffer. I do understand the need for animal experimentation; it's just that I and others would prefer that more attention be paid to humane living conditions and pain management. An example would be rats. I have had about ten domestic rats over the past four years. Each has had a very distinct personality, which very much surprised me. They are intelligent social animals. Seeing one in a bare tank or laboratory bothers me much more than seeing a mouse in the same situation.
    I want to add that, in Buddhism, the term "sentient beings" is used to apply to all animals, down to the tiniest gnat. Most people I know do not use "sentient" in the narrow sense you propose in this post. And certainly not in any way meant to somehow boondoggle people into caring about animal suffering. Plain and simple, they just care about animal suffering, whether or not the animal has some neurological characteristics indicative of "self-awareness."
    One final thing--often people accuse animal-lovers as caring more about animals than humans. well, so what if they do? What makes the human species any more deserving of "care" than non-human species if we are all animals? After all, there are millions of interesting animal species. I find many humans to be unintelligent, loathsome creatures despite their potential for "self-awareness" and "consciousness."

  • dryad says:

    Remember this, reader of this blog: the misanthrope is an ugly and loathsome creature who, given its attitude toward others of its own kind, prefers to live in a cave filled with gnats, rats, and the fleas of a thousand camels.
    O woe! O terrible!

  • Mijnheer says:

    Wow. You get your definitions from Star Trek and then accuse AR advocates of being disingenuous because they use the term "sentience" correctly?
    Here's what the Oxford English Dictionary says:
    Sentience: "The condition or quality of being sentient, consciousness, susceptibility to sensation."
    Sentient: "That feels or is capable of feeling; having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses."
    Here's what is said in the book Animals and Ethics: An Overview of the Philosophical Debate, by Angus Taylor:
    "Strictly speaking, to be sentient is to have the power of perception by means of the senses. However, as employed in the debate about animals, the term typically refers to the capacity to experience pain or pleasure. Anything that is not able to experience pain or pleasure, the thinking goes, is not the sort of thing that can regard itself as being harmed or benefited by how others treat it. In particular, for the organic beings of this planet, having interests seems at a minimum to entail having a sensory capacity for pain or pleasure. This makes it not unreasonable to use the term 'sentience' to denote the capacity to experience some events as good or bad for oneself. What is crucial, however, are the mental states of suffering (either painful sensations or emotional distress) and pleasure (or happiness), whether or not these are the direct product of sensory input. After all, we might imagine a being that has no sensory capacity for pain or pleasure, but that can experience satisfaction or frustration, joy or grief, as the result of achieving or not achieving its goals. A conscious computer might qualify, or a disembodied intelligence: such a being would still have to be aware of its surroundings, though the assimilation of information about its environment might never in itself be painful or pleasurable. The point to bear in mind is that unless a creature can have an experience of things going well or ill for it, it is not the sort of creature that can be liberated."

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You get your definitions from Star Trek and then accuse AR advocates of being disingenuous because they use the term "sentience" correctly?
    hardly. When you have multiple "correct" definitions, connotations and percepts of a given word, as with "sentient", the question is how it is understood by a given audience when used in a certain context. So the point here is how your average, nonARA wackaloon person understands that term when it is used. I have yet to run into a person, other than AR discussants, who understand "sentient" to mean mere sensory perception.
    Given this confusion, if the AR people were trying for the most accurate communication of their points, they would simply use "sensation" or "sensory perception" or even "pain" as they used to do. The fact that they do not select a less-ambiguous way to refer to the perception of pain suggests quite strongly that the confusion is intentional. I.e., that they full well agree with me about the majority connotation and wish to communicate that particular meaning to the lay audience. All the while vigorously defending themselves against those of us who are paying attention by braying about the dictionary definition of sentience which limits it to sensory perception.

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