Richard Dawkins on vivisection: "But can they suffer?"


The great moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, famously said,'The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but rather, "Can they suffer?" Most people get the point, but they treat human pain as especially worrying because they vaguely think it sort of obvious that a species' ability to suffer must be positively correlated with its intellectual capacity. Plants cannot think, and you'd have to be pretty eccentric to believe they can suffer. Plausibly the same might be true of earthworms. But what about cows?

What about dogs? I find it almost impossible to believe that René Descartes, not known as a monster, carried his philosophical belief that only humans have minds to such a confident extreme that he would blithely spreadeagle a live mammal on a board and dissect it. You'd think that, in spite of his philosophical reasoning, he might have given the animal the benefit of the doubt. But he stood in a long tradition of vivisectionists including Galen and Vesalius, and he was followed by William Harvey and many others (See from which this picture is taken).

How could they bear to do it: tie a struggling, screaming mammal down with ropes and dissect its living heart, for example? Presumably they believed what came to be articulated by Descartes: that non-human animals have no soul and feel no pain.

Most of us nowadays believe that dogs and other non-human mammals can feel pain, and no reputable scientist today would follow Descartes' and Harvey's horrific example and dissect a living mammal without anaesthetic. British law, among others, would severely punish them if they did (although invertebrates are not so well protected, not even large-brained octopuses). Nevertheless, most of us seem to assume, without question, that the capacity to feel pain is positively correlated with mental dexterity - with the ability to reason, think, reflect and so on. My purpose here is to question that assumption. I see no reason at all why there should be a positive correlation. Pain feels primal, like the ability to see colour or hear sounds. It feels like the sort of sensation you don't need intellect to experience. Feelings carry no weight in science but, at the very least, shouldn't we give the animals the benefit of the doubt?

Without going into the interesting literature on Animal Suffering (see, for instance, Marian Stamp Dawkins's excellent book of that title, and her forthcoming Rethinking Animals), I can see a Darwinian reason why there might even be be a negative correlation between intellect and susceptibility to pain. I approach this by asking what, in the Darwinian sense, pain is for. It is a warning not to repeat actions that tend to cause bodily harm. Don't stub your toe again, don't tease a snake or sit on a hornet, don't pick up embers however prettily they glow, be careful not to bite your tongue. Plants have no nervous system capable of learning not to repeat damaging actions, which is why we cut live lettuces without compunction.

It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, "Don't do that again"? In The Greatest Show on Earth
, I suggested that the brain might be torn between conflicting urges and tempted to 'rebel', perhaps hedonistically, against pursuing the best interests of the individual's genetic fitness, in which case it might need to be whipped agonizingly into line. I'll let that pass and return to my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?

Isn't it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn't it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?

At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.

Richard Dawkins: web, Twitter, Amazon link to recently-published works.


  1. very thoughtful article. but ugh, even as an illustration, the headlining image is beyond horrifying. unicorn chaser, stat!!

  2. Thank you, Dr. Dawkins. The world would be a much better place if we paid more attention to all creatures’ physical pain, including our fellow humans’.

  3. BTW, even the antique illustration made me nauseated. There’s a vivisection scene towards the start of Iain Pears’s Instance of the Fingerpost that made me physically ill. I don’t know how I managed to press beyond that and finish reading the book.

  4. Oh boy. Following that logic, eating animals might be cannibalism. Sad face bbq man.

    How do we fit our slot in the food chain with a moral need to not inflict pain on others? I mean, tigers kill without “evil” intent. They’re not killing for sport or willfully subjecting others to their raw power as a form of collective over-reach like a person might. (Ha, if I was an antelope I might disagree!)

    Hmm. Good post.

  5. Most of us nowadays believe that dogs and other non-human mammals can feel pain, and no reputable scientist today would follow Descartes’ and Harvey’s horrific example and dissect a living mammal without anaesthetic.

    I’ve known a lot of scientists. A great many of them would use anaesthetics only because they lessen the trauma and thrashing of the subject animal (which makes the job easier, thus more likely to yield good data) and honestly do not give a shit about any research animals’ pain or emotions.

    When I worked in Philadelphia, the brain trauma experiments were still going on, using people’s stolen pets for the most part. It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that most people will commit any atrocity they are told to commit by an authority figure (Milgram) and that most of them will be permanently psychologically warped if they perform atrocities (Zimbardo). All torturers are suspect at all times, regardless of motive.

    This is not to say that scientists are exceptionally inhumane; their attitudes reflect the general population for the most part. The majority of people don’t empathize to the degree that you and I do, Dr. Dawkins.

    Descartes was a soldier. He was probably familiar with things much worse than vivisection, and hardened to the suffering of others. He may even have held his screaming comrades down while surgeons sawed off their limbs and cauterized them in boiling tar, all without anaesthetics.

    I personally am capable of vivisection because I’ve been intimately involved in hunting, slaughtering stock, and emergency medical treatment. You get used to the screaming and the stink after a while. However, I would not vivisect an animal without anaesthetic because I am ethically committed to the principle of the clean kill.

  6. Pain is so painful so that we will remember it, and act on that memory. If it didn’t hurt SO much we might be more willing to accept future pain in exchange for current gratification.

  7. Certainly some of the early modern scientists were well aware of the suffering involved in vivisection. There’s a famous 1664 letter from Robert Hooke to Robert Boyle:

    The other experiment (which I shall hardly, I confess, make again, because it was cruel) was with a dog, which, by means of a pair of bellows, wherewith I filled his lungs, and suffered them to empty again, I was able to preserve alive as long as I could desire, after I had wholly opened the thorax, and cut off all the ribs, and opened the belly. Nay, I kept him alive above an hour after I had cut off the pericardium and the mediastinum, and had handled and turned his lungs and heart and all the other parts of its body, as I pleased. My design was to make some enquiries into the nature of respiration. But though I made some considerable discovery of the necessity of fresh air, and the motion of the lungs for the continuance of the animal life, yet I could not make the least discovery in this of what I longed for, which was, to see, if I could by any means discover a passage of the air of the lungs into either the vessels or the heart; and I shall hardly be induced to make any further trials of this kind, because of the torture of this creature: but certainly the enquiry would be very noble, if we could any way find a way so to stupify the creature, as that it might not be sensible.

    (The experiment in question appears in slightly fictionalized form as an incident in Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver.)

    1. I was just going to suggest that maybe vivisectionists aren’t always unaware of animal suffering, but are judging the pain caused by the vivisection against the eventual good that would come from the knowledge gained.

  8. The question about plants feeling pain is not a silly one. When taken from the animal-centric perspective, it could be dismissed because plants don’t have a central nervous system and brain like we do. But that doesn’t mean that plants don’t feel pain, they just suffer it differently than mammals, or other animals do.

    1. Exactly my thoughts. We know they don’t suffer like we do, but that doesn’t automatically mean they don’t suffer at all.

    2. What it means, I believe, is that we see no brain of any sort in plants to receive the signals that pain mechanisms generate in animals and, indeed, no recognizable mechanisms for sensing or experiencing pain to transmit in the first place.

      Some experiments have demonstrated that trauma to a plant results in the organism responding to survive, but that simply does not suggest that actual pain was “felt” either at the source of the the trauma, nor at any point within the organism, such as a brain, that might receive such signals.

      So the task is to prove that plants feel pain, not suggest that mere reaction to trauma equals experiencing pain – and absolutely does not equal consciously experiencing pain, as animals – nearly all animals – do.

    3. seyo is right, although I don’t really think plants suffer. They certainly do notice when something tries to eat them, take steps to defend themselves, and signal to neighboring plants that they should take action, too.

      1. Scientific American: “Plants cannot think or remember. These borrowed terms do not accurately describe how plants function. However, like most organisms, plants can sense the world around them, process information from their environment, and respond to this information by altering their growth and development.”

        So no, plants cannot feel pain or suffer.

      2. It always seemed plain to me that living things are on a continuum this respect. The simplest ones, protozoa, already respond to negative stimulus by thrashing and looking for escape in their own automatic fashion. As animals developed they became more and more aware of their situation, and this included more comprehensive responses to these stimuli, up to the full suffering and psychological trauma of human beings.

        If you look for a point in this chain where these responses suddenly become meaningful, you won’t find one. They just become more akin to the pain we recognize in ourselves as you approach creatures like us, and less as you move further away. Ethically, you have to pick the cost and benefits of harming each one and minimizing that harm.

    4. (at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe) “[…] ‘Are you going to tell me,’ said Arthur, ‘that I shouldn’t have green salad?’
      ‘Well,’ said the animal, ‘I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whoile tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.'[…]”

    5. I agree, and I wish I knew more on this subject so I could intelligently defend my opinions. But the few scraps of scientific study I’ve read on this is hardly sufficient. I’ll only say that I’m as willing to believe in the possibility that an oak tree can suffer as I am to believe that a salmon can suffer. They both react to damage inflicted on their bodies, but is there suffering? It’s certainly possible for either one. We’re still trying to understand our own emotional responses where there is an abundance of data, much less trying to find out how a salmon or tree are feeling.

  9. A very thoughtful argument.

    I would think that higher intelligence would actually make us better at dealing at pain, we can understand it and understand that it will (probably) come to an end at some point, we can learn to cope with it.

    The very fact that people can learn to deal with pain, and apparently even use hypnosis to control it would seem to support this idea.

    I think that’s one of the reasons people often use to rationalise euthanising a sick or seriously ill animal. You can’t explain to a cat or dog that the painful chemotherapy you are giving it might cure the also painful cancer it’s suffering from. A dog simply experiences the present pain.

  10. David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” is another great examination of this idea, and several layers further.

  11. I’ve often wondered if people’s belief that animals feel less or no pain was a sign of our arrogance as a species (or perhaps culture), or if it’s simply a way of justifying or diluting the guilt of hurting animals. It would be interesting to survey the opinions of psychopathic people and compare them against the norm on that subject.

  12. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by
    Elaine Scarry provides some rather interesting points that add to this discussion. Among them is the inexpressibility and subjectivity of even human pain.

  13. While I don’t think that they drew the line correctly, I would give Descartes et al. a specific sort of credit: They didn’t just default to the easy, affectively soothing; but otherwise dodgy ‘judge severity and realness of suffering according to degree of cuteness or ease of anthropomorphising.’ heuristic.

    While the details are unfortunately fuzzy, it seems pretty clear that our affective judgement of pain isn’t all that good: The octopus, while known to be quite clever and neurally sophisticated, doesn’t have much of a face, and gets dumped in the same general category as much, much, much dumber things that also happen to be aquatic and slimy. On the other hand, show somebody a clip of the peripheral nervous system of a cute mammal finshing its residual freaking out after that animal has just suffered a swift, massive, brain injury, and they will be appalled by the display of ‘suffering’ that there is no longer a central nervous system to host.

  14. Consciousness is a post-hoc rationalisation of basic animal urges, it presents nothing more than an illusion. If anything we feel less pain than animals because they’re saner.

    1. I’m a materialist, but I think it’s a copout to abandon inquiry into the nature of consciousness merely because it has the stink of spiritualism. It’s not an illusion. I’m experiencing it right now. The question isn’t if it exists, but how and why it exists.

  15. Are suffering and pain equivalent, or is suffering something slightly different? I’ve always thought of suffering as pain x time. An earthworm could feel pain similarly, but is it capable of experiencing the length of time for which it has suffered this pain? The basic evolutionary need for pain (and, therefore, why it is so deep-rooted and why it functions in such a rudimentary way) is clear. But could suffering simply be an unexpected manifestation of merging pain with a reasonably advanced intellect?

  16. I’ve never understood why some people think animals didn’t feel pain, or feel it at least as intensely as humans. I can only explain it as a rationalization: they feel that they must inflict pain on animals, and so they define animals as “unable to properly experience pain” to save themselves the suffering of identifying with the animals they are harming. I think this sort of rationalization is actually quite harmful to the human psyche, and probably goes some way toward explaining why human beings are so able to rationalize the harm we do to each other.

    As for whether animals experience pain more intensely, I’m skeptical of that. I think the difference is that animals have less *understanding* of their pain, and because of this, less hope that it might cease (or more hope, in the case of a terminal illness or permanent injury). So it would seem that the suffering for animals of a temporary hurt is probably worse than for humans, but the suffering for a permanent hurt is probably less.

    Also, in my experience the power of intellect does two things to alleviate pain that a non-intellectual animal (I am wary of the claim that no animal has any intellect at all) would not have access to. First, we sometimes deliberately undertake some procedure that causes pain, with the intention of benefiting ourselves or others. This might be some work that is painful but necessary, or it might be surgery of some sort, like removing a painful splinter. Because we are undertaking this deliberately, we are better able to steel ourselves against the pain.

    The other thing we can do that I suspect animals can’t is use our intellect to get outside of our pain. There’s a Tibetan practice that I do when I’m in the dentist’s chair called tong len (giving and taking) where you try to imagine that you are feeling all the pain in the world instead of just your own pain, and by doing this, the pain that others are feeling goes away and is visited solely upon you. Of course, this doesn’t actually take anyone else’s pain away, but the determination that it should seems to be extremely effective at taking one’s mind off one’s own pain. However, I still want the anesthetic.

  17. If you ever had an animal which injured itself, you would quickly realize that the pain mechanisms in animals are very different from those in humans.
    I had a cat that got its leg shattered, and my fried had a dog that poked a stick through his head.
    Apart from the initial pain that seems to be very similar to those of humans, there doesn’t seem to be any long-term pain (and “suffering”) attached to this injuries. Both animals, even with a leg dragging along, or with a big hole in the head were acting like nothing was out of the ordinary.
    It seems that having only an initial pain impulse (which quickly fades away) is more useful in nature than an ongoing pain which will debilitate you. After all, once you got the (painful) lesson that what you did was unwise, you will have to go on with your life (or your fight, or your hunt), neither of which would be improved by a dragged-out pain.
    Yes, sure, I wouldn’t put my cat through more pain than necessary, but I’m not quite sure if that’s for emotional reasons (my *own* suffering through empathy) or rational ones (because I believe the suffering is equal).

    1. Non-human animals definitely suffer longer than just an initial burst of pain. The difference is that non-human animals are designed to be stoic. It makes evolutionary sense. If you look weak/injured, you are vulnerable to predation. If you’re running around, wailing, visibly dragging an injured limb, limping or carrying on it is like a big flashing sign reading “please attack and consume as I am easy pickings.”

      I have companion rats (rodent rats, not rat terrier rats) and the thing all rat guardians know is that if your rat buddy looks ill or injured, go IMMEDIATELY to the vet. Rats are prey animals to the nth degree and, thus, are incredibly good at hiding illness and injury. If you can look at your kiddo and see they aren’t feeling good, they *really* aren’t feeling good. Some folks have had rats seem a bit off one night and be gone in the morning. They are that good at hiding when they are hurting.

      Cats and dogs and all other domestic animals are very similar. They might be companions now but the instinct for self-preservation when one is injured/ill isn’t gone. They suffer and can suffer a long time – they just aren’t as prone to being dramatic about it as humans are. ;)

  18. Great write-up – I completely agree that even if we were unsure IF animals could feel pain, there is every reason to give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as if they do.

    Which shames me that humanity at large, and friends and family members closer to home, can so blithely toss a live lobster in boiling water (because they’ve been told it tastes slightly better than the same meat would from a quick beheading with a knife). I don’t understand the desire to kill animals at all, but if you do, certainly you could have the decency to make it painless?

    Another similar emotion to pain is terror, I would argue…so even if you’ve rounded up your animals that you plan to kill, and have decided that you will ‘do the right thing’ and provide a quick, painless death, should you not also bother to avoid unnecessary terror? How horrible must animals feel to be netted and imprisoned before execution, or to stand in a long line, watching their herd and family members executed in front of them, while it slowly dawns on them that they will soon suffer the same fate?

    (and yes, I’m sure many animals can realize that they are about to be butchered…imagine two gazelles on a prairie, ambushed by a tribe of lions, with one being quickly eaten. Can you really doubt that the remaining animal, pinned against a rock and watching the first one’s throat being ripped out, does not have at least some inkling and terror about what is to come?)

    Again, Richard, thank you for the short but interesting article.

  19. Why frame this question is such a safe, historical context?

    How could they bear to do it: tie a struggling, screaming mammal down with ropes and dissect its living heart, for example?

    Why not ask “How can we do it, now?” Consider the way most animals that we keep are live and die. Male chicks, caged hens, feedlot cattle, confined dairy cows and pigs…

  20. My great thanks for writing about a topic that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

    The current issue of All Animals magazine produced by the Humane Society of the United States has a profile of current and former university staff who discuss abuse in university labs. The general public assumes there are laws protecting animals from the tortures that have taken place in the past, yet some species continue to receive no protection at all and procedures are allowed “that cause severe suffering if an institution decides they are justified.”

    With reference to your other writings, humans persist in elevating ourselves to a god-like status on this planet. Would the elimination of religion cause us to reevaluate our position in relation to other species and stop believing that they are the equivalent of beakers and flasks to be used as we see fit? Considering what we know about chimpanzees, the fact that they continue to be used in labs in the US is not promising for any improvement soon.

  21. So, if I understand correctly Dawkins general thinking, we ourselves are just animals that respond to stimuli. Why is this not an obvious conclusion that other animals feel the same thing we do? I guess the most thought provoking statement was a counter point to the article by seyo, do plants feel pain in some form that we don’t understand?

    How long before dogs and other mammals evolve to use tools better and build houses and reason if cats feel the same pain and suffer like they do?

    There is nothing special about you, you are a speck of dust in a unfathomably big universe. At least that is the Dawkins view right? We just happen to be the result of being the fastest evolvers.

    1. We’re not the fastest evolvers, just the ones that have moved farthest into the tool aisle. And just because people are animals doesn’t mean they’re identical to other animals in all respects; that’s self-evidently false.

    2. re: ‘fastest evolvers’: I think this is called the teleological fallacy = ie that there’s some kind of purpose to evolution and we are it’s best creation. We’re not – each species evolves to fit it’s niche more efficiently.

      ‘Fitness’ is what evolution improves, not intelligence, nor any other trait we value.

  22. We humans received our share of Painful Whipping by Mother Nature, due to the environment we lived in that caused us to be too daring for our own good? But now, the “Appendix” that is our pain centers still chaperones our Daring-ness in case it defaults back to our heydays of flamboyancy.

  23. re: “…should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.”

    Rather preposterous. While I agree animals can feel pain and suffer, to treat them the same as humans is absurd.

    re: “Practices such as…. castration without anesthetic…”

    1. > Rather preposterous. While I agree animals can feel pain and suffer, to treat them the same as humans is absurd.

      Well, okay, but you need to *actually provide an argument*, because it’s only a few decades ago that people were saying “While I agree black people can feel pain and suffer, to treat them the same as white people is absurd”. Dawkins is, to his credit, performing the kind of inquiry that leads to moral progress: analyzing a current situation for the use of an unexamined and unjustified privilege, and then trying to work out what the relevant moral distinction is between the two parties that might allow it.

      His argument says “there is no relevant moral distinction when comparing whether you should make Animal X or Animal Y suffer,
      other than their capability of suffering. If non-human Animal Y is as capable of experiencing extreme physical pain as human Animal X is, there is no morally relevant reason for discriminating between them based on their species.”

    2. I don’t think he’s saying we should give them the vote, just maybe not stab them in the face so much.

  24. I tend to think a good metric for drawing the line on treatment of animals in an ethical sense is that for a given animal, any action that is likely to cause lasting, demonstrable psychological trauma is likely unethical.

    If the animal doesn’t have the capacity to experience and manifest that trauma, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. If it does, and you undergo an action that causes it, then you clearly lowered that animal’s quality of life permanently; that is quite clearly unethical.

    Pain is difficult to measure empirically even when you’re having humans self-report it. For animals it’s essentially impossible to get any idea how much pain they’re in. So instead of focusing on the source, focus on measuring the repercussions. If they’re going to be traumatized by it, it is wrong.

  25. A fine essay. My reason for suspecting that humans aren’t at the peak of pain detection is simply:

    There are many animals that have better eyesight, and hearing, and smell, than humans. Why would it be at all surprising that there are many animals with a better sense of pain detection?

  26. I think one needs to be careful about conflating terms. “Pain” and “Suffering” are not synonymous. I think few people would debate that animals, at least more advanced ones, feel pain. Many more might debate whether or not they suffer. Personally I largely equate pain in animals with the physical responses to injury or other adverse stimuli, whereas I equate suffering much more with the conscious awareness of that suffering. Do I think worms or ants feel pain? Probably. Do I think they suffer? Probably not. Dogs and cows? Probably both. Fish? I have no idea, but I do think mammals, in general, have a much higher degree of both awareness and self awareness than most of the rest of the animal kingdom, although I’m not so sure about cephalopods anymore.

  27. It would be nice if we could control pain after the initial outburst. It doesn’t do much good if you need to drag yourself out of the mountains after breaking your ankle if your body is constantly screaming at you. The alternative, to die of exposure, isn’t in your body’s self interest either.

  28. I read an article in a science journal a while back about a genetic defect that causes a person to feel no pain whatsoever. Children with this defect rarely reach adulthood, because they tend to amuse themselves by jumping off buildings and other dangerous activities.

    Because of this I doubt your painless red flag idea could be made to work, as children wouldn’t be mature enough to respond to it.

    1. What you are referring to is called a congenital insensitivity to pain.

      Children don’t die so much from jumping off of buildings for fun or behaving particularly more dangerously than other children–the ability to feel pain isn’t required to conceptualize that one’s body can break–rather from normal, painful early warnings going unfelt until more obvious gross physical symptoms later manifest: broken bones, fevers, infections, and myriad other maladies can turn fatal if one cannot feel them.

  29. “Vivisection” is a word whose meaning is not what it was.

    If there are currently any known research facilities where “a struggling, screaming mammal” is tied down and dissected without anesthesia, please let me know and I will try to do what I can to get that activity ended. That’s what “vivisection” means to me.

    Some “animal rights” organizations use the term as a generic description for animal research of any kind, adding an unwarranted emotional load to their literature.

    1. Vivisection means, and has always meant, performing a dissection on something that is alive (viva). This is the important distinction, because it means you can observe the physiological functions as well as structures, absent in dead specimens. Propaganda uses may be unfortunate, but the word is still used in scientific literature without meaning the animal is struggling.

  30. Wow – really? We want to draw parallels between cows and black people? I mean, other than trying to inject racism, I can’t really imagine how one could draw such a parallel.

    Just because an animal can suffer or feel pain, doesn’t suddenly give it people status. This isn’t a class or race of people being marginalized, they are completely different creatures.

    A huge difference is we use animals for food. We are the top predators. While we try to make the process as clean an painless as possible, there is little difference between it and the wolf or eagle catching and eating the rabbit. It is the natural order of things (life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life). Do you think a bear is going to not eat you because you might feel pain?

    Pain is part of life. I am acutely aware of this, as I live with it every day. While I agree with the above extreme example of live vivisection being barbaric in this modern age – it would have been one of the few tools for them to learn about anatomy back then. They weren’t doing it out of cruelty or sadistic pleasure, but to try to learn how the body works. People forget how hard and pain and death filled our past was.

    So while I don’t propose we allow all behavior, especially abuse and cruelty, to treat them the same as people is ridiculous.

    1. Reductio ad absurdum. Not trying to inject racism, but trying to show how easily it can be taken to absurd extremes to just flatly reject a concept without discourse.

      “That’s absurd!” is a dismissive response previously given to a lot of things we today now hold to be obviously true to any person with any sense. It’s generally harmful to the discussion.

    2. I think it’s pretty obvious that cjb’s comment was not a direct comparison between cattle and any set of people. It was merely a point to demonstrate the fact that our perspective and knowledge change over time. It doesn’t help your argument to deliberately misinterpret.

      Also, while I agree that for the most part, we should not treat animals the same as people (we don’t let them vote, we can keep them as livestock), that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care to treat them kindly. The fact that they are not human does not mean they are undeserving of humane treatment.

      1. I didn’t mean to “deliberately misinterpret”, it just seemed to come out of left field. I guess I didn’t really illustrate his point well.

        I agree with your 2nd paragraph.

    3. I mean, other than trying to inject racism, I can’t really imagine how one could draw such a parallel.

      Because there’s a body of writing dating back at least to Cato the Elder on the subject of how slaves/other races don’t have souls and can’t feel pain.

      1. Unlike Descartes, I think Cato the Elder might really have been a monster. It seems like history praises him in a very unflattering light.

      2. Fair enough. The thought slaves can’t feel pain is a new one to me. I mean – why beat them or punish them if they can’t feel it?

        re: “…I was instructed by devout christians that it was OK to harm animals because they couldn’t truly feel pain, as they did not have souls.”

        While the lack of soul might be a widely held belief, the idea that animals don’t feel pain (or that the Bible says this) must be a fringe belief at best. I’ve lived in the Bible belt all my life and in a small town/rural part for a lot of it, and I’ve never heard this.

        It’s just annoying that something like this is even brought up because it’s taking something you heard some one/sect say, and then applying it across the board. It would be like saying, “Oh I don’t trust scientists because I was told by one that Eugenics is best for mankind and it’s ok to kill the weak and inferior ones.”

        1. I can think of an example of different sectarian beliefs about animals. The Bible contains a line where God gives man “dominion over the beasts.” While this is usually interpreted as meaning it’s okay to eat them since we’re boss, Seventh Day Adventists interpret it as a responsibility, and are mainly vegetarian.

    4. We are the top predators. While we try to make the process as clean an painless as possible

      Hi Mister44, welcome to planet Earth. Which planet are you from?

    5. You’re seriously setting the goalposts for minimum ethical considerations at ‘Don’t be worse than bears‘?

      But anyway, your entire argument seems to be composed of 100% naturalistic fallacy.

      1. You’re seriously setting the goalposts for minimum ethical considerations at ‘Don’t be worse than bears’?

        I just laughed pretty good. Thanks for that, travtastic.

    6. We try to make the process as clean and painless as possible?
      Really?? Since when???
      They are born into appalling conditions, they suffer all their short lives and then they’re sent to the slaughter house to wait to die while they watch all around them get cruelly slaughtered.
      This is the case for most of the animals we use for meat.
      Free range and organic is much better, but only accounts for a very small percent of what’s available.

  31. I’m pretty sure that no matter how dumb the animal, it does still feel pain just as badly as we humans do. Just because it might not be able to comprehend why or how something is making it hurt doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. That said, that’s why I crush bugs in their entirety and never plucked legs or wings off insects.

  32. Our arrogance never ceased to amaze me.

    Just because we can’t imagine a plant is capable of feeling pain doesn’t mean they don’t. Humans have proven that we will believe whatever we have to to get what we want.

    I remember as a child being told that “fish don’t feel pain”. Even as a 5 year old I could see the BS in that statement. Clearly the fish on the hook is feeling pain…why else would it struggle so.

    Count me as an eccentric since I believe that the creatures that are actually the most evolved are those that have reached harmony with the universe…certainly not us humans. Perhaps someday we will evolve enough to appreciate the wisdom of an oak tree or tortoise.

  33. It’s not quite right to say that Descartes thought animals don’t experience pain because they don’t have souls; it’s that they don’t (obviously) have minds. Simple outward behaviors aren’t evidence of a mind. Many machines have complex outward behaviors, and those outward behaviors can -look like- the expressions of pain. Think of how a popcorn kernel bounces around in a hot frying pain: is it in pain and trying to avoid the heat?. Does your alarm clock feel pain in the morning? Do you turn it off/hit snooze to relieve its pain? The only sure sign, then, that something has a mind, according to Descartes, is that it speaks a language (and more directly, that it can report to you that it is in pain, usually by saying things like “I’m in pain.”) Language is the one behavior that Descartes thinks cannot be explained mechanistically (this is also partly why he’s a dualist). Since animals don’t have language, there’s no overt reason to attribute minds to them.

    Descartes kind of rationalism gets replaced, eventually, by a more tempered empiricism. And an empiricist will take it that certain outward behaviors are at least prima facie evidence of pain. But Descartes isn’t simply being vicious.

    1. “Many machines have complex outward behaviors, and those outward behaviors can -look like- the expressions of pain. Think of how a popcorn kernel bounces around in a hot frying pain: is it in pain and trying to avoid the heat?. Does your alarm clock feel pain in the morning? Do you turn it off/hit snooze to relieve its pain? The only sure sign, then, that something has a mind, according to Descartes, is that it speaks a language (and more directly, that it can report to you that it is in pain, usually by saying things like “I’m in pain.”

      I don’t think Descartes was very bright actually. I mean, isn’t it just common sense that when, for example, you accidentally step on a cat or dog’s tail the outward behaviour being expressed IS pain? So instead of asserting that animals are nothing more than unfeeling machines (like mechanical clocks), he would have been wiser to admit that it didn’t matter to him if animals felt pain as long as there was even a smidgen of human gain. And that attitude, as demonstrated by a poster’s comment below, is still prevalent today.

      “Personally I do care about animal pain, but I care a great deal more about human pain, and I’m certainly willing to accept a great amount of animal pain if there is any gain for humanity in it.”

  34. “Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain”

    You got evolution down backwards. Species evolve based on elimination of the things that don’t work, not by promoting features that seem to work better then others. This seems almost the same, but the difference is important. Like people who say that in a billion years we won’t have toes because they serve no purpose. That isn’t the case, we will evolve to not have toes only if people who have toes die off, but those who don’t have them or have less distinct toes survive. If they survive no purpose, they will hang around for a very long time until some day it becomes essential for survival to either have them or not to have them.

    What I’m trying to say is that it’s not plausible that our species evolved to feel less pain because we don’t need it as much as less intelligent species. Only if those who feel less pain have a greater probability of surviving will we start to evolve to have less pain sensation. But this just doesn’t seem likely to occur. Even if you are smart enough to know that the coals are hot, why would the guy who gets a jolt when he accidentally steps on them have lower higher survival rate then the guy who only notices the coals after the skin on his foot is half melted away.

    Of cause you could argue that the very resent events in human history have turned our evolution into a more breeding focused evolution, since we now have very good survival rates independent of our individual genes due to the healthcare system. But this has only happend in the latest splitsecond of our evolution timeline, and we shouldn’t be seeing any evolutionary effects of that before the far future afaik.

  35. It seems clear that all suffering need not involve pain. For instance, the loss of a loved one is clearly a form of suffering.

    I used to personally hold that most animals were not very intelligent, excepting perhaps primates and cetaceans. Science has clearly revealed that my beliefs were erroneous and that amazing levels of intelligence, memory and self-awareness are present throughout all the animal kingdoms (not just in Mammalia). The evidence seems empirical, reproducible and overwhelming, perhaps because there are *so* many instance-proofs. However it takes generations for the cultural zeitgeist to catch up with knowledge – my children are amazed that people still discriminate against gay people or that anyone in their right mind would still smoke… but yet my daughter is still ‘spiritual’, showing that not all the old culture baggage has been scoured away by the winds of reason).

    An animal suffering anecdote; an acquaintance has a large cockatoo parrot – an ‘animal’ that is clearly highly intelligent, self-aware and capable of advanced communication with other species. Animal researchers frequently compare this species to human three year old children when discussing their intelligence and language abilities. This parrot was best ‘friends’ with the family German Sheppard for many years, going on daily walks together, napping together, protecting each other, feeding each other, and just being, well, friends. It was very cute, actually. And then the dog died (from old age) and the parrot mourned like you wouldn’t believe. He keened over the body… he sat quietly on his cage for months and whispered the things he used yell out to the dog. Every day he woke up and walked to the photograph of the dog on the table and kissed it with “Hello, Shadow”, and then got on with his day. I’ve never seen a stronger example of suffering in an ‘animal’, but I’m not an animal behavior researcher, who I’m sure have much better examples.

    My Point: I treat a lot of animals as intelligent creatures now, and they have my respect. No, they aren’t equals to humans, with our vastly more complex capabilities, and I’m not advocating voting rights for them. However we cannot blithely assume they will not feel horror and suffering (even if anesthetized) at the reality of being vivisected, or at being raised in a tiny cage until ready to be eaten. We can readily forgive DesCartes or Hooke for what they did centuries ago; I will not presume that our modern morality applies to their historical context (“Jefferson owned slaves”) but I will apply that lens to my contemporaries; we have moved beyond their harsher world into new ethical challenges – one of which is retiring the older cultures way of viewing the world.

  36. One thing to keep in mind about recognizing how much an animal feels pain or suffering is that they may be hiding it from us. Dogs, for example, will do everything in their power to avoid exhibiting that they are injured. It’s a survival mechanism which makes sense in the wild but can make things very hard for loving pet owners. “He was just fine, until one day he wasn’t and he died.” We don’t necessarily know how much an animal is feeling.

    Have there been MRI tests of brain function in pain centers in animals?

  37. One of the signs for me that Christianity was actively harmful was when I was instructed by devout christians that it was OK to harm animals because they couldn’t truly feel pain, as they did not have souls. One look at a limping dog or a cat with a sty revealed that to be part of the load of BS I was expected to swallow.

    1. Not to mention the idea that God is:

      1. All-benevolent
      2. Going to burn most people alive forever
      3. But not you

    2. I’m a christian and a vegan, the animals as soulless walking food and shoes is not a christian idea, its an excuse based on misinterpretation and on selecting which passages you want from a bunch that completely contradict each other. genesis states that animals had their own purpose beyond being used by humans (humans were to use plants) and Isaiah states that predatory animals will no longer be so when they dwell amongst their prey in the afterlife – that this is gods intention.

      And as VZ said, I’m surprised Dawkins is not even close to vegan, I was disgusted by the conversation / interview with singer where they proposed that sentience can be measured on a sliding scale and perhaps we should keep eating animals but choose at the restaurant based on the least sentient of the animals on the menu.. both intelligent men , both lacking the conviction to live the ethic commanded by their own theory..

      I am impressed by their donations to a number of charities on the other hand.

    3. Just because someone who is nominally a Christian tells you something doesn’t make it a genuine “Christian” teaching. The concept of immortal souls and who has/doesn’t have one comes from non-christian philosophy(ancient Greek),and the doctrine of hellfire torment is from Babylonian religion. It’s false religious teachings that are harmful, not Christianity.

  38. I find it almost impossible to believe that René Descartes, not known as a monster, carried his philosophical belief that only humans have minds to such a confident extreme that he would blithely spreadeagle a live mammal on a board and dissect it.

    It makes perfect sense from his perspective. Descartes believed there are only two things in the world, Mind (souls) and Matter. Only Minds can feel pain, how could Matter “feel” anything at all? Therefore only those organisms with minds, us, can feel or reason. Animals cannot. It’s a logical outcome of his philosophy.

    Today there are people who seriously argue that consciousness is an illusion. You don’t really feel, or experience qualia, or make decisions, you just think you do. You are a zombie and zombies feel no pain, they’re dead. “You* are just dead matter pretending it’s alive. This just represents the failure of some to overcome their Cartesian categories.

  39. I think this essay would be much better if it included definitions of “pain” and “suffering.” Just because “pain feels primal,” doesn’t mean we don’t need a clear description of its mechanism. If we want to say whether something is happening or not it doesn’t help to just create hypotheticals of why it should or shouldn’t be happening.
    You are moralizing without giving supporting evidence; I would expect better from you.

    1. …striking his head with mighty force against a large stone, till it rebounded from it – “I define it thus.”

  40. “At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.”

    At what point is it ‘Turtles all the way down’? Your examples are all bovine. OK, so cows are out, how about pigs? Sure, the same. Chickens, lizards, salamanders, crayfish, fish, … protozoa. Does it end when we cant find pain receptors (as you seem to point out in your belief that plants do not react to suffering)? And even if pain receptors is a criteria, is it enough? At what point do you feel for every living thing so much that you can’t go on living for the death and suffering that you cause by merely breathing?

  41. You’d think serving as a torch at someone’s BBQ in Rome would teach you a bit of compassion and/or humility.

  42. It should be common sense that ALL fauna feels pain, or at least some primitive precursor to pain as we know it. If you honestly lack that much sense, then you probably shouldn’t be allowed access to sharp instruments, never mind animals.

    When I read about vivisection or most other “scientific” pursuits of centuries past, all I can think of is how purely stone-stupid most people must have been in those days. Not to say we’re all geniuses now, of course.

    Ultimately, I think the problem is that most people are insulated from the most raw, primal reality by our reliance on language. If your speech processing just went bye-bye all of a sudden, you might you understood the animals around you with new-found clarity. It’s not a difficult mindset to cultivate, if you’re interesting in reconnecting with life itself, instead of just humanity’s blithering speculation about life.

    Once you can remove that insulating barrier of language, it becomes all the more horrifying to think that somebody would calmly hold down a living animal and slice it to ribbons while it cried and screamed. Any “philosopher” who wishes to argue over such practices is a philosopher who ought to be ground-up and fed to the fish.

  43. I would point out that our concepts of ethics probably originate from our own natural emotional responses to witnessing suffering.

    What I mean is that we conclude it is wrong to cause suffering because it *feels* wrong emotionally. Any moral or ethical conclusions we reach are just rationalizations of our instinctual aversion to cruelty and suffering. Think about how you feel when you see a crying child for example, and how hard it is to ignore that child. Empathy is not a moral principal, it is an emotional response.

    I also believe that this aversion to cruelty can be suppressed, and that the suppression becomes more effective with reinforcement.

    “At what point do you feel for every living thing so much that you can’t go on living for the death and suffering that you cause by merely breathing?”

    When you become a Jain.

  44. Professor Dawkins makes an interesting point about the evolutionary imperative behind pain, but I think he’s wrongly conflating pain in the sense of a “warning not to repeat actions that tend to cause bodily harm” with the conscious sensation of suffering (i.e. “feeling pain”). Fairly simple animals such as flies and slugs might be capable of learning to “avoid X because it results in pain receptors being activated”, but this is a long way from saying that they can suffer in the same sense that we do.

    Should we assume that because an animal can learn to avoid being damaged that it can suffer? If so, wouldn’t something like a robot programmed to avoid being damage also qualify? Obviously we cannot know what it feels like to be a fly or a worm, but to me it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that more intelligent animals have a greater capacity to suffer. This doesn’t conflict with the evolutionary importance of pain that Dawkins was emphasising.

  45. I believe that humans and animals can feel as much pain, but some type of pain is easier for us to endure. One example is to get an injection. A human being can understand the importance of getting an injection as it might prevent a disease to develop, while an animal can not understand this. An injection can also be a stress factor for the animal, since it most likely can’t understand why the injection may be useful.

  46. I’m not a vegetarian because I love animals;
    I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.
    — A. Whitney Brown

  47. Thanks for the article. Playing devil’s advocate:

    We may be able to figure things out without so much pain and therefore find less utility in it than less intelligent animals. But could not intense pain have helped along our evolution and therefore still be correlated with intelligence?

  48. I agree with all the comments suggesting a distinction between pain and suffering. To my mind, “suffering” is any experience one believes one should not have. Not all pain is suffering, and not all suffering is pain. It seems to me that pain is just a flavor of sensation, just as sour is a flavor of taste, as it were. One’s own pain can be enjoyed, it can be disregarded, or it can be suffered. And since having beliefs requires something like intelligence, I don’t believe unintelligent animals truly suffer.

    (Nevertheless, I am a vegetarian out of respect for the beauty and dignity of animals, and concern for the well being of humans who slaughter.)

      1. I don’t see that it would be a matter of convenience, but in my comment I did not draw the line at humans anyway.

  49. zebbart: so you see no immediate moral problem with frying a human infant in a pan then? Besides concern for the wellbeing of the humans who cook it? Given that infants clearly score lower in terms of beliefs or any other cognitive capacity compared to a an adult dog.

    1. I would not call pain felt by infants “suffering.” That does not mean pain caused to infants is not morally bad. I would have other reasons to call that morally bad, some shared with my reasons for being a vegetarian and some specific to humans. But if you define “suffering” as “pain that is morally bad,” then we may not disagree about anything other than definitions.

  50. I believe we’ve come to a time in history where the rights of animals are more important than human rights – the right for a human to live, to experience freedom, opportunity and hope. It’s strange that someone (the author) who has made it clear in other writings that abortion is acceptable is concerned about whether or not cattle should be branded. And I’m sorry, but branding cattle and castration without anesthetic aren’t even in the same ballpark, pun intended. 3rd degree burn = reproductive organs cut off? I’d take the burn any day. If cattle were equal to humans, they would likely voice the same choice. But they don’t talk, because they’re cattle.

    Human lives get terminated by the millions annually – without the option or power to have any kind of say in the matter, but we’re splitting hairs about whether animals can feel pain?

    Let me be clear, humans and animals are not the same. As the author points out:

    “Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid?”

    Yes, we are clever. We do have intellect that is above animals. Unfortunately, the evidence around us indicates, that inflicting pain on others is part of living in this world. Whether a war criminal is being water boarded or I’ve hurt my wife’s feelings, pain is part of the deal.

    I understand that just because a person has certain beliefs that are contradictory to the subject of this article, it doesn’t mean that the article doesn’t have some truth to it.

    However, I do have trouble digesting an article about good will towards animals, when the author’s beliefs seem to oppose the same rights for humans. Because I’m not the type to separate a person’s beliefs into buckets, I can’t really take the article to seriously.

  51. >> I believe we’ve come to a time in history where the rights of animals are more important than human rights – the right for a human to live, to experience freedom, opportunity and hope.

    Because I’m not the type to separate silly hyperbole at the beginning of a post from what follows, I can’t really take your post too seriously…

  52. So – the folks making points along the lines of “Why are we debating treating animals more kindly when we can’t even treat our fellow humans more kindly?” I would say that the two issues are only as linked as you want them to be. We *could* be kind and empathic to both animals *and* humans.

    In any event, even if the world *is* pain and suffering, we don’t have to accept that – recall that the world is also cold and full of hunger, disease and predators… eliminating pain and suffering is just another problem humans can solve, in much the way we’re working hard on eliminating the others.

    As to the point of Richards article; Is there an evolutionary selection process for the perception of pain? I don’t know, but you have been successful in making me ponder it. Mission accomplished.

  53. Great discussion. A related question might be as follows: must we think that all pains are of the same kind?

    Consider the following case: you and I are walking into a house and you stub your toe on the threshold. I am not paying attention and do the same thing. Now we both have stubbed toes. Of course, your pain is yours (it is in your head) and mine is mine (in my head), it is reasonable to think these pains are of the same kind.

    Now contrast the kind of pain associated with stubbing a toe and the kind of pain from a chronic back injury or the loss of a loved one. Is there not a case to be made that these pains are of different kinds?

    To bring it back to philosophy, though Bentham thought that ‘pushpin was as good as poetry,’ his protege J.S. Mill distinguished between kinds of pain in much the way suggested above.

    Taking it a step further, if you think it takes a certain amount of cognitive/emotive apparatus to love, and pains associated with love are of a different kind, then you could reasonably think that certain kinds of pain correlate with big brains.

  54. Interesting point of view. In 2006 I published an essay –

    and this is from that essay:

    A few years ago I was reading the prestigious journal Scienceand saw the
    following quotation: ‘More than any other species, we are the beneficiaries
    and victims of a wealth of emotional experience.’ Professor R. J. Dolan, who
    wrote this, cannot know that this statement is true. Indeed, it just might be
    that other animals experience more vivid emotions than we do. This sort of
    humanocentrism is what plagues the study of animal emotions. Why are we
    so special, why are we such deeply feeling animals whereas other animals
    aren’t? I find it difficult to accept that we should be the standard against
    which other animals should be compared. Just look at the state of the world

  55. Tamooj, if “eliminating pain and suffering is just another problem humans can solve”, would that make it morally preferable to keep animals from hurting each other for food? We could quite easily avoid a great deal of suffering by policing even a small part of the animal world, and if you are right we have a moral obligation to not stand idly by and let it happen?

    I think it’s hypocritical to say that we should reduce all pain and suffering, then let the spider eat the fly.

    Everyone, even the most conscientious PETA donating Buddhist vegan makes the same logical leap that some degree of cruelty is ok. Whether it’s slaughtering cattle, or crushing minute insects beneath bicycle tread. The question is where you draw the line and why.

  56. The question of whether animals feel pain the way we do (or feel anything at all) is very interesting in itself. I’m of the opinion that physicalism is permanently broken and that subjective experience can never be studied objectively, which means that animal emotion (and emotions of fellow human beings) will always lie beyond our grasp. But it does seem like a reasonable, if unprovable, hypothesis that many animals (and most humans) have great capacity for feeling pain. However, caring about that pain or not is simply a moral choice, with no connection to science whatsoever. Personally I do care about animal pain, but I care a great deal more about human pain, and I’m certainly willing to accept a great amount of animal pain if there is any gain for humanity in it. I don’t think cattle branding och bull fighting does humanity much good, and we can do well without that, but I’d rather be outraged at evils done to humans, and it would be so much worse if this was done to humans, according to my moral system. Mr Dawkins is entitled to have his own view, but he should realize that it is based on moral intuition rather than any kind of scientific insight.

  57. “An upright man has thought for the life of his beast, but the hearts of evil-doers are cruel.” Book of proverbs. The Bible. Sometimes between the 10th and 6th century B.C. Maybe Prof Dawkins should study his bible more closely?

  58. “The fact that they are not human does not mean they are undeserving of humane treatment.”

    Damn straight! I really cannot come around to the notion that, if an animal isn’t intelligent, it can’t suffer. Or feel things, even simple stuff like contentment, or anger. We mightn’t recognize it (as someone above said contemptuously, citing a kind of cuteness/anthropomorphism empathy)in many odd-looking critters, but so what? Why wouldn’t it be the case? We tend to imagine we’re special, and thus imagine our experience of the world as fundamentally different to that of other animals. I’m unconvinced by this.

  59. This is a great guest post.

    It would seem that from an evolutionary perspective, debilitating pain would be selected against for prey species. The ability to escape a predator would otherwise be compromised. However, this would only apply to debilitating pain. I would expect prey animals to feel a lot of pain, but not have it affect their mobility as much as it does for humans or other predators.

    I would agree that a negative correlation with intelligence would be selected for. If an animal is clever enough to understand the cause of its suffering, it would learn without the need for huge amounts of pain. Since pain is debbilitating or at least distracting, it is ‘better’ if an organism onlys feel it to the minimum extent needed to condition our behaviour.

    I’d also say that any animal testing people are well aware of animal suffering. Observation of behavioural differences is a key part of even the most basic animal tests, since it is well established that stuff that causes abnormal behaviour in rats is highly likely to cause suffering in humans.

    1. It would seem that from an evolutionary perspective, debilitating pain would be selected against for prey species.

      Similar for the fear response. When I go out on my balcony, the local ground squirrels notice me and continue munching the landscaping, but the rabbits immediately skedaddle. The greater fear response seems to lead to less food.

  60. I blame evolution for pain being so painful. It’s probably pretty safe to say that it’s evolutionarily advantageous to avoid damaging oneself, and so even if pain evolved on a sliding scale, with some feeling it more or less profoundly, those who experienced it more forcefully would, statistically, survive more often than those who felt it less. Mainly because more pain would make you more risk-averse in subsequent behaviour. Even a few percentage points in favour of one group can create a long-lasting and significant change over millions of generations.

  61. I think the main thrust of the article is fundamentally wrong: that some people think animals feel no pain, or at least a “diminished” form of pain, because they are less intelligent than humans.

    I don’t think many people actually think that. At least not in the scientific community. I think there is widespread consensus that animals do indeed feel pain.

    The difference is whether or not, and to what extent, they feel suffering, i.e. what are the psychological ramifications of pain.

    I would argue that one form of suffering is the protracted inescapable persistence of pain. I think animals can definitely experience this, because all it takes is a nervous system; *how* they experience this, however, their inner psychological representation of this, is anybody’s guess. In any case, experimental protocols followed by all US researchers that work with animals (affectionately termed “vivisectionists” by animal rights fanatics to elicit exactly the type of emotional response that Dawkins’s description did) explicitly prohibit this form of suffering, unless absolutely vital to the phenomenon studied.

    But there is another form of suffering, and that is what we humans experience most often, and it is the anticipation of pain and of its consequences. For that, I would argue you need to be able to imagine the future, and there is no evidence that most animals can indeed project their mental representation of self ahead in time (or backwards, for that matter).

    I think this article, while provocative, is misleading, because it implies that perhaps the majority of scientists work under the assumption that animals don’t feel pain, whereas the opposite is true, and massive measures are taken to ensure that pain is minimized, and suffering absent.

  62. Human babies are not able to consciously comprehend pain – where it comes from, how long it will last, or if there is a long term benefit to be had – and yet quite clearly suffer when they are in pain. If anything, suffer *more* because they cannot understand what is happening to them.

  63. In fact (after taking 3 semesters in Plants Physiology) I can assure you that plants can suffer. However this very fact will not stop me from cutting trees for my purpose or pleasure.

  64. Very interesting article!

    However, I do think we like to think of our own species as being more clever than it is. If we were truly “capable of intelligently working out what is good for us”, how come tens of thousands of people choose to take up smoking knowing full well that it will probably cause diseases and decrease their life span?

    1. I think this is a great reason why pain has to be so ‘painful’. If pain were directly associated with bad habits such as procrastination, we probably wouldn’t procrastinate as much, now would we!

  65. This comment from Anonymous@48 was so unintentionally funny:

    “Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain”

    You got evolution down backwards.

    Yeah, Dawkins, you got evolution all wrong. Go study theology, or something.

  66. I suspect the question is “but can what they suffer affect the way they think from then on?” If pain just happened in the moment and left no traces, then undeniably torture of humans or animals would be far less serious than it is, fleeting, evanescent, the loss of a few minutes or hours out of a lifetime. But torture, much more of course than killing (!) but in an ethically similar fashion, distorts and limits what a human personality can then become; some potentialities break under torture and can’t be repaired, which is the horror of either crime against animals or humans. Animals, already so much more limited in what they can become, arguably suffer far less damage from either crime whatever pain they indeed suffer in the moment. Maybe that lost or damaged human potential is what we poetically mean by “souls” when we (if we) acknowledge the incommensurability between the tragic death of an animal and the far more dreadful death of a human being. Torture brutalizes humans, which means, to make them more like brutes, stripped of some of their potential to be human. If branding makes a horse less a horse for the rest of its days, then I’m willing to call it torture, but nothing comparable to the torture of humans, because of the worlds we alone are privileged to carry within our heads, until those worlds are lost.

  67. I know my comment is late to the part but FWIW…

    I went to school in what was then an upper-middle class suburb – it still is now but to a relatively lesser extent, 30 years later, in Eugene Oregon. I had a sixth grade teacher in my alternative school explain to the class of mixed 3rd-6th graders that the poorer, less educated people are actually less self-aware than the wealthy educated, have emotions similar to animals and feel pain differently, more akin to animals.

    No, he wasn’t a right-wing nut. Josh was head teacher at a liberal-ish public alternative school somewhat ironically named ‘Evergreen.’

    One student transferred in from a poorer school district and lived in a rental. This kid’s life was made a living hell.

    I could easily imagine this dude vivisecting and animal, or a ‘poor’.

    1. No, he wasn’t a right-wing nut

      Sounds like he was just plain nuts.

      Was this train of thought sanctioned and mandated by the “liberal-ish public alternative” school?

      1. No, it wasn’t mandated, but it is an extreme form of a run-of-the-mill way of thinking many so-called liberals, especially the ones referred to here as ‘University Types’ harbor, especially in Eugene, Oregon.

        It’s really appalling. There are a lot of loopy right wing wing-nuts, but they tend to be visible and easy to intellectually and emotionally vaccinate oneself, and one’s kids against.

        However, the educated elitists are often far more subtle (unless they’re a teacher who can get away with it) and are also often afflicted by hubris. You know – the type of white liberal who might scrub his or her swimming pool after a child of color, or a poor, swam in it and so forth.

        This subtly makes them far more dangerous than some fool with teabags attached to the brim of his baseball cap.

        And you’re right, he was just plain nuts. However, a very popular and respected one as they often are ;)

        On the plus side, I’ve never felt like one was going to shoot me over vehicular right-of-way. Can’t say the same about teabaggers – you know, the craaaaazy and guns thing not usually mixing thing.

    1. Wow, that site has a very select set of characters for omnivores. One wonders if chimpanzees, our closest relatives and very clearly omnivorous, actually match them – it doesn’t seem like it to me.

  68. Thank you Richard, I am a trained Astrophysicist and science communicator, and pride myself on taking a logical approach to all aspects of my existence. I made the (for me) big decision to stop eating animals, and their by-products (milk etc.) after taking a big step back from the society I was brought up in and looking at it clearly without the smoked glass we are all brought up to use.

    I feel that as a scientist I have made the correct decision. I will continue to re-evaluate my decision, but 3 years on I feel fine and am happy that I chose wisely.

    Many of my fellow scientists seem to be scared of being seen to taking an ’emotional’ stance, and most have not spent time looking into this issue themselves. They seem to prefer not to think about it. Some have joined ‘pro’ animal vivisection/testing charities, as if they feel they are siding with the other scientists in doing so. Science shouldn’t have any ‘sides’. They are my friends and I am not angry/upset by their personal choices, but feel that the world needs to change. This could be an incredible era of science led social change.

    If I am ever shown evidence that animals are somehow set apart from us human animals then that would be fine, but all of the evidence I have reviewed over the last 10 years or so seems to point to humans illogically thinking they can treat animals how they like because they are somehow ‘better’ or ‘divinely different’.

    As scientists we should lead humanity into a better, more logical world.

    Please lead the way. A voice such as yours could do so much good. Please continue to use it wisely, and raise it more loudly.

    1. evidence I have reviewed over the last 10 years or so seems to point to humans illogically thinking they can treat animals how they like because they are somehow ‘better’ or ‘divinely different’.

      It’s much easier to kill when Gawd tells ya it’s righteous to do it.

  69. chronic pain did not evolve by adaptive selection, but simply arose as a ‘programming bug’–that is, as one of those troubles that always “turn up” whenever you try to improve old programs. Our ancestral ways to react to pain have not been debugged to work so well with the reflective thoughts and farsighted plans that evolved in our latest models of brains. However, we’ll propose a more technical answer in {Zombie Machines}, where we’ll argue that the precursors of what we call ‘suffering’ may have had to evolve because those were the simplest way to maintain a high priority on abating pain. It was only later, when we became smarter, that disadvantages came to the surface. Evolution never had any sense of what was likely to come next–so it didn’t prepare for intelligence.

  70. Very interesting article. However it makes the assumption that teh ability to suffer is morally significant, which I am not convinced of. Consider the thought experiment of creatures genetically modified to feel no suffering, or to feel it more greatly, would we be permitted to murder the former and obliged to defer excessively to the latter? A plausible analogy exists with brain damaged humans.
    I would say that the presence of a mind and consciousness is more morally significant in this case. Your thoughts?

    1. It might not affect which you could kill, but you wouldn’t have the same obligation to anaesthetize a creature that couldn’t suffer. In short, suffering is morally significant not because creating it is a wrong, not because it impacts the status of the creature in other ways.

  71. Richard Dawkins, thank you for your work. I think that the word “brilliant” is a very overused word, but you are an extremely illuminating educator. I also have a very personal obligation to thank you for your help to organize resistance to religiosity. I am one mind that learned *how* to think later in life, due to pretty extreme religious upbringing. So, thanks.

    I want to disagree with this paper.

    > Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.

    * Modern castration methods are pretty humane. (I know this is a pretty popular source, and not a scientific paper, but I think it isn’t less scientific than this paper: ) I suppose you could put the lamb to sleep first, but that could be argued to *add* some small amount of suffering to the experience.

    But I suppose the point I really want to make can be made with:

    * Branding cattle.

    I don’t think that we should think of this as the same as tying a person down and branding them against their will.

    The difference between cows and people, int his regard can be illustrated by examining those people who we *do* brand.

    There are people who *willfully choose* to have themselves branded. (like “cutters” or Tattoo enthusiasts, these people purposely seek to mutilate their own bodies in this way). They experience pain, but they desire the experience either for itself, its outcome, or both.

    You might object that cows are not choosing to be branded, but this is the point: Cows *cannot* choose to be branded. Or, for that matter, choose *not* to be branded.

    Lacking prefrontal lobes, cows don’t have the ability to examine their own pain (I’m going to try to suggest a distinction be made from here out between “pain” and “suffering”–I will try this suggestion in a minute) the way people do. And they don’t have the ability to contemplate their future sufferings, or “dread” them.

    To a cow, pain exists when it exists, and is over the next moment. There is no mental struggle with “why did this happen to me” or “I felt so powerless” or anything like that. They may be averse to experiencing the pain again, and so we should assume that they have memories of the pain, but *they don’t have memories of *themselves* having the pain, only of the pain.

    I know that that sounds weird, but I think it is the case. I will try to make it clearer.

    I think (but I may be remembering inaccurately) it was in a Daniel Dennett book that I read about Helen Keller’s report that “before she understood her first word, her existence was meaningless to her”

    In other words, she felt things and experienced things, but *didn’t know that she was doing any of these* and so didn’t exist in the same way as when her prefrontal lobes were activated by social stimulation.

    I think that this is an important distinction between men and (most) other beasts. Our ability to think on second and third tiers above the cognition of just our “mere” existence, is what makes us morally culpable creatures, and (I suspect) what makes us “suffer” (as opposed to “feel pain”)

    Thank you.

    I am sure I will hear more from people on this, by posting this here, and I hope for that constructive dialog. Thanks all.

  72. So much logical fuzziness, unconsidered morality and wishful thinking; and this from a group of people who I presume consider themselves to be atheists and/or rationalists.

    Humans are another animal; like all animals we eat, kill, utilise and otherwise exploit other animals, as well as plants and the natural environment, for our own, or more specifically our genes, benefit. Even if we are vegans (a ludicrous practice developed by our ancestors’ slave masters so we would be content to eat the grains and leaves that agricultural tyrannies of post-neolithic dictatorships forced upon us instead of the hunter/gatherer diet our evolutionary history ‘designed’ us for) we are still distorting the environment and harming other organisms by our agricultural practices. After all, who are we to say corn should grow and thistles should die? Who are we to deny the rat or the cockroach a full and happy life just so that we can grow more slave food ?

    All creatures with some sentience will experience some form of negative neurological feedback designed to make the organism withdraw from damaging external processes that would reduce the lifespan and hence reproductive capacity of the organism. We call it pain.
    All living creatures will die, all humans included, and more specifically you dear reader, will die, probably in pretty severe pain, and if you are conscious at the time, in terrifying fear and distress. In my profession I have witnessed quite a few people dying and for the most part it ain’t pretty and is nothing like the peaceful deaths so beloved of film and television.

    The organism’s ‘intelligence’ is surely irrelevant. The idea of some sort of evolutionary hierarchy that allows us to classify organisms (including humans) as ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ is so ludicrous, so 19th century, that I am amazed anyone brings it up seriously.

    Vivisection served a very useful purpose in increasing our knowledge of anatomy and physiology, if you have ever had any medical intervention that saved your life (starting with caesarian section or induction at birth) – thank vivisection.

    Mistreatment of animals (and humans) for the sake of pleasure or profit upsets me and I don’t like it, presumably because I empathise with the animal and don’t wish myself or my family/tribe to experience a similar fate. But morality, rightness or wrongness, human exceptionalism; these are all constructs we have developed to delude ourselves that our inevitable mortality and non-existence can be justified by some sort of ‘purpose’.

    What do people propose we are to become? Warriors of some no-pain no-suffering cult who will seek out such indignities in every corner of the animal kingdom and eradicate it? Should we be out there stopping the carnivores from hunting? Does not the hawk and the leopard cause pain and suffering to their prey? We know it is happening, even as we read, so should we not be out in the wild putting an end to all this pain and suffering on the planet? How can a vegan sleep at night knowing somewhere in the ocean an orca is killing a fish or a seal? How do they excuse themselves? Isn’t suffering the same whether inflicted deliberately by humans or unintentionally by predators?
    So oppose the mistreatment of animals because it makes you feel wrong, but please, don’t wrap it up in moral purpose.

    1. Does not the hawk…cause pain and suffering to their prey?

      Personally, I wouldn’t compare myself to an animal with a brain the size of a hazelnut if I wanted to maintain any sort of moral credibility.

      We can’t control what the piranhas do in the Amazon; we can control what we do in the research lab.

    2. The idea of some sort of evolutionary hierarchy that allows us to classify organisms (including humans) as ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ is so ludicrous, so 19th century, that I am amazed anyone brings it up seriously.

      Even so, I bet you treat people better than bacteria, and consider yourself justified in doing so. Insisting the word “moral” means something else doesn’t make it so.

  73. I hope Mr. Dawkins will understand that vivisection does happen now. For some reason it is popular to believe that vivisection no longer occurs. It does. All you have to do is go to you tube and search for videos on it. Here is one about Huntington Life Sciences, a contract animal testing facility that has been exposed in at least 7 undercover exposes They were once run out of England, but they came to America, and I have been to their facility in New Jersey to protest them.

    People who do vivisection are in it for profit. They cannot care about the animals. The little part of their minds that can feel guilty gets defeated by embracing the cruelty. They take out their frustrations on the animals; punching them in the face, shaking them, jabbing them with needles, forcing them into restraints, etc. They do not use pain relief, as if that could even make it okay. These horrors are happening all around us. There are 2 vivisection labs close to my house.

    One close to me, Janelia Farm, does brain experiments and it is privately funded, so they don’t have to answer to anyone. I attended their grand opening event to see if I could learn anything useful. They had not moved any animals in yet, and they had multiple guards stationed at every hallway they wanted to keep visitors out of. They built the facility into the ground; like a bunker. The place is terrifying. I called my visit “a day trip to hell”.

  74. I find it interesting that Dawkins – who is someone who thinks that religious belief in and of itself is a primary source of the worlds evils – shows how scientists, who are often atheists, still perpetrate atrocities. Guess you can’t blame everything on belief in God.

    1. Considering how much here is attributed to Descartes, who is well-known for his arguments for God, that’s a pretty funny attack.

      1. I don’t dispute that individuals who profess to believe in God (like Descartes) perpetrate acts of cruelty. Dawkins presents vivisection as a scientific endeavor and he “presumes” that some justified it by Descartes ideas about the “soul” – which isn’t a genuine biblical doctrine anyway. I really doubt that such ideas are what motivates most scientist today who do what is described here, even if it did Descartes and Harvey. I was commenting more on Dawkins typical self-righteous generalizations about belief in God (it’s a delusion etc.)than his specific argument here. I think he’s subtly implying that religious belief in general is responsible for cruelty. The fact of the matter is that corrupted thinking by BOTH atheists AND professed believers is among the primary causes of human suffering. Just because many perpetrators used God or religion as an excuse, doesn’t invalidate religion or God in general.

  75. Most of this is physical pain , what about emotional from being stuck in a cage ?

    Dolphins recognise distress enough to save humans who are drowning so why wouldnt other animals as well in their own terms , through behaviours we might otherwise might not recognise at all ?

  76. Anyone who works in the labs that carry out torture upon animals are akin to the people who worked in concentration camps in WW2 and Cambodia.
    I can not understand them and wouldn’t trust them.

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