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British Government Moves To Protect Octopuses From Cruelty

The move to protect cephalopods and crabs/lobsters follows from research showing their intelligence and awareness of pain

Following a report from the London School of Economics and Political Science, the British government has decided to extend animal protection laws to include “cephalopods (including octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) and decapods (including crabs, lobsters and crayfish).”

No, this is not just another nut moment along the lines of “Salad is plant murder!” There’s a background: Researchers have discovered in recent decades that some invertebrates, especially those with complex central nervous systems, are much more intelligent and capable of experiencing pain (sentient) than we used to think.

Octopus

As George Dvorsky explains at Gizmodo, the British government introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in May. The bill defined sentient animals as animals with backbones (vertebrates). However, scientists have known for some time that some invertebrate animals (no backbone), like octopuses and lobsters, are sentient. The report was commissioned to gather findings so as to make a reasonable decision:

Dr Jonathan Birch, Associate Professor at LSE’s Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and Principal Investigator on the Foundations of Animal Sentience project, said:

“I’m pleased to see the government implementing a central recommendation of my team’s report. After reviewing over 300 scientific studies, we concluded that cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans should be regarded as sentient, and should therefore be included within the scope of animal welfare law.

News, “Octopuses, crabs and lobsters to be recognised as sentient beings under UK law following LSE report findings” at London School of Economics and Political Science (November 19, 2021)

Dr. Birch went on to point out that octopuses and other cephalopods (cuttlefish and squid, for example) have been protected in science research for years, due to awareness of their capacity for feeling. But those protections did not extend to industry, where most such animals are used:

… Birch and his colleagues evaluated several abusive commercial practices related to these creatures, recommending against declawing, nicking (cutting the tendon of a crab’s claw), eyestalk ablation (eyestalks of female shrimp are sometimes severed to accelerate breeding), the sale of live decapods to untrained handlers, and the extreme practice of boiling lobsters alive without electrical stunning.

George Dvorsky, “Octopuses, Crabs, and Lobsters are Sentient Beings, Says Updated UK Law” at Gizmodo (November 22, 2021)

The report’s findings will not affect current practices, only the ones covered in future legislation, which is doubtless a disappointment to animal welfare advocates.

How do we know that octopuses or lobsters can feel anything?:

The report used eight different ways to measure sentience including learning ability, possession of pain receptors, connections between pain receptors and certain brain regions, response to anesthetics or analgesics, and behaviors including balancing threat against opportunity for reward and protection against injury or threat.

It found “very strong” evidence of sentience in octopods and “strong” evidence in most crabs. For other animals in these two groups, such as squid, cuttlefish and lobsters they found the evidence was substantial but not strong.

Katie Hunt, “Lobsters and crabs are sentient beings and shouldn’t be boiled alive, UK report says” at CNN (November 23, 2021)

While all these types of invertebrates have not been studied to the same degree, there is general agreement that, as a group, they stand out for intelligence among invertebrates, in roughly the same way as crows stand out for intelligence among birds. And that’s a curious thing in itself. Just as crows can be as smart as apes, while having very different brains, octopuses break all the “rules” for smartness: “The organism does not contain only a single larger brain, but a unique network of smaller brains is also considered to be present in each of its prehensile eight arms.(Chegg)

Some have called the octopus a “second genesis” of intelligence.

Some highlights from recent research:

➤ Octopuses get emotional about pain, research suggests. The smartest of invertebrates, the octopus, once again prompts us to rethink what we believe to be the origin of intelligence. The brainy cephalopods behaved about the same as lab rats under similar conditions, raising both neuroscience and ethical issues.

➤ Cuttlefish have good memories, even in old age. They are cephalopods and many types of cephalopod show a number of intelligent characteristics which we are only beginning to investigate. Octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish are surprisingly smart for invertebrates. Researchers are gaining some insights into how intelligence helps them.

➤ Can crabs think? Can lobsters feel? In Switzerland, it is now illegal to boil a lobster alive. Are the Swiss right? Is it cruel? How does a self that feels pain come to exist? And how do we distinguish information use — computer style — from self-awareness?

The cephalopods may have gotten a public relations boost from the film My Octopus Teacher (2020):

A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world.

One way to address issues around feeling, intelligence, and consciousness in animals is philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous question, “Is there something that it is like to be a bat?” Or an octopus? That’s what creates an awareness of pain and loss.

Some scientists, notably Eva Jablonka, and her team, have been studying the development of minimal consciousness in animals since the Cambrian explosion.

Prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio attributes some level of consciousness to bacteria and even viruses. He is not, of course, referring to “sentience” — the ability to feel pain. There is probably nothing that it “is like” to be a bacterium or a virus.

The British legislation would simply recognize invertebrates that have long been identified by scientists as unusually intelligent as deserving the same protections as we might accord to, say, birds.

Scientists continue to try to understand why some life forms become significantly more intelligent than others. The answer does not seem to lie simply in the course of their evolution from earlier ancestors.

You may also wish to read: Did minimal consciousness drive the Cambrian Explosion? Eva Jablonka’s team makes the daring case, repurposing Hungarian chemist Tibor Gánti’s origin of life studies. The researchers point out that life forms that show minimal consciousness have very different brains. Behavior, not brain anatomy, is the signal to look for.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

British Government Moves To Protect Octopuses From Cruelty