AR-FAQ - #39

#39 What about insects? Do they have rights too?

Before considering the issue of rights, let us first address the question "What about insects?". Strictly speaking, insects are small invertebrate animals of the class Insecta, having an adult stage characterized by three pairs of legs, a segmented body with three major divisions, and usually two pairs of wings. We'll adopt the looser definition, which includes similar invertebrate animals such as spiders, centipedes, and ticks. Insects have a ganglionic nervous system, in contrast to the central nervous system of vertebrates. Such a system is characterized by local aggregates of neurons, called ganglia, that are associated with, and specialized for, the body segment with which they are co-located. There are interconnections between ganglia but these connections function not so much as a global integrating pathway, but rather for local segmental coordination. For example, the waves of leg motion that propagate along the body of a centipede are mediated by the intersegmental connections. In some species the cephalic ganglia are large and complex enough to support very complex behavior (e.g., the lobster and octopus). The cuttlefish (not an insect but another invertebrate with a ganglionic nervous system) is claimed by some to be about as intelligent as a dog. Insects are capable of primitive learning and do exhibit what many would characterize as intelligence. Spiders are known for their skills and craftiness; whether this can all be dismissed as instinct is arguable. Certainly, bees can learn in a limited way. When offered a reward from a perch of a certain color, they return first to perches of that color. They also learn the location of food and transmit that information to their colleagues. The learning, however, tends to be highly specialized and applicable to only limited domains. In addition to a primitive mental life as described above, there is some evidence that insects can experience pain and suffering. The earthworm nervous system, for example, secretes an opiate substance when the earthworm is injured. Similar responses are seen in vertebrates and are generally accepted to be a mechanism for the attenuation of pain. On the other hand, the opiates are also implicated in functions not associated with analgesia, such as thermoregulation and appetite control. Nevertheless, the association of secretion with tissue injury is highly suggestive. Earthworms also wriggle quite vigorously when impaled on a hook. In possible opposition to this are other observations. For example, the abdomen of a feeding wasp can be clipped off and the head may go on sucking (presumably in no distress?). Singer quotes three criteria for deciding if an organism has the capacity to suffer from pain: 1) there are behavioral indications, 2) there is an appropriate nervous system, and 3) there is an evolutionary usefulness for the experience of pain. These criteria seem to satisfied for insects, if only in a primitive way. Now we are equipped to tackle the issue of insect rights. First, one might argue that the issue is not so compelling as for other animals because industries are not built around the exploitation of insects. But this is untrue; large industries are built around honey production, silk production, and cochineal/carmine production, and, of course, mass insect death results from our use of insecticides. Even if the argument were true, it should not prevent us from attempting to be consistent in the application of our principles to all animals. Insects are a part of the Animal Kingdom and some special arguments would be required to exclude them from the general AR argument. Some would draw a line at some level of complexity of the nervous system, e.g., only animals capable of operant conditioning need be enfranchised. Others may quarrel with this line and place it elsewhere. Some may postulate a scale of life with an ascending capacity to feel pain and suffer. They might also mark a cut-off on the scale, below which rights are not actively asserted. Is the cut-off above insects and the lower invertebrates? Or should there be no cut-off? This is one of the issues still being actively debated in the AR community. People who strive to live without cruelty will attempt to push the line back as far as possible, giving the benefit of the doubt where there is doubt. Certainly, one can avoid unnecessary cruelty to insects. The practical issues involved in enfranchising insects are dealt with in the following two questions. DG

I want to realize brotherhood or identity not merely with the beings called human, but I want to realize identity with all life, even with such things as crawl upon earth. Mahatma Gandhi (statesman and philosopher)

What is it that should trace the insuperable line? ...The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Jeremy Bentham (philosopher)

SEE ALSO: #22, #40-#41, #47