Entomology And The Ethical Treatment Of Insects
Entomology is a branch of zoology that focuses on the scientific study of insects, and entomologists often collect insects for research purposes. One of the objectives of collecting insects is to document biodiversity, with the thought being that a better knowledge of biodiversity can facilitate its protection.
Unfortunately, collection procedures are often lethal for many insects, not only those targeted by researchers, and the possible suffering of insects is generally not taken into account. In order to collect them, insects can be poisoned with alcohol, trapped in sticky substances, starved to death, etc.
These treatments are common because we don’t give insects much moral consideration. In general, we don’t perceive insects individually but rather as prototypes of their species. One reason for this is that their consciousness and capacity to experience pain are not as established as those of say, mammals. Although the treatment of vertebrates is far from perfect, vertebrates are better regarded than insects because we no longer doubt that they are able to feel pain. Thus, research on vertebrates often (depending on the country) has to be approved by an ethics committee. This is not the case for insects. Research ethics in entomology are mainly concerned with the environment and species, but not with insects as individuals.
When researchers use animals that are more morally considered, such as vertebrates, they sometimes use a set of three principles to guide their research. These 3 principles, known as the 3Rs, were described by Russell and Burch in 1959 and are as follows:
- Replacement: substitute animals with non-living models and material.
- Reduction: reduce the number of animals used.
- Refinement: use practices that avoid or minimise the suffering of the animals which still have to be used. Basically, taking their well-being into account.
Entomologists rarely apply these principles. However, the authors of this article considered that a modified version of these principles could and should be followed. The reason is that, even if insect consciousness is not established, there are arguments in favour of their consciousness, and therefore in favour of their capacity to suffer because, according to the authors, only conscious beings can experience pain.
Consequently, we should be ethically cautious when interacting with them. In keeping with the precautionary principle, they should not be treated as if they have no consciousness, but rather as if they might have some degree of it, even if it is low.
The authors emphasized that the arguments they presented do not prove that insects are conscious, but rather allow for this possibility. Their arguments are:
- Insects exhibit many complex behaviours and this could be because they have some degree of consciousness.
- Some insects avoid painful stimuli, and if insects can feel pain, they are conscious. However, the question of pain in insects is not yet “settled” scientifically.
- Consciousness could arise when organisms become mobile and need to acquire a large amount of information, especially their positions in space. This is the case with insects. Moreover, they seem to have, like vertebrates, specialised brain systems that allow them to do this. This could mean that they have some degree of consciousness.
These arguments suggest that consciousness is possible in insects. The authors argue that if insects can be conscious and experience pain, then entomologists should treat them more ethically than they currently do. To guide researchers towards a more ethical treatment of insects, they propose a version of the 3Rs, adapted to entomology:
- Entomologists should, whenever it is possible, study insects without killing them. For example by using computer simulations or drawing from existing insect collections.
- When they have to kill insects, they should aim to reduce the number of insects they kill.
- They should improve their methods to take into account the well-being of captured and/or killed insects.
The authors encourage entomologists to take up these ethical issues, debate them, try to find solutions, and revisit their research ethics accordingly. If insects are morally important, we need to treat them better in general. Not only when we study them, but also, for example, when we breed them for food.