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Octopus Civil Rights

December 4, 2011

When people talk about animal rights, they generally mean vertebrate animals. I don’t see butterflies, earthworms, or octopi on the PETA site. In arguing for protection of mice, PETA specifically notes that mice have “nervous systems similar to our own,” that is, a vertebrate central nervous system (CNS). The list of animals on the main PETA site goes down as far as fish, although there is occasional mention of lobster and octopus.

What about octopus?  It is now established that an octopus can learn to solve artificial tasks, such as choosing a red ball instead of a white one. In the wild, octopi are well known to use tools, such as to make a shelter out of a coconut shell, and to open screw-cap lids–a fairly advanced task even for human children.

Do octopi feel pain? In humans, pain is defined as a function of the brain, associated with specific parts of the cerebral cortex. An octopus doesn’t have a “brain” in the human sense. But it does have a central collection of neurons, connected to ganglia distributed out in the tentacles. The government of Canada actually put out a report concluding that invertebrates do not feel pain. On the other hand, this octopus blog argues that octopi show aversive reactions that imply something equivalent to pain.

This video of an octopus escaping a shrimp boat was posted by shrimp farmers who commonly encounter octopi stealing their catch. What do you think? If you caught an octopus eating all your hard-earned catch, would you let it go?

  1. December 4, 2011 5:30 pm

    Great Video–and those shrimpers were gratifyingly merciful–I kept waiting for someone to spear it or something–until I read the note beneath the video, about how they spared it out of respect for its intelligence–love a happy ending!

    Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if people felt justified to draw the line at certain CNS dissimilarities but–as you say–how their differences in ‘bio-wiring’ make us MORE comfortable in judging their feelings (or lack thereof) seems a case of Jiminy Cricket doing back-handsprings in our own favor.

    My take is this–we feel pain when we are harmed–if we didn’t feel pain, the harm would still be real (albeit without the shock induced by pain)–therefore, if we harm an octopus –even if it didn’t display avoidance–we are harming the octopus. The presence or absence of pain is only a part of the ethical conundrum.

    This issue will have as good a chance of being brought to the world’s attention by Synthetic Intelligence arguments as by debates on the feelings of invertebrates–either way, we will very likely focus on our differences from these other sentient entities, rather than our shared qualities.

  2. December 4, 2011 7:57 pm

    I like how David Foster Wallace considers whether it’s ethical to eat lobsters and to what extent they feel pain in his essay “Consider the Lobster.” If you can get through your own life without causing other creatures even the possibility of pain, why not try?

  3. SFreader permalink
    December 5, 2011 1:01 pm

    Considering that the Western medical community is still struggling with openly acknowledging that human infants can/do sense pain, I’m not surprised that creatures such as the octopus might be thought to also not feel pain.

    Why the emphasis on the need for a sophisticated CNS to qualify a creature as worthy of empathy? Similarly, by this standard, an adult human in a coma could ‘ethically’ be physically brutalized because he/she cannot feel pain.

    • December 5, 2011 5:36 pm

      That’s an interesting question. Anesthesia is considered to induce a coma-like state; it’s more like a coma than sleep, actually. So, the point of anesthesia is that you can be cut by the surgical knife because you don’t feel pain.

      There is a large debate about what is ok to do if you’re in an extended coma. In some cases, one can be brought out of the coma by surprising drugs such as Ambion.

      On the opposite side, some people have done surgery on animals using only a paralyzing agent where the animal still feels pain. This has also happened to human patients by accident, where the anesthesiologist didn’t realize that only the paralytic drug was administered without the pain-killer by mistake.

      • SFreader permalink
        December 10, 2011 7:06 pm

        More data demonstrating that rats can/do choose to help other rats in distress, i.e., emphasize. In one study the free rat even opted to free his colleague versus hogging all of the chocolate treats for himself. One interesting comment is that the speed/likelihood of helping seems to depend on the free rat’s awareness that he is capable of helping.

        Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, Peggy Mason. Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats. Science, 9 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6061 pp. 1427-1430 DOI: 10.1126/science.1210789

        I imagine that this will likely have some impact on the research ethics boards’ appraisals of rat (and probably mouse) studies.

        • December 10, 2011 8:24 pm

          Wow, that’s the first I’ve heard for rats.
          Maybe there’s hope for Congress. 😉

  4. December 6, 2011 3:41 pm

    Reading Margaret Atwood’s new collection In Other Worlds, led me to this article about “victimless leather,” which seems ironically related to this discussion:

  5. December 6, 2011 9:44 pm

    That article is right out of the steak farm Titus visits in M.T. Anderson’s novel Feed!

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