Sentience is Everywhere: Indeed, It’s an Inconvenient Truth

Aug 18, 2017 by

The science of consciousness has dethroned humanity from a simplistic hierarchy.

Many scientists now argue that sentient animals are aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being.
Photo Credit: Tory Kallman/Shutterstock

“The science of consciousness has dethroned humanity from the simplistic pyramid we have thus far based our actions on, and opened a new way of viewing and engaging with life around us.”

So begins a very interesting and important essay publish in The Wire by Arita Joshi called “Studies in Sentience Tell Us Ours is a World of Many Centres.” Ms. Joshi’s piece is available online and, in my opinion, should be required reading for people wanting to learn more about animal sentience and what it means for how we should interact with other animals. I hope it will gain a broad global readership. Here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more.

My seven year old nephew is looking for a flower in my garden thoughtfully, wisely, so he may not hurt too many of them. While doing so he spots a little earthworm who must have died a hot day past. He looks up to me and asks, “Why are we only plucking flowers for Bruno? Why does nobody get him flowers?” It is a rhetorical question as he moves decisively back and puts a magenta geranium on its heat shriveled body. He looks satisfied with this action and then he turns up to me, smiles gently to say he’s ready. [Bruno was Ms. Joshi’s spaniel companion of thirteen years.]

After writing some about Bruno’s passing and the grieving and consolation process, Ms. Joshi writes, “Part of the grieving and consolation process is a memorial, a space in which we try and remember how the world was made richer through the presence of a person in our lives. I wonder, like my nephew, where the line in the sand is drawn. How does one measure who is bestowed with the dignity of remembrance?” What an incredibly important question.

Researchers and others have been pondering, and continue to ponder, the nature of animal grief. Indeed, line drawing has turned out to be risky business as we learn more and more about the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of other animals. Comparative research is showing how many people have written off other animals as not being able to do this or that, or feel this or that, only to be proven wrong by solid empirical data. Concerning grieving, it’s clear that many other animals grieve and we are not alone in this arena of feeling (for more on this topic please see note 1).

Concerning Bruno’s obsession with toasted bread, dislike for puddles and supposed refusal to be trained, Ms. Joshi goes on to write, “The attempts were made by a professional police dog trainer, who in despair pulled out his hair and declared him ‘untrainable’ even as we later discovered that Bruno understood all commands perfectly well to his convenience. These were not anthropomorphic attributes. These were very real experiences of living with an urbanised dog and quite clearly all spaniels do not display these exact similar quirks.” Once again, research has shown that many other animals are fully aware of what is going on around them and, in the case of our companions, fully know what it is expected of them. On occasion, they simply don’t care and we are wrong to assume that they’re “stupid” or “untrainable.”

Science is slowly catching up with what so many people already know

Ms. Joshi continues writing about some of her own experiences and notes, “I had been rescuing and living with animals for a long while when I first began coming across these assertions of science. From raising rainbow-coloured butterflies to smuggling stunned and broken birds into my hostel room, I had known in experience what science was finally proving.”

Along these lines, Ms. Joshi writes, “In a 2016 interview, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental and forest biology and author of Gathering Moss, stated: “I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have extraordinary capacities, which are so unlike our own, (…) in fact, they’re sensing their environment, responding to their environment in incredibly sophisticated ways. (…) we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.” [Ms. Kimmerer’s essay is called “The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life.”]

When I write essays and books I keep track of whether scientific studies support or disprove what so many people “already know.” There are far more checks in the “support” column. To be sure, comparative scientific research has fine-tuned the knowledge base and provided many new details, but so much of what seems to be common knowledge and common sense has survived careful comparative research.

The knowledge translation gap

Concerning what we know about the minds and cognitive and emotional capacities of other animals, one problem remains. As Jessica Pierce and I point out in The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, the big problem is the failure of scientists and others to use what we already know on behalf of other animals. We call this the knowledge translation gap, and it specifically refers to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. On the broad scale, it means that what we now know about animal cognition and emotion has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices.

A great example of the knowledge translation gap is found in the wording of the Federal Animal Welfare Act, which explicitly excludes rats and mice from kingdom Animalia (even though a first grader knows that rats and mice are animals). In post-election parlance, we could also call the AWA’s slip up an “alternative fact.” (For more on the idiocy of the AWA’s misclassification of rats, mice, and other animals please see “The Animal Welfare Act Claims Rats and Mice Are Not Animals,” and for more discussion of the knowledge translation gap please see “Animals Need More Freedom and Clearly Let Us Know This is So.”)

Sentience has become an inconvenient truth: We are not alone in the community of sentient beings 

After showing how we are not alone in the sentience arena, Ms. Joshi writes, “In this scenario, sentience is an additional inconvenient truth to the many that are stocking up against the current zeitgeist. It pulls aside the curtains of profound desensitisation, of othering, that reduces both nature and humanity to a dangerously disempowering passivity and pushes us to reconsider the outcomes of our actions.”

Ms.Joshi concludes, “As Brecht’s Galileo says, it allows our imagination to split open to a world of ‘countless centres’, one in which ‘there is a lot of room’ to coexist and grow.”

Ms. Joshi is right on the mark. Sentience is all around us and we are not alone in community of sentient beings. We need to stop pretending we are the sole inhabitants of this arena that confers protection on humans from all sort of speciesistic abuse because we conveniently place ourselves on the top of a mythical pyramid. (For more discussion please see “Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism,” “A Universal Declaration on Animal Sentience: No Pretending,” “The Charter for Animal Compassion for Non-Humans and Humans,” and essays and commentaries in Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling.)

And, quoting the renowned poet, Mary Oliver,” Ms. Joshi writes, “Mary Oliver, in the poem Her Grave, writes: ‘A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.’ A culture of humility and respect, of awe and compassion for the myriad forms of sentience, would only enrich, not deplete, our humanity.”

What a powerful conclusion to a very special essay. Clearly, I really like this piece and have reread it a number of times. I’m sure I’ll go back to it again and again. The life of every single individual matters. As I wrote above, I hope it receives a broad global audience.

Nonhuman animals and marginalized humans need all the help they can get. This essay could go a long way in leveling the playing field and adding more compassion and empathy to a world that is sorely in need of peaceful coexistence and respect and love for others.NOTES

1. “Grief in animals: It’s arrogant to think we’re the only animals who mourn,” “Grief, Mourning, and Broken Hearted Animals,” “Grieving Animals: Saying Goodbye to Friends and Family,” and “How Animals Grieve: Saying Goodbye to Family and Friends” in which I discuss Dr. Barbara King’s book called How Animals Grieve.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

Marc Bekoff’s latest book is The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is

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