Sentient Animals: Insects

If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.
Jonas Salk

The brain of the ant, as Darwin says, is one of the most wonderful bits of matter in the universe. It is scarcely one- fourth the size of the head of a pin, yet it is the seat of the most astonishing wisdom and activity. If human intelligence were as great, compared with the mass of the human brain, as is the ant’s, man would be several hundred times as wise as he is now, and would then probably not fall far short of that state of erudition which the average man imagines he already represents.

Ground-wasps have been observed to use tiny stones as hammers in packing the dirt firmly over their nests a very remarkable act of intelligence…
Howard J Moore The Universal Kinship


“Buy captive creatures and set them free. Hold fast to vegetarianism and abstain from taking life.
Whenever taking a step, always watch for ants and insects. Prohibit the building of fires outside, lest insects be killed…”
Wen Ch’ang (5th century)

This is part of a series of blog posts concerning animal sentience. The series will include true stories, information and accounts which show that animals are self aware sentient beings.

Each entry will focus on one aspect of animal sentience and or one particular animal.

Here is the first post and introduction:

Crush not yonder ant as it draggeth along its grain; for it too liveth, and its life is dear to it.
A shadow there must be, and a stone upon the heart, that could wish to sorrow the heart even of an ant.
Strike not with the hand of violence the head of the feeble; for one day, like the ant, thou mayest fall under the foot thyself

When thinking of animal sentience few consider insects – yes insects are animals.

Lets begin by considering insect intelligence which although is not the only criterion to establish if a creature is sentient is often the most common one and the one which most people set store by.

Insect Intelligence

Even insects express anger, terror, jealousy, and love by their stridulation.

It has always been so difficult to find much information concerning insect intelligence, there has always been a limited amount of anecdotal evidence and certainly little scientific confirmation – at least until recently. I think this is because of all animals the study of insect intelligence has largely been ignored.

Mind you as always and in all circumstances animals do not have to justify their existence based upon the criterion of intelligence. Unfortunately however in order to gain respect as a being with the right to live life unmolested, unexploited, or in the case of insects just simply to live, evidence that a creature is intelligent helps in this regard. Proving intelligence helps to establish that a creature is sentient; perceptive, conscious and as a consequence is capable of suffering. Sadly most people require such evidence in order to consider an animals’ right to life.

To my way of thinking no animal could function without some kind of intelligence, without some cognitive thinking. No being could depend on instinct alone; intelligence, a facet of sentience of course, at some level must be present in order for a creature to function. No animal could possibly depend on his or her brain to be genetically programmed to allow the animal to adept to every contingency, some thought and intellectual consideration must take place in the mind of any animal.

I personally have no doubt that insects and other tiny creatures such as arachnids and arthropods are intelligent sentient beings.

But for those who consider otherwise an article in the Daily Mail may change your mind:

“Insects with minuscule brains may be as intelligent as much bigger animals and may even have consciousness, it was claimed today. Having a brain the size of a pinhead does not necessarily make you less bright, say researchers.

Computer simulations show that consciousness could be generated in neural circuits tiny enough to fit into an insect’s brain, according to the scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and Cambridge University.

The models suggest that counting ability could be achieved with just a few hundred nerve cells, it is claimed.

And a few thousand would be sufficient to make an animal a conscious being, rather than an automated ‘living robot’.

Extracts from article, Insects may have consciousness and could even be able to count, claim experts”

Read more:

This is a very informative article which makes the point that contrary to what many people think brain size does not indicate a creatures’ capacity for intelligence and the presence of consciousness. In other words a tiny brain does not mean an animal is not intelligent.

I firmly believe that every creature possesses a measure of intelligence, most of the creatures around us (especially insects) have existed for millions of years. We’d be very naive to believe that we are by default so superior to them.
Jon – Comment on Daily Mail article above.

Numorous studies show that insects are not automatons driven solely by instinct to act in predictable ways, rather research shows that they are in fact able to change their behaviour according to their circumstances.

More on insect intelligence from Science on msnbc. com article:

Tiny insect brains can solve big problems

Some bugs can recognize human faces, count and categorize, studies say
By Emily Sohn
Insects may have tiny brains, but they can perform some seriously impressive feats of mental gymnastics.

According to a growing number of studies, some insects can count, categorize objects, even recognize human faces — all with brains the size of pinheads.

Because we are intelligent animals with big brains, people have long assumed that big brains are smarter brains. Yet, scientists have found scant evidence to support that view…

There’s a lot of evidence, on the other hand, that overall size is irrelevant when it comes to brain power

Instead of contributing intelligence, big brains might just help support bigger bodies, which have larger muscles to coordinate and more sensory information coming in. Like computers, Chittka said, size might add storage capacity but necessarily speed or usefulness.

Extracts from Tiny insect brains can solve big problems

Read more of this fascinating article:

Well it does appear that there is some considerable evidence now more readily available for the general public concerning insect intelligence.

Clearly size of brain or anatomy in general does not mean an animal lacks intelligence, is not sentient and does not feel pain. Amazingly often anatomical size seems to be a criterion which leads people to believe that an animal is less intelligent or deserves less respect, less right to his life. Think about it tiny creatures are the most abused, many people think nothing of standing on an insect. I recall many years ago seeing a women deliberately stand on ants crawling about on the pavement. Although only in my teens and not yet a vegetarian never mind a vegan I recall feeling very shocked that someone could do such a thing, she clearly was a  person who had no regard for the right to life of all creatures no matter how tiny. Rather than being a deliberately cruel and sadistic individual she may simply have been acting in ignorance. I would like to hope that most people would act differently towards our fellow creatures no matter how tiny or indeed how intelligent or otherwise if they were better informed. Sometimes cruelly is simply a lack of awareness that such creatures are sentient.

Perhaps after reading these articles those of you who think that insects are not sentient may consider that insects are indeed intelligent thinking feeling creatures who suffer pain and like you simply wish to live.

Hopefully as our general awareness increases concerning the sentience of the creatures with whom we share this world, man will finally live in harmony with his fellow beings without exploiting, abusing or harming them in any way, no matter what their size or level of intelligence.

” I’ll not hurt thee”, says Uncle Toby, rising with the fly in his hand. “Go”, he says, opening the window to let it escape. “Why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me”
Laurence Sterne

Consider the following

How is killing a fly and world peace related? – please do not skip this video

How to Humanely Handle Bugs in the House

Sentience may not depend on intelligence and I consider we should give any creature the benefit of the doubt before declaring lack of sentience, intelligence or inability to suffer.

Life is life’s greatest gift. Guard the life of another creature as you would your own because it is your own. On life’s scale of values, the smallest is no less precious to the creature who owns it than the largest.”
Lloyd Biggle Jr.


Photograph: Flower-wasp

Original imagine and licensing details

With the exception of the first and final Quotation the quotations on this webpage were gleaned from the following blog:   I usually do not cite the source of popular quotations however if I have taken a number of less usual ones from one particular website I feel it is only right to give them a mention as quotes like the ones above are not easy to find.

I will also add the following quote from the author of the above blog:

“Kind heart, gentle heart: Rescue the drowning insect; carry the snail on the pavement to safety; return the helpless worm, writhing on concrete, to the sanctuary of Mother Earth. Render help and kindness, wherever it is needed, to all life, great or small. Suffering has no boundaries, neither should compassion”


2 thoughts on “Sentient Animals: Insects

  1. If humans are as superiorly intelligent as they think they are, how come they are wrecking the planet? As you so rightly say, intelligence is a manmade concept anyway. PS I rescued 3 worms from the pavement today and put them back in the soil😀

    • A question I often ask myself regarding the destruction of our planet and many other things too. I also rescue worms and other small creatures from footpaths, it’s good to hear someone else does this too. All lives matter.

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