Neuroscience & Mind
Bees Feel Pain. Therefore…Insect Rights?
From an online newsletter from Vox writer Kenny Torrella, we learn of a research study confirming that bumblebees feel pain:
In a study published last week in the journal PNAS, researchers in the United Kingdom found that bees make trade-offs about how much pain they’re willing to tolerate in order to get better food. The finding suggests bees aren’t just mindless automata responding to stimuli but rather conscious, feeling creatures that can experience pain and engage in complex decision-making.KENNY TORRELLA, “CAN A BEE FEEL,” VOX (AUGUST 5, 2022) THE PAPER IS OPEN ACCESS.
Essentially, the researchers offered bumblebees sugar water in color-cued unheated containers, at solutions of 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, or 40 percent. Then they introduced a catch: They heated up the high-sugar containers to an unpleasant 55°C (131°F). The bees continued to prefer to drink from the high-sugar containers. However, when unheated high-sugar containers were available, they gravitated to those. The study’s abstract, which is admirably easy to read, offers:
Bees used learned color cues for their decisions, and thus the trade-off was based on processing in the brain, rather than just peripheral processing. Therefore, bees can use contextual information to modulate nociceptive behavior. This ability is consistent with a capacity for pain experiences in insects.MOTIVATIONAL TRADE-OFFS AND MODULATION OF NOCICEPTION IN BUMBLEBEES MATILDA GIBBONS, ELISABETTA VERSACE, ANDREW CRUMP, BARTOSZ BARAN, AND LARS CHITTKA, JULY 26, 2022, 119 (31) E2205821119 HTTPS://DOI.ORG/10.1073/PNAS.2205821119
A “Revolutionary” Result?
Heather Browning at the London School of Economics tells Torrella that this result is “revolutionary” because “the ability to make motivational trade-offs is an important marker in determining sentience” (the ability to feel pain).
Perhaps. Many people would not be as surprised as she is by this. Pain for gain is an ancient problem. If bees could not experience pain, take chances, or learn from their experiences, they would hardly be around in such numbers today. But do their responses proceed from consciousness or from coding? The responses might be, as Eric Cassell would put it, an animal algorithm: prepackaged decision trees for conventional circumstances.
Sentience may be quite real but not associated with consciousness. Apart from consciousness, is anyone doing the feeling? The study doesn’t (and can’t) address that.
One of writer Torrella’s advocacy areas is the “future of meat” (that is, advocacy for a meat-free human diet). He is quick to grasp the implications of sentience in insects for animal rights advocacy:
The debate over whether insects are sentient may seem frivolous, given how distant they feel from mammals, let alone human beings. But every past debate over who deserves moral attention and just how wide our circle of concern should be has seemed frivolous to some. If just a small fraction of the 10 quintillion insects alive right now can feel pain, some changes may need to be in order.KENNY TORRELLA, “CAN A BEE FEEL,” VOX (AUGUST 5, 2022)
He explicitly assures readers that the new concern about pain in bees is not about insect rights:
As revolutionary as the new study may be, it won’t usher in a revolution of insect rights — just look at how we treat many birds and mammals despite general consensus on their sentience.KENNY TORRELLA, “CAN A BEE FEEL,” VOX (AUGUST 5, 2022)
The Critical Question
But the critical question should be: Is that for lack of interest in insect rights on the part of animal rights activists or their lack of the ability (so far) to get it on the agenda? PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) responds to the question, “What about insects and other ‘pests’?” by saying, “All animals have feelings and have a right to live free from unnecessary suffering — regardless of whether they are considered ‘pests’ or ‘ugly,’” adding “PETA encourages nonlethal methods of insect and rodent control whenever possible.” This sounds like a coiled spring of an agenda.
A successful insect rights movement might be dire for most humans because an estimated 40 percent of crops are lost to insects every year, despite our best efforts at all types of control.
Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.