Marian Stamp Dawkins [10.31.12]

Whatever anybody says, I feel that the hard problem of consciousness is still very hard, and to try and rest your ethical case on proving something that has baffled people for years seems to me to be not good for animals. Much, much better to say let's go for something tangible, something we can measure. Are the animals healthy, do they have what they want? Then if you can show that, then that's a much, much better basis for making your decisions.

MARIAN STAMP DAWKINS is professor of animal behaviour at the University of Oxford, where she heads the Animal Behaviour Research Group. She is the author of Why Animals Matter.

Marian Stamp Dawkin's Edge Bio Page

[35 minutes]

The Reality Club: Nicholas Humphrey


The questions I'm asking myself are really about how much we really know about animal consciousness. A lot of people think we do, or think that we don't need scientific evidence. It really began to worry me that people were basing their arguments on something that we really can't know about at all. One of the questions I asked myself was: how much do we really know? And is what we know the best basis for arguing for animal welfare? I've been thinking hard about that, and I came to the conclusion that the hard problem of consciousness is actually very hard. It's still there, and we kid ourselves if we think we've solved it.

Therefore, to base the whole argument of animal welfare and the ethical way we treat animals on something as nebulous as having solved the hard problem of consciousness seemed to be a really bad thing. Not at all a good thing for animals. I was interested in trying to find other arguments to support animal welfare; reasons why people should take notice of animals that didn't rest on having solved the hard problem of consciousness.

It seemed to me that if you think about human beings, the way to get them to change their behavior is to show them that their own self-interest lies in doing something. For example, if you argue that animal welfare improves human health, improves the health of their children, it gives them better food, it gives them better quality of life. Those arguments may actually be much more powerful for people who aren't already convinced about animal welfare than trying to use an argument based on animal consciousness, when really we haven't got the good basis for it that some people would like to think we have.

The first thing I began to do is to ignore a lot of people who think that all you need is anthropomorphism, that the ethical basis of treating animals lies on just saying they're a bit like us, and therefore we should treat them like us. Actually that argument is quite dangerous. It leads to a sort of way of thinking that says anything goes. Anybody can just make anything up and say that that's what is the case.

What we really need is a much more scientific basis for animal welfare than just an anthropomorphic argument. I began to think, how can you define animal welfare in a way that's scientific, that actually leads to proper evidence so the decisions we make are based on good evidence? I came up with a really very simple definition of animal welfare. Which is that the animals are healthy, and that they have what they want. I think most people would agree that health (not being injured, not being diseased) is absolutely fundamental to animal welfare, so that doesn't really worry people, if you say that. Healthy animals, they're good for humans, good for animals, a major part of animal welfare.

But also most people think that there's something more to animal welfare than just not dying of a disease. That more is, in my view, what the animals, themselves, want. Do they want access to water; do they want access to cover? Do they want to be with each other? Obviously we can't necessarily give them everything they want. But we can at least find out what it is. If somebody's going to argue such-and-such improves animal welfare, I would say well, what's the evidence that it either improves their health or it gives the animals what they want? If you can't show that, then however much you think you might want it, it doesn't seem to me that it actually improves animal welfare at all.

The great thing about that definition, although it's very simple, is it tells you exactly what you have to go out and do to measure animal welfare. It means you have to go out and see what you think improves animal welfare, actually does improve their health, or actually gives them something that they want. That very simple basis is a good basis for defining animal welfare and much more sound than trying to argue that the animals are like us, or try to prove animal consciousness.

Whatever anybody says, I feel that the hard problem of consciousness is still very hard, and to try and rest your ethical case on proving something that has baffled people for years seems to me to be not good for animals. Much, much better to say let's go for something tangible, something we can measure. Are the animals healthy, do they have what they want? Then if you can show that, then that's a much, much better basis for making your decisions.

If you want to try and convince people who are not already convinced that animal welfare matters, you use arguments that touch on, as I said, their self-interest; good for their children's health, good for their own health, good for the environment. Those are the arguments that are going to carry the weight. When people talk about producing enough food to feed the world or the problems of climate change, it is very striking that animal welfare isn't mentioned. Most of the major reports talk about the importance of doing things for the planet; they don't mention animal welfare.

I'm very worried that unless we have much better arguments for animal welfare, much better evidence for animal welfare than we have at the moment, animal welfare is just going to be pushed off the agenda. So my argument would be let's have a simple definition of animal welfare, where we know what the evidence is, and then we link that to human health and to what's good for humans. That's the way I think the voice of animals is going to be heard in the long run.

Most people will find that a rather utilitarian view of animals. They feel it looks at animals as though they were just kind of tools for humans. But that is the way to actually convince people who are not convinced—people in developed countries, people who don't have enough food for themselves, to take them seriously, we need to link animal welfare into what's good for humans.

A lot of my research currently is trying to develop good ways of measuring these two things. Measuring animal health and measuring what animals want, with a view to having the really tough evidence that can hold its own when human wellbeing is being considered; and to do this on a big scale. That's really what I've been trying to do, think about the ways in which we can actually do that in practice.

The history of animal consciousness is actually quite interesting, because there was a long period during the 20th century when people didn't really talk about consciousness. They said it wasn't something you could study scientifically in either humans or animals. So they didn't study it at all. Then about the 1980s, people began to say, well no, we should bring these things into science. In particular, Donald Griffin was very instrumental in saying we should study animal consciousness, that it's as much part of their biology as anything else, and we should find a way of bringing it into biology.

I think his books, his work, really marked a turning point in the way people saw animal consciousness. One of the things that's happened since is that, in some ways, the floodgates have been opened, and people think that you don't need any evidence to talk about animal consciousness, that you can just imagine animals as like human beings—a very anthropomorphic view. You could talk about them as having feelings just like other humans; you don't need science to tell you anything about it. You just use your kind of intuition.

People like Marc Bekoff have really argued that we need anthropomorphism, that that's the only way to study animals. I feel that there's a huge danger in this, because to see animals just like humans, it seems to me, is to miss the biological basis of what they actually are and can lead you into really quite difficult waters. When you actually look at what do we know scientifically about animal consciousness, it's an extraordinarily difficult thing.

Consciousness is sometimes called the hard problem because unlike some problems in biology which are difficult, like how does DNA build a body, the hard problem of consciousness is really very, very intractable. We have some ideas about how DNA builds bodies. We have some ideas about a lot of difficult problems, like how vision works. But consciousness is really hard.

It's hard because we do not understand how a lump of nervous tissue, the brain, gives rise to subjective experience. We just don't know. We know a lot about how brains work, we know a lot about how neurons work—we don't understand, there's a kind of gap in our understanding. And that's why it's called the hard problem. It's not just a difficult problem, it's the hard problem. It's not an impossible problem. It may have an answer one day. But it is actually the hard problem. The hardest problem in biology, I would argue.

If we acknowledge the hardness of the hard problem, and we say we don't understand consciousness, it's much better to acknowledge that than to pretend we don't. To pretend it's not a problem. To pretend that scientists who insist that we don't know about animals, what animals feel, what animal consciousness is, are just muddying the waters. I think it's much better to face up to our ignorance about that than to pretend we've solved it and use that as the basis for animal welfare. That's why I feel we should try and define animal welfare without consciousness. We've still got lots of evidence of what's good for animals without that, but we don't make the mistake of trying to solve a very, very intractable problem.

One of the things which I think has been really important recently is the development of a much more scientific approach to animal welfare. Clearly you can measure animal health and you can also measure what animals themselves want. To give you an example, we can ask a question, does it actually improve animal welfare if you give chickens more space, for example. A lot of people would say of course it does, they're less crowded, there must be better welfare. But the scientific approach would be to say, well, no, before you assume that because a human might like that, it would be much, much better to look for evidence of does it improve their health if you give them more space, and do they actually want more space? If you've got proper answers to that, then you might actually have a scientific basis for your decisions. Without that, you're just saying a kind of anthropomorphic, a very vague argument.

There's a lot of new legislation about animal welfare. Unfortunately a lot of it is not evidence-based. One of the reasons for that is the fact that it's quite difficult to get hold of. One of the things we've been doing is trying to develop ways in which you can get really good evidence. For example, if you actually take a case of crowding in chickens or pigs or something like that, lots of people would say that must be bad for their welfare. Or they look at animals outside and they say they must be better off if they're free range and they're outside. That's a judgment of humans. But it seems to be very important, before you start saying this must happen or this mustn't happen, that you have very good evidence.

For example, we need to look at the health of animals inside and outside. It is a very striking fact that if you look at free-range chickens, the mortality rates are much higher than they are inside or in cages. That surprises a lot of people, but it's an important piece of evidence, before you actually start evaluating the welfare of the animals. For example, being outside in a cold English winter really isn't necessarily better for an animal's welfare than being warm and comfortable inside. We're very misled by these different words.

One of the things that we have been doing is to develop ways of monitoring animal welfare. I'm very interested in the idea that you actually might be able to gather evidence on a very big scale, not just in a pen or one or two animals, but actually out there on commercial farms, to monitor the welfare on commercial farms on a very wide scale. We've been developing a monitoring system that looks at the health of broiler chickens on commercial farms. We study 50,000 birds in a shed, and that's the kind of scale that we're looking at. We have cameras that automatically monitor them from day old right the way through to slaughter. We can actually be in a position to say, well, if you do this, you actually improve the welfare, or you haven't. So instead of it being left to people just to guess what might be better for welfare, we can actually ask the question, does it improve their welfare to give them perches, environment, access to daylight. Do these things actually improve their health and welfare or do they not?

There are some people who feel you don't actually need evidence. All you need is a kind of relationship with animals, such as your dog, and you just know that it's conscious. You don't need any evidence. Anybody who says the dog isn't conscious is just blurring the issues and hindering progress. So it's a kind of given. I think that people like Marc Bekoff actually feel that all you need, and if you deny that, you are doing something as a disservice to animals. My argument is exactly the opposite way around.

My argument is saying, because we don't understand animal consciousness, we ought to be opening our eyes to the possibility that a great range of animals, not just mammals, not just birds, maybe invertebrates are conscious as well. It seems to me that by saying we don't understand consciousness, you're not closing off animals' consciousness. You're not denying animal consciousness altogether. You're just simply saying we don't know and therefore it might exist in a much wider range of animals.

It's a difference between saying it's a kind of gut feeling, that's all you need, and anything else is to be anti-animal welfare, or it's saying well, no, wait a minute, we don't know that. We don't know that in any animal. We don't even know that in humans. And it's much better to acknowledge our ignorance and to rest our case on things that we can actually find out; namely, the science of what actually affects animals' health and animal well fair as well.

A lot of people have often felt, people who are not nonscientists, have been anthropomorphic for a long time and said I don't need science to tell me that an animal is conscious. If we waited for the scientists to tell us what's good for animal welfare, we'd wait forever. We should give the animals the benefit of the doubt, we should just go ahead and make laws. That's always been a thread. What's happened recently is that scientists used to say let's not be anthropomorphic; let's be scientists. You've got more and more scientists who say we don't need this at all, we just need to open our hearts and just talk about animal consciousness. We don't need the science either. The shift is there being people calling themselves scientists who say we don't need science, we just need anthropomorphism. That seems to be one of the things that I feel is slightly dangerous.

Animal welfare is highly controversial in all sorts of areas, and in particular on experiments in animals. That is an area that a lot of people are extremely concerned about. Farm animals are another one. Pet animals are another one where the welfare of the animals is a very controversial issue. You can convince people that animal welfare is important without necessarily solving all the problems of consciousness. You can say its simply giving animal health a very, very high priority. That's one of the things that will enable you to find a compromise between what some people want, or anthropomorphism, and the difficulty of actually answering those questions.

I'm one of those lucky people who decided early in life what they wanted to do and have been able to do it. When I was 11, I read Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring which is about animal behavior, and his studies of the animals in his house, which I was absolutely enchanted with. When I was 14 I read a book by Nico Tinbergen called Curious Naturalist, which is about his field studies, his scientific studies of studying animal behavior. Then I discovered that Nico Tinbergen, although he was Dutch, was at Oxford. He was teaching animal behavior at Oxford. I remember thinking I can think of absolutely nothing better than to go to Oxford, study zoology and work with Tinbergen.

And it was absolutely fantastic. He was a wonderful lecturer. He talked about all sorts of extraordinary things, and I was lucky enough then to become his research student. I worked on bird vision. I did my thesis, partly at Oxford and partly in Berkeley, on the way birds see objects, particularly camouflaged prey, and how they manage to break the camouflage by learning. I began to realize that animal behavior might actually begin to tell us something about animal welfare. I thought if we could actually begin to use what animals do to tell us about their welfare, could we use what they do to tell us about what they want.

I did a series of preference tests looking at whether for example a chicken in a battery cage actually wanted more space. I found that although space was important, actually, somewhere to scratch in was rather more important to them than more space. I did work on measuring the amount of space the animals took to do behavior, which then was subsequently used to argue that they should be given more space. I gradually became interested in what animals were telling us by their behavior about their welfare and thinking that this intractable thing, welfare, could be made more tractable by objective studies of behavior.

Then I became interested in the idea that not only could you ask animals what they wanted, to give them a choice, but you could actually ask them how much they wanted something. You could make it difficult for them to get what they wanted, make them push a weight or do something difficult, and you could actually ask them what sort of price they would pay for something. Again, you can be absolutely objective, you can measure that, and you get objective kind of answers about what are the things that animals give priorities to, what do they want that they want less, what do they really want, what are necessities.

I became really interested in how you could use behavior as an objective way of studying welfare.

I did a year of work in Oxford, and then I got married. Richard was posted to Berkeley and I went as well. I did a kind of long-distance thesis. I still was working on the work I started with Nico Tinbergen, but we were corresponding, so it was kind of long-distance. I ended up working in Berkeley on research image work, on bird vision. The way animals learn: birds can learn to crack camouflage. But I was actually many thousands of miles away. It was only when we went back to Oxford that I became interested in applying behavioral ideas to the objective measurement of welfare.

That really interested me very much. How can you find out what animals want, how can you objectively measure it, and how can you get them to prioritize what they want? Obviously what they want is not the only thing. Children never want to go to the dentist. You balance what they want with what's good for their health. It's that mixture of the two things that I've actually thought that's what we can mean by animal welfare. That gives us a very good basis for looking at animal welfare in an objective way.

In terms of the work, one of the things that I did was to look at one of the most controversial issues in keeping broiler or meat chickens, which is how crowded they are—they're not given much space. The producers, the farmers, don't want to increase the amount of space they're given because, of course, that's very expensive. But the public thinks that that's one of the major welfare issues. I got together with a very large number of broiler producers, I think it represented about 70 percent of the U.K. broiler industry, and I did what I think is still the biggest experiment ever on meat or broiler chickens, on commercial farms. It involved about 2.7 million chickens, going through normally their production cycle. I got the farmers to stock the birds at five different densities, ranging from lower to much more crowded.

I had about ten to 12 different companies all participating, all doing exactly what I wanted. We could look statistically at what happens when you do give them more space. We could ask absolutely objectively what happens to the welfare, what happens to the health of the birds if they're actually given more space. We were able to show that there were major differences between the different companies. But actually stocking density itself was not the key factor in affecting things like lameness and mortality, except when you were up to the very highest levels. But for a big range, it was far more important that they gave them good litter, good air, and quality of environment than the stocking density.

That was then used; it fed into what became the European Union Boiler Directive on how to keep broilers. The reason why that study was quite important is that it was done on commercial farms. It actually showed you what would happen if you changed it. Not just on a small pen, but on a big scale.

The great thing that I learned from that is if you want to really do research on farm animal welfare that's going to really make a difference, you have to work with the people who keep the animals. You have to work with the producers. You have to get them on-board. They could see all the reasons for doing this. They wanted to know the answer. That is something I think I carry through, that if you want to change animal welfare, it's no good railing at producers, of the farmers. You have to work with them to find ways that they can actually see the advantage to them. If they get healthier flocks, if they get lower mortality, then that's a plus for them. The way to get animal welfare forward is to work with the actual producers, front-line. Not small-scale and then transfer it upwards. Right from the beginning work with them so they can see the point of what you're doing. That's the way to have impact—much more than try to criticize them.

I've never taken any money from any producers. What they do is they help me in kind. They give me their data, they give me their help. I always make a point, before I do any study, of having an agreement that says whatever the results are, we will be able to publish them, so there's no question of that. Everything is absolutely open. I've never taken any money from them. I am hugely grateful to them for their help, but never any money.

The funding comes from government, or from DEFRA or one of our grant funding agencies. We're independent on our funding, but we engage with the industry, the poultry industry in this case, so that we really get results that are relevant to their industry.

I was working on bird vision, which was really interesting. It fascinated me. It was about how, when a bird first comes across a camouflaged prey, they might not see it—they might be fooled by the camouflage. Gradually they learn to break the camouflage. They get really, really good at spotting even camouflaged prey. You've got a kind of arms race between the prey being camouflaged and the predators breaking the camouflage. I was fascinated by it.

But I thought, is this really quite useful? It's very interesting for me. I did feel I wanted to do something more useful. I did want to use behavior in this way. I feel very pleased that I had the opportunity to work on this very controversial issue, to do with farm animal welfare and work with producers and really try to make a difference to the way animals are kept.

I'm Professor of Animal Behavior. I teach animal behavior, I lecture on animal behavior, and then I rush off to the farms and study chickens when I can. We also have at university a farm run by the Food Animal Initiative, which is dedicated to trying to put things into practice, to take difficult issues and to see if there can be a commercial solution that enables farmers to make a living, puts animal welfare at its heart, and is also good for the environment.

We've got to find solutions that are holistic, that actually include everything: animal welfare, what's good for the environment, what's good for human health, because if we don't do that, one or the other is going to get to lose out. The commercial producers that I speak to are absolutely fed up with being lobbied by the animal welfare to do one thing, and environmental people to do something else, and then the food standard agency to do something.

They want solutions that give them everything, and I think we've got to find these solutions that are, as it were, having it all. Because if we don't have it all, and manage to find solutions that are good for the planet, good for human health and good for animal welfare, something's going to lose out. I'm very much afraid that the thing that's going to lose it out is animal welfare unless we bring it into these other solutions.

Richard and I collaborated on a number of projects, including decision-making in animals: how they actually decide what to do next. We looked at two behaviors in particular. One was drinking in chicks, and how chickens decide which action to do at a given time. If you look at the stream of behavior, it's not equally predictable at all stages in the sequence. There are some parts of a sequence that, once it's started, is absolutely predictable that it will finish. For example, one of the things we found was that if a chicken is drinking, even if it's drinking quinine water, which it doesn't like, and you know it doesn't like it because it gives a head shake, it will nevertheless continue the drink once it's started. The behavior seems to be divided into these periods when anything might happen, and then periods when everything is relatively fixed. That was one of the things we studied.

Richard then became interested, and started writing The Selfish Gene. I remember at the time that he said, when people asked him what he was doing, he said he was writing a bestseller, which nobody believed at the time, but of course he was. I've always been interested in obviously the ideas that he came up with. Particularly interested in how people misunderstand them. I've been very interested in the kind of difficulties that students might have in understanding this. I've spent quite a lot of time writing student textbooks as well.

I wrote a book that was actually entirely about what people get wrong about animal behavior, on unravelling animal behavior. It was about how difficult it is, some of these ideas; the kin selection ideas and evolutionary ideas that Richard was talking about. The kinds of things that people get wrong. I tried to put it in such a way that people were interested in the issues and were interested in the fact that it is quite difficult to get them right and became interested in thinking about them. That was another thing that I did.

I suppose the area that has interested me is the area of the evolution of behavior and what natural behavior shows about animal welfare. A lot of people think that good welfare is when animals are allowed to perform natural behavior, and you can judge welfare by how natural it is. That's always seemed to me a little problematical because animals in the wild are regularly chased by predators, and that would be natural. I don't think one could actually argue that that was necessary for good welfare. It seems to me that, while the natural behavior of an animal is a good starting point, in order to argue that the natural behavior should be part of the way it's kept, you do need to apply those two criteria, does it improve the animal's health, or is it something an animal wants to do? It may be something that an animal doesn't want to do, in which case, however natural it is, there's no reason for saying that it's necessarily for welfare.

I'm very pleased that some of my students have followed this idea of working on commercial farms to improve welfare, actually on the ground. Christine Nicol in Bristol would be a very good example. She is now working on a big project with commercial farmers trying to stop this horrible thing that happens with free-range chickens, that they feather-peck each other. It's very distressing. People think doing away with batting cages will improve welfare. But in fact, you've got a whole new set of welfare problems associated with taking birds out of cages. So she's very interested in working with farmers to try to do that. It's terrific. But she's followed that kind of line.

I've got another student, Rick Dief, in Edinburgh, who's much more experimental, much more interested in trying to understand what turns on and off feeding behavior. That's directly relevant to issues to do with parents of meat chickens. That's another hidden welfare problem. The parents of broiler chickens or meat chickens are often kept on very restricted food rations. Sometimes 70 percent of their body weight, because if they give them full rations, they put on weight and become obese. I'm trying to understand how we could have a better welfare for them, not having birds hungry for a large part of their life is enormously important. Rick is trying to work out what turns on and off feeding behavior in broilers from a much more experimental point of view.

I'm really pleased that I've got a diversity of students who are doing great things.