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Animality: slippery stuff (continued…)

Updated: Mar 22




Following on from my last blog, this week I wanted to talk about a possible shift in awareness that can perhaps be the influence of a truly remarkable thing that occurred on 7 July 2012. At a Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, a group of prominent international scientists and experts in the field announced and signed a proclamation declaring human and animal consciousness the same. Called The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, it says:


‘The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that nonhuman animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.’ (Low, 2012)


I’m not sure I understand this entirely, but I can certainly grasp its essence as an acknowledgement that a significant percentage of nonhuman animals, vertebrates and invertebrates are conscious sentient beings – they have a capacity to experience what happens to them and possess positive and negative mental states.




 

Could this go some way towards overturning human perceptions of nonhuman animals and their identity? Since the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, we have seen an increased awareness of animal consciousness, with debates covering all areas of animals’ lives and environmental issues, causing a slight shift in our thinking around hierarchies.




On 14 March 2021, the UK Government introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill and established the Animal Welfare Committee to examine and report on whether ‘the welfare of animals as sentient beings’ is considered in policy decisions. The Bill was updated in November 2021 to include cephalopod molluscs, such as octopi, and decapod crustacea, such as lobsters and crabs, as sentient beings (2021, p.2).

 

That Bill was passed as UK legislation on 28 April 2022. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 makes  provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings. The Act states:

 

When any government policy is being or has been formulated or implemented, the Animal Sentience Committee may produce a report containing its views on, whether, or to what extent, the government is having, or has had, all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.’ This is for the purpose of ‘ensuring that, in any further formulation or implementation of the policy, the government has all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings’. (Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, c.22).

 

The Government describes animal sentience as ‘the capability to experience pain, distress and harm’ (Ares, 2022, p.10). It provides no definition of animal sentience, although there is room for progression as Lord Benynon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, explained: ‘We decided not to include a fixed definition of sentience in the Bill, because “sentience” is a term heavily influenced by the latest scientific understanding and so risks becoming rapidly out of date. Our scientific understanding of sentience has come a long way in recent years and will continue to evolve.’ (Ares, 2022, p.10). 

 

For me, this is welcome progress but it does not fully reflect the recommendations of the London School of Economic and Political Science (LSE), which was commissioned by the Government to review the evidence specially in relation to cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans, and published an extensive explanation of animal sentience:

 

Sentience […] is the capacity to have feelings. Feelings may include, for example, feelings of pain, distress, anxiety, boredom, hunger, thirst, pleasure, warmth, joy, comfort, and excitement […] A sentient being is “conscious” in the most elemental, basic sense of the word. It need not be able to consciously reflect on its feelings, as we do, or to understand the feelings of others: to be sentient is simply to have feelings. (Birch et al, 2021. p.12)

 

Perhaps if the Government were to adopt a comprehensive definition of animal sentience, such as that provided by the LSE, this might go some way in providing a framework by which animal sentience is recognised and understood by industry and society generally.

 

This is where artists can step in to help open eyes and minds to other ways of thinking about animals.

 




 

Bibliography


Amin, H.U, Malik, A.S, Saad, M.N.M, Tyng, C.M (2017), The Influences of Emotional Learning, [Internet] Available at:  https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454/full  [Accessed: December 2022].


Bekoff, M (2000) Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures: Current Interdisciplinary Research Provides Compelling Evidence That Many Animals Experience Such Emotions As Joy, Fear Love, Despair and Grief – We are Not Alone. Bioscience, [Internet] Available at: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/50/10/861/233998 [Accessed: January 2022].


Braidotti, R (2020) “We” may be in this together, but we are not all human and we are not one and the same. Utrecht: Ecocene. [Internet] Available at: https://doi.org/10.46863/ecocene.2020.3. [Accessed: November 2022].


Derrida, J. (2008) The Animal That Therefore I am. New York: Fordham University Press.





 

 

 

 

 

 



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