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Can Invertebrates Suffer? Or, How Robust is Argument-by-Analogy?

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It is a popular notion that, compared to vertebrates, invertebrates have a reduced capacity to experience suffering. This is usually based on arguments that invertebrates show only simple forms of learning, have little memory capacity, do not show behavioural responses to stimuli that would cause 'higher' vertebrates to exhibit responses indicative of pain, and have differences in their physiology that would preclude the capacity for suffering. But, how convincing is this 'evidence' of a reduced capacity to suffer? Suffering is a negative mental state – a private experience – and, as such, it cannot be measured directly. When assessing the capacity of an animal to experience suffering, we often compare the similarity of its responses with those of 'higher' animals, conceptualized in the principle of argument-by-analogy. By closely examining the responses of invertebrates, it can be seen that they often behave in a strikingly analogous manner to vertebrates. In this paper, I discuss published studies that show that invertebrates such as cockroaches, flies and slugs have short- and long-term memory; have age effects on memory; have complex spatial, associative and social learning; perform appropriately in preference tests and consumer demand studies; exhibit behavioural and physiological responses indicative of pain; and, apparently, experience learned helplessness. The similarity of these responses to those of vertebrates may indicate a level of consciousness or suffering that is not normally attributed to invertebrates. This indicates that we should either be more cautious when using argument-by-analogy, or remain open-minded to the possibility that invertebrates are capable of suffering in a similar way to vertebrates.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2001


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