Sentience, in a broad sense, is the capacity to feel. In a narrower sense, it refers to the capacity to have feelings with a positive or negative quality, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, boredom, excitement, frustration, anxiety and joy. These feelings have the elusive property that philosophers like to call “phenomenal consciousness”. It feels like something to have them.
In recent years, an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers, drawn from neuroscience, comparative psychology, evolutionary biology, animal welfare science and philosophy, has begun to emerge. However, the field is characterized by foundational controversy over the nature of sentience and the criteria for its attribution, leading to heated debate over the presence or absence of sentience in fish and in invertebrates such as cephalopods (e.g. octopods, squid) and arthropods (e.g. bees, crabs).
The Foundations of Animal Sentience project (ASENT), a five-year ERC-funded project led by Dr Jonathan Birch, aims to find ways to resolve these debates. What is needed is a conceptual framework for thinking about sentience as an evolved phenomenon that varies along several dimensions, a deeper understanding of how these dimensions of sentience relate to measurable aspects of animal behaviour and the nervous system, and a richer picture of the links between sentience, welfare and the ethical status of animals.
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- Birch, J., Ginsburg, S. & Jablonka, E. (2021). The learning-consciousness connection. Biology & Philosophy 36, 49. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-021-09802-5
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Birch, J., & Crump, A. (2022). The lights and shadows of consciousness (Review of Seth, Being You). Current Biology, 32(14), R759-R761. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2022.06.055
Browning, H., & Veit, W. (2022). The sentience shift in animal research. The New Bioethics. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/20502877.2022.2077681
Birch, J. (2022). Sentience and the science-policy interface. Animal Sentience 6(31):10. https://doi.org/10.51291/2377-7478.1718
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Crump, A., Jenkins, K., Bethell, E. J., Ferris, C. P. & Arnott, G. (2022). Pasture access and eye temperature in dairy cows, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2022.2063020
Browning, H., & Veit, W. (2022). The importance of end-of-life welfare. Animal Frontiers, 12(1), 8–15. https://doi.org/10.1093/af/vfab078
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- Crump, A., Bethell, E. J., Earley, R., Lee, V. E., Mendl, M., Oldham, L., Turner, S. P., & Arnott, G. (2020). Emotion in animal contests. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 287, 20201715. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.1715
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Dr Jonathan Birch is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the LSE and Principal Investigator (PI) on the Foundations of Animal Sentience project. In addition to his interest in animal sentience, cognition and welfare, he also has a longstanding interest in the evolution of altruism and social behaviour. His book on this topic, The Philosophy of Social Evolution, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. In 2014, he was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize, which recognize “the achievement of outstanding researchers whose work has already attracted international recognition and whose future career is exceptionally promising”.
Dr Heather Browning is a postdoctoral researcher specialising in animal sentience, welfare science, and ethics. She received her PhD from the Australian National University, with a doctoral thesis exploring some philosophical issues in the measurement of animal welfare and sentience more generally. She has also worked as both a zookeeper and animal welfare officer, gaining experience in the use of methods of measuring and enhancing animal welfare in an applied institutional setting.
Dr Andrew Crump is a postdoctoral biologist fascinated by sentience, its adaptive value, and implications for welfare. With bees as a beguiling test-case, he is searching for cognitive indicators of animal sentience. Associative learning, perceptual illusions, and metacognition are his current best guesses. Before joining the ASENT project, Andrew completed a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast, exploring how human activity impacts animal cognition and emotion.
Sam Gibson grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He was awarded a BSc degree in Psychology through Science from Maynooth University, where he worked with Bryan Roche on his implicit bias test, the FAST (Function Acquisition Speed Test). After this Sam went on to earn an MSc in Animal Behaviour from the University of Exeter, during this time he conducted research into memory reconsolidation and flexibility in buff tailed bumblebees under the supervision of Natalie Hempel de Ibarra. Sam has an avid interest in animal emotional welfare and cognition, and is very excited to be joining the ASENT team as a research assistant.
Katariina Hynninen is a PhD student in the Foundations of Animal Sentience Project, and her background is in philosophy and biology. Katariina did her BA in Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Helsinki, and wrote her bachelor’s thesis about Descartes’ view of animal sentience and consciousness. She then did a MSc in Aquatic Biology at Hólar University, where she wrote her master’s thesis about the vocalized communication of killer whales. As a part of her master’s degree she also studied animal law at Aarhus University, and environmental law and biodiversity at the University of Akureyri. Katariina is interested in animal communication, language and evolutionary biology, especially in the vocalizing behaviour and communication of killer whales, and what may be inferred from their vocalizations about their sentience, cognitive capacities and emotions, lives and culture.
Eva read is starting her PhD in the Foundations of Animal Sentience project, in which she will primarily focus on the measurement of well-being. Eva has a BSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare from the University of Plymouth and an MSc in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter. She won the Ruth Harrison award from UFAW for her research on hunger in pregnant sows, and has worked in France with project SoundWel, investigating animal emotions through vocalisations. Eva is excited to be part of the ASENT team, as she aims to help facilitate academic agreement and responsible policy regarding animal sentience and welfare.
Charlotte Lockwood is finishing her Masters in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Queen Mary, University of London. Charlotte has a BSc in Biology with Psychology at QMUL. She has some intensive experience with bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) and has worked as a Research Technician in Professor Lars Chittka’s bee Lab. Charlotte is thrilled to join the ASENT team as a Research Assistant, wishing to continue her studies with the aim to become a Behavioural Ecologist.
Matthias Michel is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at LSE. He completed his PhD in philosophy of science at Sorbonne Université, followed by a postdoctoral research position at the Mind, Brain and Consciousness Center at New York University. He also worked as a postdoctoral researcher in experimental psychology at the Center for Cognition & Neurosciences, at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. His research focuses on the methodological foundations of the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness. He currently works on unconscious perception and cognition in human and non-human animal minds.
Kristin Andrews is York Research Chair in Animal Minds and Professor of Philosophy at York University, and she was elected to the College of the Royal Society of Canada in 2015. Her research is at the intersection of philosophy, social cognition, moral cognition, and animal cognition. She is the author of several books, including most recently How to Study Animal Minds (Cambridge 2020)—an argument for rethinking methods in comparative psychology; and The Animal Mind second edition (Routledge 2020) – a survey of how empirical work on animal minds can help to inform debates in the philosophy of mind. In recent years, she has contributed to policy discussions of the status of great apes in US law and digital research infrastructure for animal behavior in Canada. Andrews serves on the Board of Directors for The Borneo Orangutan Society Canada, which has the mission to promote conservation of orangutans and their habitat and to educate the public. She is currently writing a book on social norms, animal culture, and the consequences of recognizing other animals as members of communities with their own normative structures.
Eva Jablonka is a professor in the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv, a member of the Sagol School of Neuroscience, Tel-Aviv, and a Research Associate in the CPNSS (LSE, London University). She has a M.Sc. in Microbiology and a Ph.D in Genetics. Her main interests are the understanding of evolution, especially evolution that is driven by non-genetic hereditary variations, and the evolution of nervous systems and consciousness. Among her book: Epigenetic Inheritance and Evolution (OUP with Marion Lamb), Animal Traditions (CUP with Eytan Avital), Evolution in 4 Dimensions (MIT with Marion Lamb) and The evolution of the Sensitive Soul (MIT with Simona Ginsburg).
Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor and Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at New York University, where he also directs the Emotional Brain Institute. His work is focused on the brain mechanisms of emotion, memory, and consciousness. LeDoux has received a number of awards for his research, and is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences USA. He is also the author of several books, including The Emotional Brain, Synaptic Self, Anxious (2016 APA William James Book Award), and The Deep History of Ourselves. He is also the 2023 President-Elect of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. As a sideline, he is the lead singer and songwriter in the rock band, The Amygdaloids, and in the acoustic duo So We Are.
Walter Veit is a cognitive scientist and philosopher with interests stretching widely across science and philosophy. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Sydney under the supervision of Paul E. Griffiths (Charles Perkins Centre & Department of Philosophy), Peter Godfrey-Smith (School of History and Philosophy of Science), and externally Marian Stamp Dawkins (University of Oxford, Department of Zoology). His primary research interests are located at the intersection of the biological, social, and mind sciences in addition to empirically informed philosophy and ethics; and his dissertation reflects these interests in trying to develop an evolutionary approach to the science of animal consciousness. Before coming to Sydney, Walter worked at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh as a pre-doctoral fellow on metascience and the science of consciousness. You can find out more about his research here: www.walterveit.com
Professor Nicky Clayton FRS is the Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK and a Fellow of Clare college, Cambridge. She is a Visiting Professor at the Nanging University's Institute of Technology (from 2018), Beijing University of Language and Culture (from 2019) and Honorary Professor at Hangzhou Diangi University (from 2019). She is particularly interested in the processes of thinking with and without words, and comparisons between the cognitive abilities of corvids (members of the crow family), cephalopods (e.g. cuttlefish and octopus) and children. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2010. She is also Scientist-in-Residence at Rambert (formerly Ballet Rambert), a position she has held since 2011. In terms of publications, she has an H index of 80.
Matilda Gibbons is a PhD Student in the Bee Sensory and Behavioural Ecology Lab at Queen Mary University of London. She has a BSc in Neuroscience from King’s College London, where she researched chronic pain in mice at the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases. For her PhD, she looks at the behavioural and neural indicators of pain in insects. Matilda has tested for behavioural indicators such as motivational trade-offs, wound-tending and pain behaviours in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris). She is also interested in the neural underpinnings of motivational trade-off behaviour and modulation of nociception, and researched this at the Francis Crick Institute in the Neural Circuits and Evolution lab, using fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster).
Simona Ginsburg (“Moncy”) is a retired associate professor from The open University of Israel, in which she headed the Biological Thought Program in philosophy of biology, theoretical biology and bioethics. She has a B.Sc. in Chemistry (Technion, Israel) and a D.Phil. in Physiological Sciences (Oxford University). Her past interests were artificial membranes, neurobiology of synapses and the stochastics of ion channels. Her more recent interests are the evolution of early nervous systems and the evolutionary transitions to consciousness in the animal world. Her book The evolution of the Sensitive Soul (MIT, with Eva Jablonka) was published in 2019.
Elli Leadbeater is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research focuses around the evolution of social insect societies, from both a proximate and an evolutionary perspective, and her primary research models are social bees (Bombus and Apis). Current interests include the evolution of communication in honeybee societies, ecological circumstances that favour the evolution of learning and memory, and insect conservation. Previously, she also worked extensively on insect social cognition, and on the evolution of sociality in primitively eusocial groups.
Dr Alexandra Schnell is a Research Fellow of Darwin College and a Research Associate in the Comparative Cognition Lab at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests centre around complex learning and memory mechanisms in animals and how these abilities have evolved across diverse taxa. Her primary model species include cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish, and squid) and corvids (members of the crow family) but she also has experience working with elephants, freshwater fish, and juvenile crocodiles. In addition to her interest in cognitive evolution, she also has an interest in sensory ecology, neuro-ethology, sentience, and welfare. Alex’s background is in marine biology, having gained a B.A. in Marine Science at the University of Sydney in 2007. She completed her Ph.D. on the behavioural ecology of giant cuttlefish at Macquarie University in 2015. Following that, she held several post-doctoral positions and was based at two leading cephalopod research facilities including the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, USA and the Centre de Recherches en Environnement Côtier in Normandy, France. Alex currently holds a Newton International Fellowship funded by the Royal Society.