Make Suffering History
Phasing out suffering is technically feasible and morally urgent. Help brighten the biosphere:
Tens of billions of chickens suffer each year in factory farms. Their biomass is three times that of all wild birds combined. Our goal is to influence industrial chicken companies and the breeders of other species to select individuals who are less neurologically vulnerable, i.e. prone to pain, anxiety, and depression. This is critical as the global demand for animal products continues to rise.
Mercy for Mice
In medicine, rodents are a translational bottleneck for developing therapies to reduce suffering in humans and other species. Our aim is to replace genetically engineered mice that suffer more with those that suffer less. We also aim to replace mice fed to reptiles (feeders). Our strategy is to parlay this success into helping the vast array of other species with similar genetics, at least until the use of animals is phased out entirely.
Therapies for Extreme Suffering
Experimental gene therapy recently cured dozens of sickle cell patients, and other gene therapies could soon cure even more intense forms of suffering. This may seem like sci-fi, but so did pain-free surgery before modern anesthetics. Impermanent and reversible epigenetic therapies, that do not cut DNA, are likely to further expand access as well as provide increasingly better alternatives to today's pharmacological opioids.
What if you never felt bad?
In her 70s, retired teacher and mother of two adults, Jo Cameron, has never felt pain, even after surgery. Childbirth felt like "a tickle." Cameron is healthy, heals faster than other people, and seems invincible to negative experience. Cameron is just a glimmer of what is possible in terms of imbuing life with happiness and meaning, without the risk of horrific suffering.
Whereas Cameron is insensitive to pain, e.g. occasionally acquiring minor burns while cooking, there are several existing mouse variants who respond adaptively to injuries and yet lack as much capacity to feel affectively "bad" about such damage, e.g., P311, and AC1/8 KOs. These and similar advances represent rapid progress toward dramatically reducing suffering among staggering numbers of sentient beings.
Replacing Miserable Breeds with Suffering-reduced Animals
For decades, genetically modified (GM) animals have existed far beyond the confines of the laboratory. GM GloFish are widely available online and in pet stores. Both GM pigs used for organ transplantation and transgenic salmon are consumed by humans in the US. New GM slick-coat cattle initiatives do not even have to register with the FDA before meat and dairy are sold to consumers. Whether one likes it or not, GM animals are set to replace the (genomically) selected animals currently bred for factory farming in the coming decades. They can either be more neurologically sensitive to suffering, if we oppose improving their internal capacity for wellbeing, or they can suffer less.
Broiler chickens reach nearly twice the weight in half the time, compared to the 1950s. Their bones and internal organs cannot keep up, leading to fractures and a host of other health problems. Selectively bred animals are in many ways more genetically mysterious than those with single-gene modifications. Selective breeding, for all intents and purposes, randomly modifies many genes at once. Such breeding is often far less precise and predictable than modifying one gene at a time. However, even though genetic engineering factory farm animals to suffer less is technically feasible, it may be more politically challenging. This is an open question we're investigating.
As long as animals are used, it would be preferable for them to suffer less. To greatly reduce animal suffering en masse, we are working to replace misery-laden franken-breeds with suffering-reduced animals. Rare individuals with these genotypes already exist domestically and in the wild. Persuading companies to breed (neurologically) suffering-reduced factory-farm animals to replace their more sensitive conspecifics is the strategy we are pursuing. However, the same result can be achieved by knocking out suffering-relevant genes in the lab, or by silencing them epigenetically, i.e. without modifying existing genetic code.
PAWS is an aspirational project to quantify the global distribution of animals and the neuro-genetic substrates underpinning their wellbeing. It will be a public database and visualization tool designed to inform effective welfare and ecological conservation efforts to aid many groups.
Planetary Animal Welfare Survey
Which beings suffer?
The Precautionary Genetic Principle
Consciousness is complicated. Consider the case of a French man missing 90% of his brain volume who miraculously lives an ordinary life and even works a white-collar job. Similarly, consider how selectively ablating the anterior cingulate cortex can temporarily eliminate what makes physical injuries feel bad, a disorder called pain asymbolia, but the pain often returns with greater sensitivity. Such findings cast doubt on any gross anatomical theory of suffering, wherein region X constitutes the universal pain center.
Genetic routes to minimizing suffering are more immediately promising. We know humans like Jo Cameron and many other nonhumans behave as though they don't suffer when the same genetic alterations are present. Thus, we do not necessarily have to solve consciousness to drastically reduce suffering. If the same genetic changes exist in two species, and there is a reduction in suffering-linked behaviors in both, it is sensible to conclude a lower likelihood of suffering in the neurologically less complex being as well. It may be impossible to know firsthand what it is truly like to be a neurologically simpler creature, but the same behavioral and genetic markers improve confidence. This allows for the possibility of preempting suffering in creatures radically different from humans, provided these genes are still present. In fact, suffering-relevant genes are extremely conserved by evolution. Thus, the ability to reduce the chances of suffering is quite high.
Protect All Beings
Foundational Legal Work
Given that no being can be declared incapable of suffering with absolute certainty, the precautionary principle entails avoiding the use of nonhuman animals altogether. However, given their inevitable use in the short term, replacement with those who are suffering reduced will also strongly reduce suffering among the billions of domestic nonhumans born each year.
We believe that no individual should be worse off, in terms of their capacity to suffer, than their parents. Similarly, suffering-reduced nonhumans should be treated no worse than their more sensitive counterparts. Our work seeks to codify these principles into law.
Could reducing suffering increase public complacency?
All welfare improvements may.
Is the animal activist who gives water to thirsty cows increasing complacency?
Our foundational research seeks to better understand and safeguard against complacency.
Just as most animal activists promote the use of pain medication in lab animals, despite its potential to increase complacency for vivisection, we feel similarly about empowering nonhumans to suffer less throughout their entire lives, not just during a particularly painful event. Indeed, mistakes and abuses happen in every industry, but a greater inborn capacity for wellbeing reduces the emotional cost such errors can inflict.
According to research, the propensity to eat animal products is likely to be unaffected by learning about welfare improvements. However, there is some evidence that concern for animals may increase. Animal researchers overwhelmingly report that their fellow researchers are unjustified in subjecting suffering-reduced animals to worse treatment, even if they feel sure that subjects are incapable of suffering. Perfect certainty is not possible.
From flies to guys, the genetic roots of suffering and well-being are highly conserved between diverse organisms.
Many genes which are important for pain, anxiety, and depression in humans code for the same experiences, or at least behaviors, in our most distant relatives. For example, TRP channels, which relay a wide variety of damage signals to the central nervous system, seem to have remained remarkably unchanged since the time of all animals' last common unicellular ancestor. Even when the genetic code between species is not exactly the same, the expressed proteins often are. In fact, when mutant genetic sequences from pain-insensitive humans are inserted into mouse and fly genomes, these animals also show strong signs of pain reduction. This is not to say that flies definitely suffer, but we can still take the precautionary approach by opting for those individuals who lack the expression of the same genes which are required for suffering-related behaviors in other species.
How practical is massively reducing suffering near term?
Replacing animals in isolated laboratory conditions has been and will likely remain easier than helping those who are consumed for food. However, given recent FDA decisions seeking to make the regulatory approval of genetically engineered animals easier and more streamlined, helping agricultural animals is likely to be within reach in the near term. Again, people in the US are eating transgenic salmon, GM pork, and soon cattle. Those new slick-coat cattle variants will not even require individual FDA approvals before they are on people's dinner plates.
If one thinks that improvements in the lab will not make an impact in terms of what consumers are willing to eat, consider that GE pigs used for xenotransplantation in labs are already having their unused flesh shipped directly to consumers from the company's website. They have been commenting in public forums about how it tastes indistinguishable from other pork. Any kind of disgust with GE animals is thus not universal, as is the case with many GE crops. It is very likely that, given the choice between an animal who suffers a lot and one who suffers far less, many consumers will opt for the more compassionate option.
New products that are from a GE animal but do not contain GE proteins themselves, such as milk and eggs, may represent an even lower regulatory hurdle. A key ingredient necessary for making cheese, for example, is already primarily produced in GE microorganisms. However, the cheese itself is not deemed GE by regulators. Thus, other similar products are also unlikely to be judged as GE. Other animals not consumed for food, such as those farmed for fur, are also promising.
As companies pursue higher profits, by engineering animals to e.g., grow faster, larger, and lack horns the public will be increasingly desensitized to the mere fact that an animal is GE. The ethical debate may instead center on what the modification actually entails. We hope that, until factory farming is deemed morally indefensible and illegal globally, groups seeking to improve welfare, and the reduction of both environmental damage and zoological pathogenicity will increasingly steer GE in ethically preferable directions.
Furthermore, epigenetic engineering, which has already eliminated behavioral signs of pain in mice for 44 weeks, can be used to reduce suffering without actually modifying the genetic code. While this is likely to be a more expensive option than germline editing, it is one of a growing number of options which may be deemed less invasive by many naturalistic bio-conservatives.
fur, leather, down
factory farms, pets
many species in self-contained environments
single small populations
beings who may not suffer but have the same genes
Invincible Wellbeing for All
Two hundred years ago, powerful painkillers and surgical anesthetics would have seemed absurd and even sacrilegious. Today, we take the routine absence of pain during surgery for granted, but many maintain that other sources of pain and suffering are necessary and even ennobling. Will these views soon seem antiquated as well?
We currently have the ability to massively reduce unnecessary suffering in domestic animals, and we should do so immediately. Given the extensibility of genes, wherein progress in one organism yields progress in most, which animals benefit first may be less important than just getting started. That's because most people have never even thought about this vast and completely untapped dimension of welfare. The first widely known example of welfare enhancement is likely to be a watershed moment in inspiring humanity to free all current and future generations of animals from unnecessary misery.
Operating openly and honestly will reduce fear and help minimize the risk of moratoriums on this and other humanitarian biotechnologies. Delays in minimizing suffering could prove catastrophic though, especially given the prospect of space colonization, wherein humans spread suffering-sensitive animals off world to populate new wildernesses and factory farms. We must act while we still can to prevent such an explosion in cosmic suffering.