Ren Ryba

Research Scientist @ Animal Ask
1341 karmaJoined Apr 2022animalask.org


You are welcome to contact me via email, which is my preferred form of communication: ren (dot) springlea (at) animalask (dot) org.

I recently changed my surname (formerly Springlea) 😊 My email address is unchanged.

My name is Ren, and my pronouns are they/them. My work focuses on animal advocacy. I have experience in ecology, fisheries science, and statistics from my time in academia and government. I'm also personally interested in a wide range of other cause areas, particularly around politics and social justice. I mostly work from a suffering-focused and neartermist perspective, though I also support other views. I live on Kaurna Land (South Australia). I like soccer.

"The easiest pain to bear is someone else's."


I think it's definitely worth some thought, though I don't really have any hot takes beyond what has been discussed in the comments of this post.

Afterword: Are they called "shrimp" or "prawns"?!

This was a great rabbit hole. Some people distinguish between "shrimp" and "prawns" on biological grounds, arguing that some species are only correctly called "shrimp" while others are only correctly called "prawns". However, I think that the only defensible conclusion is that both "shrimp" and "prawns" are terms for the same thing, and the one to use basically depends on the country you're in.

During my 2023 visit to London, when I arrived at the tattoo studio for my appointment to get a shrimp tattoo, the first thing the artist asked was: "So, what's actually the difference between a shrimp and a prawn?" I realised that even with my expertise in marine ecology and shrimp welfare, I had no clue.

The Wiktionary entry for "shrimp" gives this definition: "Any of many swimming, often edible, crustaceans, chiefly of the infraorder Caridea or the suborder Dendrobranchiata, with slender legs, long whiskers and a long abdomen."

The Wiktionary entry for "prawn" gives these definitions:

  1. A crustacean of the suborder Dendrobranchiata.
  2. (Commonwealth) A crustacean, sometimes confused with shrimp.
  3. (Australia, slang) A fool, an idiot. (!!!)

Both refer to the suborder Dendrobranchiata, and "shrimp" adds on the infraorder Caridea. These are two non-overlapping groups that are both contained within decapod crustaceans (see above in this post - Dendrobranchiata includes both penaeid and sergestid shrimp).

Those same entries also tell us a bit about the etymology:

  • Shrimp: From Middle English schrimpe (“shrimp, puny person”), ultimately from Proto-Germanic *skrimpaz (“shrivelled”) (compare Middle High German schrimpf (“a scratch, minor wound”), Norwegian skramp (“thin horse, thin man”)), from Proto-Germanic *skrimpaną (“to shrivel”)...
  • Prawn: First attested early 1400s as various Middle English forms prayne, prane, praune, and prawne, which present no clear cognates in languages other than English. The forms suggest a hypothetical Old English form *prægn, where *æg would have evolved into Middle English *ay, but it is unclear if the word is of Germanic origin, from another European language, or loaned from a substrate.

It seems fair to say that "shrimp" and "prawn" both originated with the arbitrariness and whimsy typical of word origins, and that both terms are defined today to refer to mostly the same group of animals.

I've seen some people claim that "shrimp" and "prawn" are defined biologically, with particular morphological traits distinguishing between them - such distinctions tend to make reference to minute characteristics of the gills, the shell, or how the legs are spaced. If you accept the above definitions, it does admittedly seem to be true that animals in the infraorder Caridea can be called "shrimp" but not "prawns". Perhaps biologists follow this usage. But I think it's fair to doubt that the general public, or even farmers, are in the habit of checking the gill characteristics or reading the latest taxonomy papers before they risk using the wrong word.

It seems far more plausible to me that there is a much simpler rule: people in some countries say "shrimp", while people in other countries say "prawn". I'd bet that Australians would say "prawn" even if you show them an animal from the infraorder Caridea. (We Australians in particular get sensitive about this.) There's even a lobster that is called a "prawn" in the United Kingdom - a lobster! Furthermore, both taxonomy and word meanings change over time, and classifications of animals are frequently revised, so I'd be wary of any strict definition based on taxonomy. This is basically the same conclusion reached by Gillett and by Rethink Priorities.

I found this gem published in a 1969 taxonomic study: "There has been much confusion in the usage of terms prawns and shrimps. At the Prawn Symposium of the Indo-Pacific Fisheries Council held at Tokyo in 1955 it was decided that the term prawn should be applied to the Penaeids, Pandalids and Palaemonids, while the use of the term shrimp should be restricted to the smaller forms belonging to other families. According to this most of the forms of economic importance here are to be termed prawns."

I love the idea of a roomful of biologists in the 1950s thinking that the best thing to do in Toyko is to have a heated debate about marine invertebrate terminology. And I thought I needed to get out more.

Now, do not get me started on the difference between a pigeon and a dove.

The review article on wild shrimp fisheries (which I mentioned in a previous discussion in the comments) is now up here :)

Thank you, fixed.

I did search for related articles on the EA Forum before posting mine, but I missed that one. The irony!! I'll add a link to that post in this article.

There is a considerable academic and scientific literature that engages with many of these points. It would make sense to engage with the literature on that post, as there are numerous papers that have debated and tested many of these points in detail. You mention experiments, but there are many studies that conduct such experiments. Have you reviewed these studies and found them to be missing something, e.g. having a consistent methodological flaw or missing a key indicator of consciousness?

If you think that the authors of those papers have not considered these points (e.g. if you think one indicator of qualia/sentience/moral patienthood is more valid than other indicators; or if you think there are specific methodological flaws in existing studies), then would it not be better to publish a scientific paper on this topic or at least conduct a more thorough literature review? If your argument is robust to criticism, and it withstands scrutiny when you show how your argument addresses shortcomings in the existing academic literature, then you may indeed cause society (and the EA community) to make more informed decisions about which lives to improve. I would be glad to work with you to write and publish this paper.

I think your argument would be more compelling if you listed the specific assumptions in the specific papers on the topic of invertebrate and/or fish sentience (whether academic, such as Birch et al 2021 or similar reviews for fish and insects, or the work by Rethink you are critical of) and then, point-by-point, made the argument that those assumptions are false. That would allow readers to more clearly see whether, and on which specific points, you are diverging from existing thinking. For what it's worth, there are papers that have criticised those reviews I mentioned on various grounds, so this process would also help readers to see whether your criticism is adding anything new to existing debates and whether your points have been made before in the literature (as this has been an area of research and debate for decades). This also applies to the question of "burden of proof", which I think was raised in another comment thread. It is well-accepted that investigations about the subjective experiences of non-human animals necessarily depend on the weight of evidence, rather than one particular smoking gun.

And re: the experiment on empathy - there are a number of studies that have looked at brain activity in various social situations in a few different types of fish. Do none of these studies meet your standards? If so, why not, and would your proposed experiment be an improvement on experiments that have been conducted already?

The title of the post is ("It's OK to eat shrimp") doesn't really follow from the text of the article. There are many reasons, whether precautionary or strategic, why we might think it wise to spend resources on improving particular lives even if we, "by default, not consider that things they don't expect to talk about qualia can have qualia." The article seems more to support a title along the lines of "we should be cautious about attributing qualia to shrimp".

I agree with the point asking for more high-quality studies, which would be a non-controversial view among most academics who research in this area.

(I am a marine biologist and familiar with the literature on fish sentience and shrimp sentience, both of which are pretty complex bodies of literature.)

(edited a bunch for focus and clarity)

I'll have detailed information in the report I mentioned - looking into this specific question over the next few days. (Though I'm being careful to take my time with it, as this is quite a horrific topic even compared to the topics I normally research.)

I'm currently writing an in-depth report on wild-caught shrimp fisheries. It'll focus more on global distribution (e.g. by species and country) and common industry practices, with a list of options for wild shrimp advocacy. I expect it'll be done within a couple of weeks.

I'd definitely be keen to see people advocating for wild-caught shrimp welfare. I won't be working on shrimp advocacy myself after finishing the report (though I do think it is an extremely impactful opportunity - if it were up to me, I'd put a large proportion of the movement's resources into shrimp welfare).

Yep I agree with all of this. I think the important thing for discussions like these is that, as you propose in your article, retiring the term "moral circle" in favour of more specific hypotheses (as we're discussing) will facilitate more rigorous evaluation of claims and therefore better decision-making.

Thank you for this high-quality and thoughtful post. I found myself agreeing with most of the key claims.

Overall, I’d actually rather use the term “moral circle” less, and instead focus on finer-grained consequences of work to benefit groups like nonhuman animals or artificial sentience. [...] These all point to important flawed assumptions in standard framings of the moral circle, and may merit retiring the term “moral circle” altogether to prevent confusion.

I strongly agree here. I think it's a little dangerous that the "moral circle" was introduced as a metaphor, but it has been unwittingly applied as an actual political strategy ("moral circle expansion") without going through the intermediate process of rigorously testing whether a "moral circle" is actually a consistently measurable thing that exists (whether in an individual's mind or society's broad attitudes).

For example, I've noticed in my work that some people assume that "moral circle expansion" is a benefit of some animal advocacy campaigns (e.g. fish welfare) and not others (e.g. dog welfare). For any proposed psychological or social construct, wouldn't we need to subject that construct to rigorous testing before making it the target of political and advocacy strategies? It might be more constructive to discuss these views (as you suggest) in terms like "advocating for fish welfare, rather than dog welfare, might have longer-term effects on people's attitudes/behaviours towards other animals like shrimp", which is more clearly a hypothesis that can be debated, tested, and falsified.

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