Look the other way, please.

There really are inconvenient truths, aren’t there? There are some things that seem to slip quietly under the radar -things that go unremarked until they  are brought our our attention. And even then, they are perhaps dismissed as unimportant -or worse, accepted and rationalized in an attempt to justify them as tools that enable the greater good of humanity. We, after all, are what it’s all about; our welfare is paramount, not to mention our survival. And when you frame it in those terms, there is little room for noblesse oblige. Survival of the fittest, quickly becomes survival of the ruthless -of the remorseless.

Perhaps I should explain. I live on a little hobby farm in the country, and when I was actively breeding sheep, chickens, and llamas, I was well acquainted with interested visitors, both two and four-legged. Everybody, it seemed, had or wanted, a stake in the game. Friends wanted eggs for their breakfasts, colleagues wanted lamb for their dinners, and I wanted an escape from the city. But, to share with some, was to share with all.

That’s how Life works, I suppose: word gets around, and soon there are all manner of uninvited guests -not all of whom knock, or ask permission. Some just appear -like carpenter ants- but some try not to advertise their arrival, and in fact seem to want to stay out of sight, if not out of mind. They’re the ones I used to worry about -if they’re in the barn, where else might they hide?

Of course I’m talking about rats -not so much the mice which kept my three cats busy in the night. No, the rats who hid in the engine of my pickup truck and ate the plastic off the wires to my distributor, or the battery wires in my car; the rats who patrolled the barn and left their distinctive trail through the uneaten bits of grain I fed the sheep; the rats who also holed up in the woodpile in my garage, and wherever else they could gather relatively undisturbed.

And yes, I declared war on them with spring traps baited with peanut butter, and put warfarin-like pellets in short, narrow little PVC pipes so the cats couldn’t get into them, but alas, the rats outlasted my efforts. Only when I retired and the chickens died in a well-fed old age, and only when I sold the sheep and llamas did the supply of grain eventually disappear -only then did the rats disappear. And I’ve never seen a rat, or droppings since. It reminded me of  the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem The Day is Done:

                                 And the night shall be filled with music,

                                      And the cares, that infest the day,

                                Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

                                     And as silently steal away.

I know, I know -they’re only rats, but their leaving seemed so sudden; I came to think of them as having made a collective decision to move their troupe away to greener fields -sort of like the Travellers in Britain with their little trailers, able to leave when conditions are no longer hospitable for them. I suppose I Disneyfied them in my over-active imagination, and yet there was something about their migration that softened their attributes. I’ve never been fond of rats -especially their tails- but on the other hand I’ve always found it hard to believe all of the sinister lore attached to their sneaky habits. After all, they’ve lived with mankind and our middens from the beginning, I would imagine… and we’re both still here in spades. You have to assume a certain degree of intelligence to coexist with us for so long, despite our best efforts to exterminate them.

As these things happen, I tripped over a tantalizing essay co-written by Kristin Andrews, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, and Susana Monsó, a post-doctoral fellow at the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna. https://aeon.co/essays/why-dont-rats-get-the-same-ethical-protections-as-primates

The first three sentences of the article hooked me: ‘In the late 1990s, Jaak Panksepp, the father of affective neuroscience, discovered that rats laugh. This fact had remained hidden because rats laugh in ultrasonic chirps that we can’t hear. It was only when Brian Knutson, a member of Panksepp’s lab, started to monitor their vocalisations during social play that he realised there was something that appeared unexpectedly similar to human laughter.’ And then, okay, they tickled them. ‘They found that the rats’ vocalisations more than doubled during tickling, and that rats bonded with the ticklers, approaching them more frequently for social play. The rats were enjoying themselves.’

Of course, there were some other features, that if further substantiated, we likely don’t want to hear: ‘We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret.’ I’ve left the links intact, for reference, in case the reader’s credulity level sinks to the Fake News level.

But, for me at least, ‘The most unexpected discovery, however, was that rats are capable of empathy…  It all began with a study in which the rats refused to press a lever to obtain food when that lever also delivered a shock to a fellow rat in an adjacent cage. The rats would rather starve than witness a rat suffering. Follow-up studies found that rats would press a lever to lower a rat who was suspended from a harness; that they would refuse to walk down a path in a maze if it resulted in a shock delivered to another rat; and that rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.’

The reason the essay intrigued me, I’m sure, is because it has long been a practice to utilize rats (and mice, of course) as mindless fodder for our experimental quandaries. And, there’s little question that it is better to experiment on an animal than on a human, and especially a time-honoured nuisance and villain like a rat rather than a chimpanzee, or whatever. I don’t think I would be prepared to argue their utility for this, nor that until we have devised non-living alternatives -cell cultures, or AI modelling, perhaps- some things will require validation in functioning organisms to advance our knowledge for the benefit of the rulers (us).

My hope, however, is to point out that our hubris may tend to blind us to the increasing likelihood that rats, are not mindless protoplasms living forever in the ‘now’ of their experiences. Are they sentient beings…? I suppose their sentience , like ours, is on a spectrum, isn’t it?

But if we are to continue to utilize them as unwitting research subjects, it seems to me that we should treat them with kindness and a degree of respect. Remember the words of Gloucester after he has been blinded by Cornwall, in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ Let us not stoop to that…

Masters of their fates?

Sentience is the present participle of the Latin verb sentire –‘to feel’- but what is it? What does it imply? Consciousness? Thought? Or merely some form of awareness of the surroundings, however indistinct and vague? Is avoidance of a noxious stimulus enough to establish sentience, or does it have to involve an understanding that it is harmful?

How about pain itself, then? What kind of a nervous system can feel pain -not just avoid damage, you understand, but feel it? Because surely feeling pain assumes some sort of an I who perceives it as pain rather than simply moves away reflexively… Are we back to consciousness again?

I suppose it’s easy to posit sentience in something like a dog, or a wary squirrel in whose eyes one can easily see that there is something/someone behind them looking out at the world. It’s more difficult as you move down the phylogenetic chain (if one even can, or should, assign direction or rank to changing phyla): easier with, say, lizards or crocodiles; more difficult with flies and mosquitoes; and impossible -for me, at least- with, oh, tapeworms or amoebae and their ilk.

Yes, and then there are the plants which react to stimuli, often in a purposive fashion -what do we do with them? What constitutes a feeling of pain -especially since they do not have what most of us would consider a nervous system (although their root structures and associated symbiotic fungal networks might qualify). Do plants feel some sort of proto-pain -and if they do, so what? The buck, if I may be allowed to paraphrase the sign on the previous American president Harry Truman’s desk, has to stop somewhere

So where do we draw the line with sentience? Is it entirely subjective (ours, at any rate)? Should it be confined to those things we would not think of stepping on or swatting? Or is it enough to be alive to merit consideration -different from a rock, for example?

I don’t know why I worry about such things, but I obviously do -especially when I come across essays like the one in Aeon written by Brandon Keim. https://aeon.co/essays/do-cyborg-cockroaches-dream-of-electric-trash

It was entitled I, cockroach, and delved into whether insects felt pain, or were conscious. The question occurred to him after reading about Backyard Brains, ‘a Kickstarter-funded neuroscience education company.’ The company’s flagship product is apparently RoboRoach, a ‘bundle of Bluetooth signal-processing microelectronics that’s glued to the back of a living cockroach and wired into the stumps of its cut-off antennae. Cockroaches use their antennae to detect objects; they react to electrical pulses sent through these nerves as though they have bumped into something, allowing children to remote‑control them with smartphones.’

I have to admit that I am appalled at this -although I suppose I would think little of swatting a cockroach crawling across the kitchen floor. The difference, I suspect, is somewhat akin to what Keim discusses: using a living creature as a tool in what might be -for the cockroach, at any rate- similar to some higher being wiring us up for whatever questionable purpose to change and study our behaviour and -who knows?- maybe change our reality. It’s hard not to sound overly anthropomorphic in describing my feelings about this, but there you have it.

‘A note on the company’s website does reassure customers that, though it’s unknown if insects feel pain, anaesthesia is used during procedures on cockroaches, and also on earthworms and grasshoppers involved in other experiments.’ But as I’ve already mentioned, and as Keim discusses, ‘You can’t experience pain unless there’s a you — a sense of self, an interior dialogue beyond the interplay of stimulus and involuntary response, elevating mechanics to consciousness. [And] such sentience is quite unlikely in a bug, says Backyard Brains.’ Really?

Even the likes of Darwin wondered about cognitive states in ‘lower’ creatures. In his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits (1881), he describes in great detail ‘how earthworms plug the entrance to their burrows with precisely chosen and arranged leaf fragments, and how instinct alone doesn’t plausibly explain that. ‘One alternative alone is left, namely, that worms, although standing low in the scale of organisation, possess some degree of intelligence.’

And no, as the more observant of my readers will no doubt have noted, worms are not cockroaches. Then how about honey bees as insect stand-ins for roaches? How about their waggle dances: ‘the complicated sequence of gestures by which honeybees convey the location and quality of food to hive-mates’? As Keim notes, ‘scientists have assembled a portrait of extraordinary cognitive richness, so rich that honeybees now serve as model organisms for understanding the neurobiology of basic cognition. Honeybees have a sense of time and of space; they have both short- and long-term memories. These memories combine sight and smell, and are available to bees independent of their immediate environments. In other words, they have internal representations of their worlds. They can learn to recognise patterns, and also concepts: above and below, same or different. They have simple emotions and beliefs, and apply those memories and concepts to their decisions. They likely recognise individuals.’

In fact, ‘Cognition is only one facet of mental activity, and not a stand-in for rich inner experience, but underlying honeybee cognition is [a] small but sophisticated brain, with structures that effectively perform similar functions as the mammalian cortex and thalamus — systems considered fundamental to human consciousness.’

I don’t want to take this too far. Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher, in his 1974 essay What is it like to be a bat? argued that ‘an organism has conscious mental states, “if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism to be itself.” (A fascinating paper, by the way, and well worth the read). But, coming back to cockroaches, as Keim writes, ‘The nature of their consciousness is difficult to ascertain, but we can at least imagine that it feels like something to be a bee or a cockroach or a cricket. That something is intertwined with their life histories, modes of perception, and neurological organisation’ -however impoverished that something might seem in comparison to our own perceptions. Indeed, maybe it would be something like our state of awareness in doing ‘mindless’ tasks like walking down stairs, or picking up a cup of coffee -both purposive, and yet likely unremarked consciously…

There’s even some evidence that cockroaches have a richer social life than most of us might have imagined. According to ethologist Mathieu Lihoreau in his 2012 article for the journal Insectes Sociaux, ‘one can think of them as living in herds. Groups decide collectively on where to feed and shelter, and there’s evidence of sophisticated communication, via chemical signals rather than dances. When kept in isolation, individual roaches develop behavioural disorders; they possess rich spatial memories, which they use to navigate; and they might even recognise group members on an individual basis.’

Maybe the famous English biologist J.B.S. Haldane got it right when, in 1927, he wrote that ‘the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose’. Then again, I suspect we tend to view things as peculiar or even alien if we feel no connection to them -feel that, as humans, we are not really a part of their world. But remember the words of Gloucester as he stumbles around the moor after being blinded by Regan and Cornwall in Shakespeare’s King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport‘.

Who’s world are we in, exactly…?