It is currently common for people to feel little or no duty of care towards insects. In this post, I make a case for why I think expanding our circle of compassion to insects is both rational, and important.
*I think the arguments also apply to other invertebrates such as shrimp and gastropods (slugs and snails) but for simplicity, I’ve kept this post focused on insects.
Why is this important?
The sheer number of insects whose lives humans have the power to affect is huge. A few bits of relevant info to demonstrate the scale:
- Around 1 trillion insects are raised and slaughtered on farms annually for food and animal feed. A single farm could have 29 billion insects alive at any one time. And the insect farming industry is looking to expand rapidly in coming years, despite concerns about welfare.
- In the wild there are an estimated 10 quintillion (10 with 18 zeros!) insects alive at any given time. Many of these are harmed by pesticides and other human activities.
- Across the world, it is generally legally and even socially acceptable to harm insects. For instance, the boiling of silkworms alive is part of the process for making most silk. As a kid, I owned a children’s ‘fly-splatter’ gun which was sold as a fun toy.
Despite the huge numbers of insects who are farmed and harmed by humans each year, the topic of insect welfare is currently highly neglected. There are very few organisations working on the issue (although shoutout to Rethink Priorities, who have produced some great research) and I'd be surprised if even 0.01% of the animal advocacy movement's resources are currently going into insect welfare work.
So, to summarise: the scale is huge, the welfare issues often serious, and the situation completely neglected.
A selection of arguments
The aim of this post is not to go deep into the science or philosophy of insect sentience. Rather, it is to offer a brief selection of arguments in favour of caring about insects.
You may not agree with every single argument in this post. But my hope is that, as a whole, they make a case for each of us to feel a deeper sense of moral concern for insects.
1. The science: behaviour
The scientific literature on the behaviour of insects (a hugely diverse class of animals) is generally under-explored.
A great in-depth review of what we know about invertebrate behaviours, including insects, can be found here. I think the key takeaway is that invertebrates are capable of some quite surprising and complex behaviours, which suggests they are conscious of the world.
Just a tiny selection of studies demonstrating these behaviours in insects:
- Honeybees have displayed pessimistic cognitive biases after being exposed to a threat, as well as positive emotion-like states following exposure to unexpected rewards.
- Funnel ants were able to use absorbent objects to transport sugar water back to their nest, quickly learning that sponges were the most absorbent material and using them preferentially.
- Fruit flies are likely affected by painkillers in a similar manner to humans and are willing to endure a cost (e.g. an electric shock) in order to receive a reward.
Of course, none of these studies prove that insects are conscious. But, the existence of such complex, flexible and emotion-like behaviours suggests that they are not simply carrying out an unconscious pre-programmed set of behaviours.
2. The science: nervous systems
Again, the current science on this is pretty spotty. However, Rethink Priorities have done some excellent work collecting the evidence on this. I've also written on it, but Rethink's stuff is way more comprehensive!
I think there are two key takeaways from what we know:
- It's not clear that a 'large' brain is required to support sentience.
- Insects have brains which plausibly could support consciousness.
On point 1, it's easy to get bogged down in philosophy. So I'll simply note that it's likely that the structure of a brain is just as important (up to a point) as its size (in number of neurons). For example, it appears that the tiny brain of a honeybee is capable of supporting a greater number of distinct behaviours than the (obviously) much larger brain of a moose.
On point 2, insects have been found to have brains that contain structures similar to the mammalian mid-brain. These structures are thought to be important for consciousness in mammals. There is also a reasonable degree of centralisation in the insect nervous system, which is thought to be an important requisite for consciousness.
In summary, the literature suggests that having a big brain isn't essential for consciousness, and that insects have brains which have features considered very important for consciousness.
3. Outwards and outwards...
Throughout recent human history, our moral circle has gradually expanded outwards. Our ancestors often kept groups including slaves, other races, and disabled people firmly outside of their moral circles. Thankfully, the complete exclusion of these groups from moral consideration is far less common in the modern world.
The expansion of humanity's moral circle has also brought some animals into the fold. We now look back with disbelief at the renowned philosopher Descartes' assertion in the 1600s that all animals were 'automata' unable to think or feel.
150 years ago, it was legal in the UK to dissect a living dog without anaesthetic.
It was only this year that the UK government recognised the sentience of decapod crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, etc.) in law for the first time.
So, we have gotten it wrong on animals many times before. At every other moment in human history our moral circle has excluded animals which, in hindsight, should have been included. As science begins to reveal more about the complexities and capabilities of insects, what are the chances we’ve gotten it wrong again?
4. Our brains don't make caring easy
Anyone interested in EA knows that moral psychology is an odd thing. You might believe that every human life has equal worth - and try to live your life by that - but you probably don't always feel that way emotionally (which is fine, it's important to feel a stronger bond with your family and friends than with a stranger).
Unfortunately, insects get a pretty rough deal when it comes to human psychology. Evolutionarily, an insect such as an ant is just much further away from us than a cute fluffy hamster is.
Research shows that humans have less empathy for species that are more distantly related to us evolutionarily. We are evolutionarily primed to care for other humans. So it makes sense that we would feel more empathy for animals with more human-like features. As a result, we are instinctively wired to adopt a less compassionate attitude towards insects than our fellow mammals.
Insects are also, well... pretty small. That means that we're less likely to see their world and empathise with their suffering. If your cat catches a rabbit, you see how it suffers. If you accidentally step on an ant, you don't even notice.
We should acknowledge that we are naturally set up to be pretty rubbish at feeling empathy for insects. But - crucially - looking weird, scary, or just being hard to see doesn't affect whether they can feel pain. So our instincts about insects are likely to be wrong, and we should try to adjust accordingly.
5. Where's my warm fuzzy feeling?
The arguments I've briefly presented above (I hope) make some sense. But the reality is that we're not super-rational philosophy machines, so even if you think my arguments are persuasive, you might not really be feeling much different about insects.
Sadly, we don't have/make many opportunities in life to really connect with the lives of the insects (and other small animals) around us. So as a final argument, I present to you an incredibly wholesome video of a bee and the woman who cared for her.
It's not scientific, but perhaps it might give an emotional kick to something that you sympathise with on a rational level (or maybe not, you might totally disagree with everything above!).
I'd love to hear your thoughts!
Thank you for reading. If you have any thoughts, questions, or challenges, I'd love to discuss them in the comments section with you!
Thank you to Ellie Crane for her contribution and edits to this post.