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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- Crump, A., Jenkins, K., Bethell, E.J. et al. (2021). Optimism and pasture access in dairy cows. Sci Rep 11, 4882 . https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-84371-x
- Birch, J. (2020). The search for invertebrate consciousness. Noûs. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/nous.12351
- Birch, J., Schnell, A. K., & Clayton, N. S. (2020). Dimensions of animal consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24, 789-801. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2020.07.007
- Birch, J., Ginsburg, S. & Jablonka, E. (2020). Unlimited Associative Learning and the origins of consciousness: a primer and some predictions. Biology and Philosophy, 35, 56. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-020-09772-0
- 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
- Veit, W., & Browning, H. (2020). Perspectival pluralism for animal welfare. European Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13194-020-00322-9
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.