Make Suffering History

Our foundational research and applied work is focused on safely minimizing suffering among all sentient life. Phasing out suffering is both technically feasible and morally urgent. 

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. Research demonstrates that altering FAAH/OUT, the gene which empowers Cameron to be free of suffering, confers similar traits in rodents. However, 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, occasionally acquiring minor burns while cooking, there are several existing mouse variants (also validated in chickens) who respond adaptively to burns and yet may not be capable of feeling affectively "bad" about their injuries, e.g., P311, and AC1/8 KOs. These and similar advances are rapidly improving the practicality of abolishing suffering, turning its deliberate retention into an issue of social policy and ethical choice.

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Replacing Franken-breeds with Suffering-reduced Animals

Genetically engineered (GE) animals exist far beyond the confines of the laboratory. GloFish have been available for 20 years and can easily be purchased online and in pet stores. Several animals, including xenotransplantation pigs and transgenic salmon are currently being consumed by humans in the US and Canada. New slick-coat cattle GE efforts do not even have to register with the FDA before meat and other products are sold for human consumption.

 

Lest one thinks that so-called "natural" animals include all those whose genetic sequences are not carefully and precisely edited in a lab, consider how such animals have often been aggressively bred by agricultural companies.  These selectively-bred animals, are nonetheless products of the lab, effectively genetically engineered in a way which shrewdly circumvents association with GE in the minds of consumers. However, they should in many ways be considered worse in terms of increasing new variables, such as homologous recombination, not to mention that such breeding has been disastrous for animal welfare. These sensitive animals grow so large or so quickly that e.g. their organs cannot keep up with their dramatically larger bodies; indeed, even their legs often break. Modern broiler chickens are enormous in comparison to those used a mere 50 years ago. 

 

 

 

To greatly reduce animal suffering en masse, we are working to replace these misery-laden franken-breeds with already available suffering-reduced animals. Such welfare enhanced animals, rather than containing new profit-driven traits, merely lack expression of DNA. This can be achieved by either knocking out a suffering-relevant gene or silencing it epigenetically in a manner which doesn't alter DNA sequence. The suffering-relevant genes targeted have been shown to reduce hyper-sensitization to pain, anxiety, and depression. Furthermore, these suffering-reduced traits often exist naturally among wild and domestic animals, at low levels. Thus, our goal is to spread these natural traits which maximize wellbeing to more animals for the benefit of the animals themselves.

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Our PAWS campaign seeks to quantify the global distribution of animals and the neuro-genetic substrates underpinning their wellbeing. It is a public database and visualization tool designed to inform effective welfare and ecological conservation efforts. 

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.

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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.

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Could reducing suffering increase public complacency?

All welfare improvements may.

Is the animal activist who gives water to thirsty cows increasing 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. 

Our foundational research seeks to better understand and safeguard against complacency.

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.

Universal Genetics

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 FDA approval before the end up 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.

Easier

Harder

Isolated
labs/supply companies

Not Consumed
fur, leather, down

Domestic
factory farms, pets

Happy Biodomes
many species in self-contained environments

Wild Sanctuaries
single small populations

Precautionary 
beings who may not suffer but have the same genes

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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, especially given the prospect of space colonization, wherein humans spread suffering-sensitive beings off world. We must act while we still have time to prevent exponential suffering on the greater cosmic stage.