“Are Insects Conscious?” The title of philosopher Peter Singer’s latest piece is quite provocative. It turns out that there is new scientific evidence that in fact insects have subjective experiences. They are not as crude as, say, jellyfish, which are more like ambulatory plants.
This matters because it might mean that there is far more consciousness in the world than we think. There is, according to an estimate from the Smithsonian Institution, some ten quintillion, which is the same as — deep breath — 10.000.000.000.000.000.000, or 1018 individual insects alive at any one time. That’s nine orders of magnitude more insect individuals than there are humans, a difference of magnitude similar to the difference to the numbers one and one billion.
Obviously human and higher-animal consciousness is far more advanced, so while no conversion measurement can be devised (Singer, a utilitarian, might think so, but I’m not quite there), presumably there is far “more” consciousness higher up the scale of complexity. But still, those numbers matter, and they matter a lot.
This is also ethically relevant for humans because it means that killing insects, as we do quite frequently, is a matter of quite different ethical value than we think. A little less like eating a grape or crushing a leaf and a little more like killing a dog or a chicken.
I mentioned my intuition that killing insects was morally relevant in this piece last year, it seems I was on to something.
I think expanding our capacity to feel compassion for other creatures is a good thing, and one of the most challenging things I can imagine. The end to Peter Singer’s piece hits on something that needs to be worked out and reflected on:
In the West, we tend to smile at Jain monks who sweep ants from their paths to avoid treading on them. We should, instead, admire the monks for carrying compassion to its logical conclusion.