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If Insects had Emotions

Would it make a difference if humans developed a greater affinity for the non-human world? That is, can human self-interest become more inclusive of animals, plants, insects and ecosystems? If ‘yes’ is the answer we may have a chance of dealing more positively with climate change. If ‘no’, we are in for a very rocky ride.

Self-interest is a key concept in these twilight hours. Indeed, today it is no longer cynical to assume that the yes side can only triumph by appealing to human self- interest – because it is in our self-interest to care for nature and the non-human world. That said, it also needs asserting that how we feel about the non-human world is more important than what we know. There can be no end to the gaining of knowledge, but our feelings remain intrinsic to the issue of motivation. As humans, it is how we feel that determines so much about how we act - and what we come ‘to know’. Even the sense of superiority to non-humans that many of us have is (arguably) motivated by feelings and emotions.

It would seem that discussion of emotion has always aroused strong feelings. On the one hand it is claimed that the ‘higher’ emotions and feelings of love, empathy and compassion are the best human experiences, yet there are those (including some scientists and philosophers) who think we should avoid the subject altogether – such matters being far too subjective to be suitable for science or objective discussion at all.

This has been disastrous for non-humans because they so readily become just the collateral damage of human existence. Non-mammals have been particularly easy to kill, or ignore because they are more alien – indeed it is fascinating how alien beings are so often portrayed as insects.

However, some attitudes may be changing. Recent scientific research suggests that insects are not only conscious, but may also have feelings like emotions, and perhaps even empathy. This is potentially breakthrough research (see, for example, Carla Clark, ‘Do Insects have Emotions and Empathy?’ <> June 26, 2015).

Some scientists readily agree that animals with limbic systems in the brain can have emotions, but point out that insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish do not have the right kind of brains to experience anything like human emotions. However, if emotions are ruled possible for all animals it is also possible for scientists to speculate that animals can be moral beings. Professor Marc Bekoff says ‘In my development of the phenomenon that I call “wild justice”, I argue they can. Many animals know right from wrong and live according to a moral code’ (‘Do Animals Have Emotions’, <> accessed 30 Oct., 2016).

This may be a very anthropocentric argument, but is important because if some scientists can argue that animals and insects are more like humans than we previously thought, it becomes easier for many to re-appreciate the relationship of humanity to the non-human world. Ultimately humans need to care more about all who live on Earth – and the habitats of non-humans. We do not even need to identify with all life forms to appreciate that it is in all our self-interest to care more for other life forms and the planet. Really, it’s a no brainer.

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