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.
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”.
Heather Browning is a final-year PhD student in philosophy at the Australian National University. Her research examines some 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. In September she will join the ASENT project as a postdoctoral researcher specialising in animal sentience, welfare science, and ethics.
Andrew Crump is a final-year Ph.D. student in the School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast. His research aims to identify cognitive and behavioural indicators of animal sentience and welfare. Andrew has experience studying primates, livestock, fish, and crustaceans. In September, he will join the ASENT Project as a postdoctoral researcher specialising in invertebrate cognition and neuroscience.
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.
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).