Animal sentience:
the real omnivore's dilemma

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Animal sentience: the real omnivore's dilemma

By Nathan Rivas on This Dish Is Veg, November 2011

However, many an omnivore will debate to what degree animals feel—thereby questioning their level of sentience. As a species, we regularly hold our kind as inherently "special," and superior to any other animal on Earth. This is convenient, as it permits us to distance ourselves from the reality of our choices, justifying our treatment of animals for comparatively insignificant reasons (i.e. fur/leather, lunch, and lipstick.)

There are many reasons one would choose to go vegan—and many justifications in opposition. Often, the argument for each "side" involves discussions of health, the environment, and ethics. The latter, the moral argument, is rife with misunderstandings, disbelief and intensely emotional debates. Accusations of anthropomorphism are common, and no one really gets anywhere. What do we accomplish in these discussions? Our treatment of animals does not often progress in meaningful ways, because we haven't truly addressed the bias in our perception of animal sentience.

There are few, if any, rational humans who would argue animals cannot feel. However, many an omnivore will debate to what degree animals feel—thereby questioning their level of sentience. As a species, we regularly hold our kind as inherently "special," and superior to any other animal on Earth. This is convenient, as it permits us to distance ourselves from the reality of our choices, justifying our treatment of animals for comparatively insignificant reasons (i.e. fur/leather, lunch, and lipstick.)

Without these rationalizations, making the conscious choice to consider animals purely as a resource, as disposable fancies, would become impossible to the reasonable person. We could not ignore the pain we inflict in our treatment of those animals of who we exploit to satisfy such whims. Our entire perception of non-human animals is terribly broken—this is true for omnivores and vegans. We bicker about how physiology "tells" us to eat, how our evolutionary history demands we eat, and (most importantly) how we judge what animals think and feel.

Let's get the evolutionary argument out of the way—the argument over the foods humans evolved eating. Ultimately, this is meaningless and a distractive discussion. This is popular, non-thinking reactionary argument whenever one approaches the subject of animal exploitation—specifically the topic of eating animals. Humans behaved in many ways during our evolution from our earliest species, Homo erectus, and it is subjective to choose a single evolutionary trend to justify any argument. If we cherry pick one behavior, how can we ignore another? Within this same direction of thought, we could as easily justify cannibalism—common practice to fulfill both nutritional and ceremonial needs as recently as seven-thousand years ago (this is behavior of the Homo sapiens, mind you, not some distant evolutionary relative.)

Modern humans choose not to eat one another out of our societal constructs of morality—have the neighbor for dinner is frowned upon. Yet, this is no more logical than choosing not to eat animals out of another moral construct. There is biology, and there is the lucky stroke (evolutionary speaking) of human choice—the latter being the best and the worst quality of our species. Biologically, the human can thrive on a vegan or omnivore diet, and it's an endless and non-productive loop to argue otherwise.

A related debate we like to have revolves around dietary supplementation. Omnivores are fond of stating vegans have to supplement to get their nutrients, and vegans like to talk about not needing to filter our nutrients through another animal. Both answers are equally as useless, because anyone who eats a balanced diet is engaging in "supplementation." I get my B12 from nutritional yeast, because it tastes awesome on everything from kale to popcorn. I don't call this "supplementing" a shortcoming in my diet anymore than an omnivore considers eating a salad "supplementing" a shortcoming in theirs (as they cannot survive on an entirely animal-based diet.)

Then, there is the environmental debate over animal products versus the vegan diet. Well, the facts screw the omnivore on that one. We can't deny the environmental benefits of veganism, but this doesn’t always accomplish much when discussing the issue with omnivores. More than once, a random person has confronted me for disposing of a coffee cup (or whatever) in regular trashcan, instead of hunting for a recycle bin, (hey, it's Seattle.) Never once have I gotten a "yes" when I've asked in response if they're vegan. Animal products account for the widest margin of environmental degradation, which is both funny and sad for the environmentalists who refuse to adopt change where it makes the most difference, in their diet.

These arguments remove the focus from the most important part of this debate—unifying our treatment of animals with what we know of their emotional capacity.

How do we explain why otherwise decent humans are capable of exploiting animals, directly or indirectly? The ability to create justifications for our behavior is the rot in our ethics, and we've long since become accustomed to perceiving our species as superior by marveling endlessly at our ability to think, feel, create and reason. From these exercises in self-gratitude, we extrapolate the validation that we may do with other species whatever we may rationalize. There is little, however, we may quantify to explain how we're inherently "better" than any other animal.

I get it; I used to be that person. Most of us start out life with the expectation that we unquestioningly continue to exploit animals—indirectly or with direct complicity. Ingrained into most of human culture is the expressed permission to do with other species as we please, we're indoctrinated so deeply in this thought process that it is considered rude in the extreme to discuss how animals end up on our plates, in our glasses and in our closets. It is societal taboo to discuss what we force others to endure. Ask an omnivore to talk about this with you (usually after they've initiated the rhetorical, "why are you vegan," question,) and the probability is good that they'll respond defensively. Quickly following this, they flail at arguments that minimize the feelings of animals, regulating them to mindless instinctive reactionaries, and reflexively state that humans are inherently better for X reasons, i.e. animals can't knit sweaters, write a sonnet, or whatever random skill relevant only to humans comes to mind. If we can't prove sentience in animals by measuring their ability to navigate human tasks and interests, then we label them as devoid of awareness.

We are preoccupied with proving—or perhaps disproving—the sentience of animals. When presented with evidence of animals behaving in ways that conflict with our perception of them as automatons of biological imperatives, we prefer to categorize their actions in strictly evolutionary terms. They act out of adaptive behavior, competition for resources, the drive to mate, eat, herd or achieve hierarchical dominance. If an animal behaves in X way, it is simply because instinct commanded that they do so, thereby allowing the human to breathe another sigh of superior relief and continue secure in the belief animals do not think like us, therefore do not feel like us, and thus, do not suffer like us. If we believe an animal does not suffer as we do, we can consider their suffering minimal. Perhaps, as we separate them from their young, castrate them, skin them, or experiment upon them, their sensations and thoughts do not even *really* deserve attribution of the word "suffering."

The challenge is our measurement of sentience—entirely and conveniently compared in strictly human terms. It is a favored perception that we feel in a different and thus more complex manner than animals. The uncomfortable thought of comparing emotions of the human to other species is rife with implication on how we live our lives, and such a proposition often meets with all the hostility only a challenged morality can bring. The ensuing unthinking response often argues for the complexity of human emotion, the importance of these emotions, and their very mechanics evidence against any similar expressions in another species.

Why is our approach to proving sentience in animals a problem and what is really meant by "proof" in these terms? Well, science is not in the business of proving—it is actually critical that science never really proves anything. There is a big difference between proof and evidence, and this is where science "does its business." A scientist poses a hypothesis, and then a hypothesis that opposes the first—i.e. "when you hold a lit match to a paper, it will burn, or it will not." After lighting many, many papers, it is possible to say there is enough consistent evidence to argue for keeping lit matches away from paper. However, it still does not prove that the next paper will burn, only that there is enough evidence to argue that it will.

This is relevant, because at the center of the animal-emotion debate is the irony that we cannot prove our emotions exist at all. What we think of as emotion are series of chemical reactions, areas of our limbic cortex starting and stopping various substances, signaling reactions in our physiology that produce responses we interpret as love, anger, pleasure, etc. An external event, like a sudden fright, activates visual or auditory triggers of which corresponds to a specific response from your brain. The brain then sends activations across the nervous system to act accordingly—jumping back in surprise and/or taking HULKSMASH action.

You do not stop to ponder your fear, or wax philosophically of fear's meaning in the universe—you leap involuntarily in response to this emotion. Your brain cannot trust you to act quickly enough, and bypasses much of your thought processes in order to escape impending danger. The emotion of fear does not even occur to you until you've interpreted the signals given to you from your brain. Your brain creates emotions entirely in response to external stimulus—the same is true for pain and fear. When you've injured yourself, you do not compare your broken arm to all of the broken arms before and after. You are not wondering what Thomas Jefferson or Shakespeare would have said about your broken arm. You are simply in pain, and that is all you know.

How do we measure our own emotions if we cannot "prove" their existence? Scientifically, it is widely accepted that the brain is the source of all thoughts, actions and intelligence. Our emotions derive from the operations of various combinations of hormones and neurotransmitters. Our personalities develop from previous experiences that shape our brain. Particular fears or favors tailored to your individual experiences, eliciting specific neurochemical mixtures, interpreted by you and assigned a specific emotional response. Your cortex stores this emotion for future reference.

With each emotion registered, this involves different chemicals and regions of the brain. The limbic system, the hippocampus and amygdala are primary regions utilized to communicate the proper responses to the rest of our body systems. Our emotions that are essential for survival, fear, pain, hunger and such, and those more apparently complex, like love or hate, are all borne from combinations of the same chemicals. All thoughts, emotions and sensations are patterns of chemical and cell activity in various areas of the brain, yet you may interpret the same emotion in a multitude of ways; pleasure may express as mild amusement or something much more intense.

Emotional temperament is somewhat inheritable—children may display similar behaviors of their mother or father (i.e. stubbornness, etc.) A 30-year study conducted in Sweden of two-million families suggested an increased risk of bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia to first generation relatives of those diagnosed with either disease. Our moral center is governed by how we interpret the chemical triggers doled out from areas of our brain, and our cultural experiences have conditioned these responses as acceptable or unacceptable.

Yet, despite the knowledge that our emotions are not more than chemical-response, we would nonetheless argue that this does not diminish their importance to our lives. Even at the most basic levels—pleasure, pain, fear, happiness—we experience each of these from levels of chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The hormone oxytocin plays a significant role in love, trust and maternal affection. We're awash in mixtures of these chemicals when we are attracted to another, or when developing a bond of friendship. Ultimately, love is a chemical addiction, enabled by your brain as it doles out combinations of oxytocin and vasopressin. Over time, the brain adjusts these to increase the likelihood of a long-term pairing.

It's not that the brain is a romantic at its core; it's just its biologic imperative to maximize the probability of furthering the species. To continue a bit with this example, the emotion of love in the modern human society is an identity we've assigned to the sensation, and all the rest of its trappings are pure cultural influence. We only understand its meaning because a lifetime of societal conditioning has filled in the blanks for us.

Despite the fact that tangible emotions, love, anger, fear and such have no scientific validity (you cannot measure a sensation like love anymore than you can measure the blueness of the sky,), the reasonable person does not argue against their existence. We cannot verify that such emotions exist in another, but evolution clues us in on the non-verbal cues of other humans in a way that allows us to identify how they feel. We may not be able to communicate with a person of another culture, but we are reasonably sure we can understand how they love their children or mate. This is true even if we do not share a common language or culture.

The example of a language barrier is germane to how the omnivore refuses the possibility of animal sentience. There are innumerable words outside the English language that have no equivalency, words or phrases whose meaning does not translate. The French word, l'appel du vide is the instinct that strikes us to jump from a height, or the Japanese Honne and Tatemae, what we really believe about ourselves (the Honne) and the guise of which we put up to fool others (the Tatemae.) If you do not speak the language, you may think you have the gist of their intent, but you can never be certain you understand their meaning in their original dialect.

Similarly, words that have emotional significance in non-Western cultures do not have an English-equivalent. The Japanese ijirashi is the feeling of observing someone you respect overcoming a challenge—this is a sensation of which we cannot understand exactly, but nonetheless it is possible to come to a general comprehension of it.

The chemicals behind our emotions are not unique to humans. The relatively widely known body of research by anthropologist Dr. Helen E. Fischer, studying mammalian relationships extending from courtship to long-term monogamy (specifically in bird species and the prairie vole,) demonstrates increases in oxytocin, dopamine and vasopressin throughout. These chemicals vary in stages of their courtship and relationship—just as in the courtship and mate selection of Homo sapiens. Once they've chosen a mate, the prairie vole will maintain monogamy throughout their life, and create a family structure with dynamics that passed on to the next generation of voles. Curiously, the prairie vole male, unlike the male Homo sapiens, actually loses weight after choosing his mate and bearing children.

Animals share the same class of hormones; the same chemicals responsible for our emotions drive their behavior as well. We've assigned identities to these chemical reactions—anger, fear, love, etc—but these are names and meanings that are relative to our cultural experience as a species. Just as we cannot fully grasp the meaning of a phrase or word that does not translate to our language, we cannot say with certainty that we will ever comprehend what these same experiences mean to another species. This does not diminish their importance to the species of which experiences the emotion.

A significant degree of human emotion is in response to external stimulus. Animals experience the world with means we cannot grasp, hearing, seeing and feeling in ways to us is incomprehensible. An animal then, by extension, feels with an intensity that would surpass the human. We could no more understand the emotions triggered when a prairie vole spends time with their mate than we could expect to understand an expression that has no common language translation. As advanced as humanity has become in many aspects, these are species-specific innovations of no importance to any other life but our own. We naively (or egotistically) ignore this error in methodology and continue to attempt to measure the non-human animal by factors that to them, are meaningless.

We cannot assume that animals share the same interpretation of emotions, simply because they do not share the same societal restrictions of Homo sapiens. We know they share and produce the same chemicals that are responsible for our greatest feelings of pleasure and misery. Yet, just as we cannot scientifically quantify our own emotions, we are at an extreme disadvantage of measuring the emotions of animals simply because we do not share a common method of communication. The reasonable person understands the non-human animal has no interest in measuring himself or herself in the manner of which humans find meaningful. Would we compare a cheetah to a shark based upon how quickly the shark can run?

The obsession with measuring animal sentience against human "benchmarks" is further insufficient when we consider the differences in human and animal senses. Animals are capable of feats unfathomable to our species—the bat uses echolocation to navigate and hunt in complete darkness, the platypus flexes a muscle permitting electrical impulse detection (electroreception,) allowing it to "see" these fields generated by other life forms. The chimpanzee memory is superior to that of the human in numeric recall—outperforming human adults in direct memory tasks. We've yet to measure an animal with relevance to their species-specific experiences. Despite what we know of animals demonstrating characteristics we afford only to our own species, i.e. friendship, courtship, long-term monogamy, and mourning their dead, we are unable to grasp interpretation of emotion or self-awareness in another species.

We attempt to reason that we are superior out of our capacity for morality, and the omnivore is often quick to point out "cruel" actions of animals towards each other. This is opportune, as our species regularly resorts to violence for profit, pleasure or any number of reasons. We abandon our children (in some states, we've even legislated permission to do so,) engage in apartheid, genocide, slavery and torture for any number of "explanations." If animals commit their own acts of cruelty–and it is upon this that the omnivore justifies their exploitation—then the implications are even more severe for our own species. The human species posses the intelligence and choice to understand the implications of our acts, and yet we've never disappointed in our capability to commit atrocities against our own kind.

By reconsidering our notions of animals, and evaluating their species based upon what we know of the cognitive root of emotions, we cannot deny the ethical implication in the exploitation of animals. If we are to rise to the promise of our species, we must confront the moral question of our treatment of animals. None of us could deny they feel pain and fear—we know now that they feel a spectrum of emotions akin to our own. How does the omnivore reconcile their argument of humans as the superior evolutionary beings, except when it comes to ethics? Then suddenly we're nothing more than biologic imperatives, fully justified in exploiting others simply because we possess the capability to do so? It's just more reliance upon convenient justifications to escape confronting our moral burden as a complex species. It is our obligation as an intelligent, advanced species to live a life of lesser harm, but if we fail to address the most critical aspect of veganism, reevaluating our treatment of animals, then we fail in our approach to the real omnivore's dilemma.

Note: anywhere I've linked to the abstract of a study, it's because membership is needed to access the research material. Send me an email at nathan@thisdishisveg.com if you'd like me to send you a pdf version!


Nathan is a passionate animal advocate and vegan in the Seattle-area, who lives with a crazed dachshund, an enormous Maine coon and a judgmental short haired black cat. Nathan graduated with a Bachelors of Science (summa cum laude) from Northeastern University. He is preparing for his Masters of Science program in the fall and likes to make jokes that involve the chemical compound arsole (and is totally addicted to Gardein).