Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about one of the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve it. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Before we get to Persis, just a quick reminder that the Effective Altruism Global conference is coming up in San Francisco in late June. There’s also a smaller spin-off conference focused on effective altruism in Sydney this coming September. You can find out more about both and potentially apply to attend at eaglobal.org.
Also, it’s been a while since I’ve mentioned that you should definitely spend a minute thinking about whether you’re listening to this show at the right speed. If you find your attention drifting you might like to speed it up a bit, while if you find it hard to follow, maybe slow it down to 90 or 80% its actual speed.
If you’re listening to podcasts in a way where you can’t change their speed, you’re making a huge mistake. Almost all podcasting apps now allow you to pick the ideal speed for each show you listen to. I’ve gone through and set individual optimal speeds for all of the 30 shows I subscribe to, and over the years it has probably saved me weeks of my life.
But if that sounds intimidating you can start by just adjusting the speed on this show to balance speed, attention and comprehension.
Also, just to let you know, there’s a quick discussion between me and two of my colleagues, Neil Bowman and Michelle Hutchinson at the end of the show, including some ideas they have for tackling wild animal welfare that didn’t come up in the interview with Persis.
Alright, here’s Persis.
Robert Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Persis Eskander. Persis is a researcher at Open Philanthropy in their farm animal welfare program. And prior to joining Open Philanthropy, Persis co founded and managed a small nonprofit focused on improving wild animal welfare. That project recently merged with Utility Farm to create the Wild Animal Initiative, whose goal is to understand and improve the lives of animals in the wild, though Persis is not involved in that project.
Robert Wiblin: Before that she spent several years as an analyst at the Australian Department of Defence, and she has a BA in philosophy, and a Bachelor of Laws from the University of New South Wales in Australia. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Persis.
Persis Eskander: Thanks, it’s really great to be here.
Robert Wiblin: All right, yeah. So I hope to get you to talk about wild animal welfare as a problem and, I guess, what might be done about it in the future. But first, what are you actually doing now at Open Philanthropy, and why do you think it’s valuable work?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so as you said I’m now working as a researcher for the farm animal welfare program team. So the farm animal welfare team at Open Phil gives about $30 million a year to effective farm animal advocacy organizations. And I do research that helps support Lewis and Amanda make grant making decisions, and figure out where they want to give.
Robert Wiblin: What are the biggest differences with what you were doing before at Wild Animal Suffering Research?
Persis Eskander: So one of the biggest differences is that I’m not managing a project anymore, which is actually a huge relief to me. I’ve realized that I much more prefer being a member of a team than actually leading a project. And then, obviously, there’s a shift in cause area, so now I do my day to day work with farmed animals as opposed to working on wild animals.
Robert Wiblin: Cool. So I’m hoping to get Lewis, Lewis Bollard, back on the program at some point in the next six months, so we might skip on that one and move on to talking about the meat of the conversation today, which is wild animal welfare. How would you sum up the challenge of wild animal welfare?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so most people, and I was one of these people at one point in time, have this romanticized view of what life is like in nature. We tend to have the sense that it’s really idyllic. But in reality, wild animals have a whole range of really negative experiences. So they could be hunted, attacked, or predated on. There’s often intense resource competition, and so starvation or chronic hunger is very common for a lot of animals. And things like disease, parasitism, and injury don’t receive any treatment. And so basically the reality for life in the wild is that it’s full of a lot of really intense experiences that we don’t fully understand because we’ve eliminated them for ourselves.
Persis Eskander: One thing that’s worth keeping in mind as well is that nature isn’t good or bad. It doesn’t say anything about happiness or suffering. What we can do to get a better sense of what experiences wild animals have is look at what drives our existence, and then figure out from those what experiences are animals most likely to have as a result. So for example, if we look at evolutionary selection, what we end up seeing is that what drives our existence is something like survival of the fittest. And so that basically means that the strongest end up surviving, and those who don’t end up meeting that high bar, there’s no help for them. There’s no treatment. There’s no solution. They just have these negative experiences and then they die.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so briefly, just at the start, let’s run through the importance, neglected, and tractability points in our problem selection framework one by one. What is the scale or importance of wild animal welfare, I suppose, which cashes out to how many wild animals are there, and how much suffering and how much misfortune do they suffer?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so we don’t really have a very good sense of how many animals there actually are. What we do have are some estimates. I think the most recent estimates, or the only estimates that I’ve seen, have been done by Georgia Ray and Brian Tomasik, and they estimate something like one quadrillion wild vertebrates, and one sextillion wild invertebrates, which is just orders of magnitude greater that the number of farmed animals and humans. Even if we combine the two, it’s still orders of magnitude greater.
Robert Wiblin: Hey, listeners. I just wanted to jump in and define vertebrate and invertebrate because I know a lot of people, it turns out, don’t know what those things are. So vertebrates are animals that have a backbone or a spine, which includes all of the mammals, marsupials, obviously, fish, birds, reptiles, that kind of thing. So most of the big land animals that we’re familiar with. Also whales, of course.
Robert Wiblin: Then invertebrates are actually far more numerous in terms of the number of species that they have and they’re a whole separate kind of evolutionary tree of species that never developed this kind of backbone structure. So that includes insects, arachnids, mollusks, crustaceans, corals, crabs, and velvet worms and jelly fish and all of those kind of things that don’t have spines. All right, I’ll leave that there and go back to the show.
Persis Eskander: And again we don’t really have a very good sense of how severe the negative experiences that they have are, or how subjectively bad it is for them to actually have these negative experiences.
Persis Eskander: But what we can do is think about the total number of wild animals. And if we, for example, aggregate the amount of negative experiences across all of these wild animals, then what we end up with is a problem on a scale so much larger than any other problem in the near term.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I mean, I guess even if their lives were as good as humans are, then there’s still a lot of badness going on in there that could potentially be alleviated.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so moving on from scale, neglectedness … How many people are working on this problem, both indirectly and directly? What’s the budgets of all the organizations that think about it?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so it’s pretty clearly a neglected problem. If I were to guess, I would say there was something like less than 20 people who are actually working on this problem, meaning people who are focused on wild animal welfare. But even most of those aren’t working full time. If we’re talking resources, then I’d guess that there’s something like less than a million dollars a year combined across all of these organizations.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, yeah. And the tractability, perhaps the hardest one to measure, or hardest one to know at this early stage.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so it’s really uncertain what sort of solutions we have to the problem. I mean, it’s a large, complex problem. And I think that it’s not clearly the case that wild animal welfare is tractable, but it’s also not clearly the case that it’s not. And so I think we’re kind of at this early exploratory stage, where we’re trying to better understand the problem and figure out if it’s even possible for us to do something about it. And if it is, the sort of things we’d want to do would be net positive in the long run. They’d be cost effective, and they’d be the sorts of interventions that could be really easily accepted and adopted.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, we’ll have to come back to the tractability issue later on.
Robert Wiblin: So you mentioned these very large numbers of animals. Do we have any sense of … are these very big animals or very small animals? I guess it’s mostly small animals. And so maybe rather than talking about the number of them, it might be more sensible to talk about their weight or the number of brain cells or something that they have, to make it a more fair comparison with farm animals and humans?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so if you break down the scale of wild animals in terms of abundance, then what you do end up seeing is that the main drivers of the figures tend to be much smaller animals. And those are fish; arthropods, like insects and spiders; or aquatic arthropods like crustaceans; and worms. If we try and break it down differently, so if we look at biomass … There was a really interesting paper that was released in 2017 that is called The Biomass Distribution on Earth, and they basically do something similar. They try and break out the biomass of different animal and plant life. And what we end up finding is that invertebrates still dominate the equation, but they dominate by a much smaller ratio. So we end up with 0.7 gigatons of carbon for wild vertebrates, and 1.7 gigatons of carbon for invertebrates. So it’s only one order of magnitude greater. If we look at it by neuron count, then we get still the same breakdown, but again the ratio is much smaller.
Persis Eskander: So Georgia Ray did a really, really interesting small project running the numbers for the total number of neurons of wild animals, and again broke it down into different categories. I think her post is called How Many Neurons Are There? And she estimates something like, again these are massive numbers, but it’s like 44 sextillion neurons for wild vertebrates, and 217 sextillion neurons for invertebrates. So again we get a much smaller ratio when we try and look at different measures for the scale of wild animals.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, do you have any sense of how those numbers compare to the weights and neural masses for all farm animals and, say, all humans put together?
Persis Eskander: They are smaller still. But again I think we see a pretty similar trend when we compare the numbers of wild animals to humans and farm animals. The ratio is much larger than biomass, which is also much larger than neurons. And that is what you would expect because even though the total number of humans is lower than the total number of wild animals, because the total number of wild animals is largely dominated by very small, not very complex animals, the neuron count ends up showing a smaller ratio between the two.
Persis Eskander: I gave a talk at EA Global last year that has a more detailed breakdown of these figures, so that might be a great place to get more information.
Robert Wiblin: Hey listeners. At that point, I found that talking about tables of numbers doesn’t tend to make for great conversation on the show so we’re going to punt it on digging down into the exact numbers of all of the different categories of animals. But, fortunately, I’ve gone and dug up some tables of that so I could walk you through it now. If you’re not interested in this you can skip forward a couple of minutes, but I think there’s really some quite remarkable things here.
Robert Wiblin: So these numbers have been collated by Brian Tomasik who has an interest in animal and wild animal welfare and I will put a link up to the articles that we’ve drawn these numbers from. Brian would be the first person to say that a lot of these numbers are very tentative because we just don’t have a great way of counting the numbers or weighing the mass of, lots of these different categories of animals. But nonetheless, we can make some very broad guesses or maybe some guesstimates of these kind of numbers. And even if they’re right in broad strokes, they can be potentially much, much better than having no idea at all.
Robert Wiblin: So I’m going to, I think, give all the ratios just in terms of the number … Give the comparison of that group compared to humans. So we’ve got eight billion humans and the mass of them is about eight billion times by 60 kgs each, on average, so you can get a sense of how large they are.
Robert Wiblin: So lab animals, there is about 1% as many lab animals as there are humans. So we’ve got eight billion humans and about 100 million lab animals. That’s only including vertebrates.
Robert Wiblin: Then for livestock, which includes land vertebrates, we’ve got about three times as many of them as we have of humans. For birds, there’s about 25 times as many birds as there are humans. For mammals as a whole, there’s 38 times as many as there are of humans. Reptiles, 125. Amphibians, 125 again. Then for fish, we’ve jumped up to 12,500 times as many fish as there are humans. Earthworms, 125,000 times as many as there are humans.
Robert Wiblin: Then we get down to smaller, potentially less significant creatures. So dust mites, 125,000 again. Coral polyps, 1.25 million. And then going all the way down to nematodes, these tiny, tiny creatures 12,500,000,000 is the estimate in terms of the raw number.
Robert Wiblin: I think, broadly, one thing we can just take away from that is that there are vastly more wild animals in many of these different categories than there are humans. Or indeed all animals that humans are farming really by a very long way. But then you might think, well, obviously almost all of those species are much smaller than humans. So you’d reasonable to think, wow we should actually think about this in terms of relative weight. So let’s go through those estimates to take a guess at what the weight is of these different classes of animals compared to humans.
Robert Wiblin: So at the lower end, we’ve got elephants alone, .25% of the total weight of all humans. Then adding up all of the wild vertebrates it’s only 10% as much as humans, which is kind of surprising to me.
Robert Wiblin: But in the ocean you’ve got a whole lot more. Whales alone are 30% of the weight of all humans. And then if you got all of the fish together, they weigh about the same as the entire human population.
Robert Wiblin: But then if you move beyond vertebrates, which it turns out pretty insignificant in the scheme of life on earth, both in terms of numbers and weight, invertebrates in the ocean weigh, collectively, about 10 times as much as all human do, while invertebrates on the land are about 20 times the weight of all humans.
Robert Wiblin: Then if you add up all of the funguses out there, which I guess a lot of them are under the soil, it’s about 100 times the weight of all people. And if you look at prokaryotes, which are these single celled organisms, or very basic organisms, now we’ve got some really staggering numbers. So prokaryotes, these very tiny, microscopic organisms in the water weigh about 175 times the weight of all humans according to this estimate. Prokaryotes in the soil are about 500 times the weight of humans. Other prokaryotes just underneath the soil on land, 2,500 times. And then prokaryotes underneath the soil in the sea, 3,750 times the weight of all humans.
Robert Wiblin: I did not predict those numbers and I’m not quite sure to make of the fact that there’s tons of these tiny, single-celled organisms out there. Really just a vast weight of them. But I thought that was pretty interesting and surprising.
Robert Wiblin: Perhaps the thing that’s more important to take away from this is just that the weight of all invertebrates is vastly larger than the weight of all vertebrate animals like birds and reptiles and mammals, including humans.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, now another thing that I would really love to know here is the weight of all of the brains of the creatures in these different categories, which might give us some sort of proxy for their moral weighting. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a good summary table of that to even give me rough guidance. One thing that is interesting to note is that invertebrates, like insects, have a larger fraction of their mass as neurons and they also tend to have denser brains. So they have more complexity in each gram of brain in ants as there is in humans, interestingly, perhaps because they’re so small they have to evolve more rigorously to cram as much computation as they can into these very tiny brains.
Robert Wiblin: So not only have we got the fact that invertebrates already weigh, collectively, something like 30 times the weight of all humans, but the weight of the brains in all these invertebrates is going to be more than 30 times the weight of the brains in all humans. But, unfortunately, I haven’t got figures for all of the other categories. Hopefully, we’ll be able to return to that some other time on the show.
Robert Wiblin: I have, however, managed to get the total size of all of the brains of various different farm animals compared to humans. And those animals include chickens, sheep, pigs, and cows. And again, to my surprise, it turns out that if you take the brains of all … Humans, chickens, sheep, pigs, and cows, about 90% of the weight of the brains is actually in the humans. So you’ve got chickens making up only 1% of the brain mass of all of those creatures and cows about 6%. So the fact that humans just have larger brains, as a fraction of their body, is doing a lot of work there.
Robert Wiblin: Then, finally, just for a handful of species, that is humans, cows, and chickens, Carl Schuman, has managed to look at the number of neurons that are in each brain. So taking a count of the neural density, not just going with weight, but counting the actual number of … potentially correlate of the processing capacity of these brains. And that actually doesn’t shift things all that much. You end up with about 98% of the neurons in all humans, cows, and chickens in the world being in humans. And then about 1% in cows and 1% in chickens. And I’ll link to the blog post where you’ve got the calculations for that. It’s all pretty rough and ready, but obviously, when you’re talking about something being 100 times bigger than something else and the measurements here being fairly reasonable, it’s not going to be dramatically different from that, I don’t expect. Unless there’s a major hidden error in here somewhere.
Robert Wiblin: All right, I’ll link to the sources for all those numbers so you can pore over them a little bit more carefully than listening to me go through them. And we’ll get back to Persis.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay. So there’s an awful lot of wild animals. What do we know, if anything, about their welfare? What are their lives like?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so unfortunately we actually don’t know a huge amount about the welfare of wild animals. There is some research, mostly in animal welfare science, and that tends to focus a lot more on domestic species or working animals or farmed animals. But they do have some interesting tools or models that we can use to better understand the welfare of wild animals. So, for example, one is the Five Domains model, which looks at four physical states … I think they’re health, environment, nutrition, and behavior … and one mental state, which is just how they respond when they feel distress, anger, happiness, or when they’re content. So those are really interesting because we can use those to try and understand the signals that animals send when they feel various negative or positive experiences.
Persis Eskander: Another tool that also comes from animal welfare science is trying to test for an animal’s revealed preferences. And so, for example, if you measure the amount of effort that a rabbit goes to to access food, that might be proportional to how bad it might be for them to experience hunger. So we kind of are hoping to build more of these tools, or get a wider range of these models that we can use to figure out how we can better assess the experiences that wild animals have, and how bad they are for those animals. But right now there’s just very little research specifically for wild animals. And whatever we do have is on such a small scale that it’s really very hard to rely on it, and to make accurate judgements from it. And so one thing I’d love to see is more research focused on that.
Robert Wiblin: What are the key activities or experiences that you think generate a lot of suffering or pleasure for wild animals that people might not fully appreciate?
Persis Eskander: Animals basically make trade offs in terms of how they spend their energy. So they will spend large amounts of time looking for food. But once they’ve found access to food and water, they spend a lot of time resting. It’s usually not the case that they’re extremely active or engage in a lot of play because that costs resources and those tend to be reserved. It’s probably likelier that animals spend quite a lot of time finding appropriate shelter or preserving their shelter so that it’s not taken from them.
Persis Eskander: And then there are things like parasitism and disease or injury, which … I don’t really have a good sense how frequent they are in the wild, but to the extent that they do exist, they tend to spread through populations and they become quite chronic. So it’s likely that when there is parasitism prevalent in a very social group of animals, that that’s something that they’re all experiencing, or a large population of them are experiencing.
Robert Wiblin: Is there a danger that we might think that wild animals’ lives are worse than they actually are, if we kind of just imagine how we as humans would feel if we were put into their situation? And obviously we’re not adapted to cope with the situations and would maybe find them more unpleasant than wild animals actually do.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I think it is a concern that if we try and extrapolate the experiences of wild animals and apply them to ourselves that we end up basically anthropomorphizing their experiences. I think it’s a pretty useful tool to help people establish the basis of empathy for the sorts of experiences wild animals could be having. And so it’s maybe better as a communication strategy than as the basis on which we design our research or design any possible interventions.
Persis Eskander: When we’re talking about what we actually want when we’re trying to figure out how we can help wild animals, then I think we need to be a lot more robust and ask questions like how adverse are these experiences, actually, for wild animals based on the signals they tell us? Or, for example, what are their revealed preferences? And we can use those to try and develop policies that are maybe steeped in more accurate judgements of what they’re actually experiencing.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think that wild animals would be better off if we eliminated all parasites, like all of the diseases or parasites that they’re suffering from, or if we kind of got rid of all of the predators, hypothetically, that were hunting them? Do we have any sense of how much badness comes from these different categories?
Persis Eskander: So that’s kind of a tough question to answer. I think, in a hypothetical world where there are no philosophical objections to something like that and we manage to confidently resolve any concerns we would have about how to actually implement a policy like that, I’d expect that the main concern would be that we just don’t understand the flow-through effects for the ecosystem. I mean, we don’t understand the flow-through effects of the entire elimination of something like predation or parasitism, and we don’t even understand what that’s like for partial or restricted elimination. And so I think it’s because of these uncertainties that we wouldn’t actually ever recommend a policy like that.
Persis Eskander: One thing we could do is look at historical cases of trophic cascades to try and get a better sense of what the effects of something like this might be. So for example, there has been the removal of predators in many populations, in many areas, particularly as a result of urbanization or industrial agriculture. And then there’s also been rewilding experiments, like reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park.
Persis Eskander: I mean, hypothetically, in a scenario where we create this kind of trophic cascade, say removing predators, we might expect to see something like the prey population balloons, and as a result of growing so much the ratio of food to the prey population is reduced. So what we end up seeing is something like increased resource competition. And that might mean that animals are no longer being predated, but now there is an increased amount of aggression within species or across species, and that maybe animals are now dying as a result of starvation as opposed to being predated on.
Persis Eskander: Another effect we might expect is that once populations grow, they become much denser, and that allows parasites to flourish. And what we might end up seeing with really dense populations that weren’t, once, that dense, is that also parasitism crosses species. And a lot of animals that haven’t become accustomed, or haven’t built appropriate immune mechanisms end up suffering a significant amount more as a result of that.
Persis Eskander: So it’s not actually very clear that it would be net positive to eliminate something that we think is a harm, because we don’t really understand the full effects as a result of that.
Robert Wiblin: One reason I was asking that is because it’s easy to see how, if you got rid of predators, then this potentially creates a population explosion, like people raise the specter all the time. And then it’s like, well rather than being predated upon, instead they’re just starving, or like on the margin some animals are starving because something has to limit the population’s growth.
Robert Wiblin: But it seems like, potentially, parasites keep their hosts alive a lot of time, but might make their lives really miserable. So it might be that the amount of suffering that you get rid of relative to the amount of the population increase that you get might be a lot more limited. It just, perhaps, doesn’t cascade into other animals, or doesn’t create broader changes. It just kind of gets rid of this gut worm or whatever thing that’s gnashing away at their flesh, but for some substantial fraction of their life.
Robert Wiblin: You’re looking skeptical. You’re like, “Rob, you’re naïve. Who knows what effects these things would have.”
Persis Eskander: It’s a nice theoretical argument, and I would be really interested in people studying this more. I’d be really interested in actually a constrained environmental study of what happens if you remove a particular parasite from a population, and then seeing what the effects of that might be.
Persis Eskander: I think one reason I am skeptical is that there are lots of trophic effects that we just don’t understand. And even now through the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, there are things that ecologists are discovering as a result of that that they didn’t actually expect would be an effect of reintroducing them. So it’s more that … I’d be pretty surprised if the way to increase wild animal welfare was to engage in this large scale elimination practice. I think it’s more likely to be the case that we actually implement a lot of really small, different policies that address incremental parts of the problem, and then amount to a large ratio of the problem, because those are less likely to be risky for ecosystem health.
Robert Wiblin: Cool. So we’ll, I guess, return to this question of how likely this stuff is to backfire later. I’m perhaps a little bit more gung ho than you are. But I suppose you’ve been in the actual area, so you have more knowledge about how things can go wrong. It’s very easy to be naïve about it, from my distant perspective.
Robert Wiblin: I know people who are worried about wild animal welfare tend to focus particularly on certain kinds of species. I guess insects tend to loom pretty large. Do you want to explain for people why that is?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so I would say that the argument largely comes from looking at life history strategies. So the general idea is that animals that live really short lives, we might expect will also have negative lives. So life history theory suggests that animals have to make trade offs with their energy budgets. And for a lot of species, the reproduction trade off they make is quantity versus complexity.
Persis Eskander: So for example, frogs will lay something like 6,000 to 20,000 eggs in one season. And then once they’ve spawned, the female frog really leaves them largely unprotected to just develop, hatch, and then, as tadpoles, to continue their development largely on their own. And so because they’re unprotected, large numbers of them will end up dying at very early stages. But for the female it’s a more efficient strategy because she invests less resources in gestation and in care, and that allows her to have more reproductive sessions throughout her life.
Persis Eskander: So what we end up seeing is that there are a very small number of animals in each season that will survive. But the large majority of them are just not equipped, or don’t have enough access to resources, or basically are just predated. And so they live for a very short period of time, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, and then they die.
Persis Eskander: And so if we think of the quality of an animal’s life in terms of the number of positive experiences they have versus the number of negative experiences they have, it’s pretty unlikely, if they’ve lived for a really short period of time, that they’ve amassed enough positive experiences to outweigh what we expect to be the very negative experience of death. And so because the most numerous animals follow this life history strategy, and the most numerous animals are all short lived, we might expect that when we look at the, I guess, net sign of the lives of wild animals as a whole, the lives of short lived animals dominate.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so if I’m like a human or a whale, then I’m like, “Every offspring is precious and I hope to get a large fraction of them to adulthood,” but if I’m like an insect, then I’m like, “I’m going to lay a thousand babies, and then hope that one of them manages to get through?”
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly. For long run population maintenance, or for a constant, long run, stable population, you really only need the parents to be replaced by offspring. So when you have, you know, a spider that’s laying a thousand eggs, we would have a constant overrun of animals if the majority of them ended up surviving. And so you would expect that every season, the majority of them actually end up dying.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So it’s like, I think hunter-gatherers had like a 30% infant mortality rate, whereas I guess spiders it’s like 99.9%. So it’s like a thousand die for every one that makes it though.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: This would be an argument that there’s more suffering in nature than there is pleasure, if, I guess, we think that these … Well, I guess one thing would be they’ve got to be conscious, these small creatures, and then conscious to some significant extent, I guess, including these tiny offspring that might not be, yet, fully developed. And I guess also it has to be the case that they actually do suffer when they’re dying, or they don’t enjoy whatever food they eat during their very brief lives enough to offset the pain of dying. Do we have any sense on weighing up those questions, or do you just want to punt that to future research?
Persis Eskander: I mean, I think the big, open questions that we don’t really have answers to … I mean, one thing that I really want to see people who are working on this, or people who might be interested in working on this, doing is getting a better sense of, do we know whether these animals actually have morally relevant experiences, and if they do, at what point.
Persis Eskander: I mean, a large part of what makes this argument compelling is that we expect juvenile animals to also be as sentient as adults. And it’s really not clear that … For example, at what point do we determine that an animal in development is complex enough to be able to experience something like pain? I mean, with oviparous animals, it’s pretty complex as well, because do we measure it from the moment the egg is laid? Do we measure it from the moment the egg hatches? Do we measure it while animals are still in development? There’s a lot of different phases, and it’s really not clear when, if at all, they develop the capacity to feel pain.
Persis Eskander: So these are really important questions that I would love people to start working on, but unfortunately I really don’t have a good sense of what the answers to those might be right now.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This is the whole point, that it’s very neglected. There’s not many people looking into those questions. You said under 20, you think of as looking into all of this, kind of all together? Does that include academics who are incidentally looking into it?
Persis Eskander: No. So I’m not really including academics who are doing empirical work in biology that could be incidentally useful to what we’re doing. I’m talking about people who are value aligned, and really focused on trying to improve the welfare of wild animals.
Robert Wiblin: It sounds like there are papers that you can draw from, from ecology or other areas, that are actually quite useful here but weren’t designed for that purpose.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, but there’s a limited number. I mean, there’s a lot of information out there, and so there would be a lot of value in doing a lot of literature reviews just to get a sense of what information we do have, so where the current state of knowledge is. But, I mean, it is limited in the sense that we only really get information on the reality of what happens. We don’t get any assessment or analysis on what the welfare effects of certain experiences are, or of certain events are. And that’s what we really need more work on, because we can’t really make decisions as to whether or not animals have net negative or positive lives without having a better sense of whether or not they have experiences that would contribute to that.
Robert Wiblin: Now that reminds me of … I guess you’d expect insects to be pretty stupid, and I suppose in a sense they are. But they have … Apparently a lot more of their body mass is brain than it is for us. So I guess you think of humans as having huge brains, but apparently ants, just a crazy fraction of their entire body is their nervous system, right?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I think Georgia also recently published a post on this … I’m going to be referencing Georgia a lot. She does a lot of great research … yeah, which found that it was surprising that small animals have larger brains relative to their body size. But it’s not super clear what that means in terms of how complex those brains are, and whether or not those brains are performing the sorts of functions that we would consider morally relevant as well.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you know what the engineering reason is, why ants have to have such big brains compared to their legs and stuff?
Persis Eskander: No, unfortunately I don’t. But I’d love to learn that.
Robert Wiblin: I wonder if it’s something like, well, in order to take any actions, you have to have a brain of a particular processing capacity. And as the body gets smaller you just can’t shrink the brain any more because otherwise it just wouldn’t be able to act as an ant. I don’t know, something like that, something like you get economies of scale on brain size. Our bodies have arms and legs like ants do, but doing a whole lot of other stuff as well. But there’s kind of just a bare minimum of processing power, I guess. Could be something like that.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, possibly. I do think that one thing that Georgia found in that post was that smaller brains are actually more efficiently designed, so they can contain a lot more neurons in a smaller space. Before reading that post, I had previously thought that human brains were the most efficiently designed in terms of the folds of the brain and the fact that we can contain so many neurons relative to the size. So that was really interesting. And I would be curious to learn if those brains being more efficient in terms of size means that they also are, maybe, more complex than we had initially thought.
Robert Wiblin: I guess, quickly, to make things more concrete, are there any kind of illustrative ways that we could try to help wild animals today that could conceivably actually be worth rolling out?
Persis Eskander: Yeah. Like I said, I wouldn’t recommend a large scale actions right now, primarily just because we don’t understand the flow-through effects. But I do think there are a few short term things that we could be doing.
Persis Eskander: So one thing I think is really promising is looking at the effects on wild animals of activities that humans already engage in. And there are a lot of these that don’t really fall into any particular category, like I call them the problems that have fallen through the cracks.
Persis Eskander: So for example, one might be can we improve the way wild caught fish are slaughtered? That’s really interesting because it intersects with the interests of people who also care about animals that are consumed. But it’s not really farmed animal welfare. And people often disregard fish, or they’re just like … They’re not very charismatic. They’re aquatic species, so we don’t interact with them often. And so they’re kind of like a forgotten category of animal. And so it would be really interesting, I think, if we were thinking about … Well, the current process is really inefficient. If fish have the capacity to suffer, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they might, then why aren’t we thinking of better systems that can kill them painlessly? That would be an incremental change in terms of the whole problem, the whole wild animal welfare issue, but it would still be a largely positive change because it would affect billions of animals. And that’s a huge change when you’re just talking about the standard scale of problems that we work on.
Persis Eskander: Another one might be how can we improve the humaneness of rodenticides and pesticides? There are a lot of animals that, as a result of urbanization, now live in cities, animals like pigeons, rats, to some extent foxes and squirrels as well in some places. And they are often animals that are subject to poisonous gases or baits to either deter them or to get rid of them. And those can be really cruel. They can be pretty excruciating. They die through internal bleeding, or organ failure, or asphyxiation. And so it seems as though, if people are not going to be happy sharing their homes with rats, then maybe we should find a way to more humanely reduce their populations, or eliminate their populations. And one way we could do that is through immunocontraceptives. That would, again, be a pretty positive … a robustly positive change for wild animals, but one that doesn’t really face the same issues that the sorts of large scale interventions do.
Robert Wiblin: What’s an immunocontraceptive?
Persis Eskander: My understanding is that it basically creates sterility through the immune system. It kind of-
Robert Wiblin: It gets the immune system to destroy the testes or something like that?
Persis Eskander: Exactly, yeah. It tricks the body into thinking that they are sort of external and shouldn’t function the way they are supposed to.
Robert Wiblin: It’s tricksy. It’s clever.
Persis Eskander: That’s like a really … it’s a really terrible explanation for what actually happens. But that’s my layman’s understanding.
Persis Eskander: A third way, which is one that I think not many people have paid attention to so far, is like preventing the development of insect farming, especially if it begins to look, at some point, like it might be more cost-effective than grain as feed for livestock. I actually don’t think it is at that point. I’m not sure if it ever would get to that point. But if it did, then what we could end up doing is dramatically increasing the amount of suffering, presuming we think insects can suffer, if we started farming them on a massive scale for feed. And since that’s not something that we’re doing right now, it seems like it would be easier to prevent it from becoming something that humans do than it would be to try and backtrack once it’s become established in industrial agricultural practices.
Persis Eskander: So yeah, those are just a few examples of things that I think we could pretty easily start working on now, and that are quite robustly positive.
Robert Wiblin: The low hanging fruit is to just avoid humans going in and making things worse. That’s like the less controversial way that we can try to help wild animals.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, basically. I mean, the biggest considerations that stop us from doing large scale work right now are population considerations. So we don’t understand what large adjustments to populations will do. And since these focus on changes that we are already making, we’re not contributing to that. We’re just slightly changing what we’re already doing at the same scale that we’re doing it.
Robert Wiblin: I see. Okay, so you don’t try to change population numbers. You just try to change how much suffering there is involved in the population level being changed, in effect?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose you’ve switched from working on wild animals to working on farm animals mostly. How does this compare in terms of, perhaps, expected impact or the nature of the work?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, it’s kind of hard to do a comparative analysis of the two, mostly because I think they’re at totally different stages. I mean, the sort of work we’re doing in farmed animal welfare focuses a lot on implementing really tractable, successful, cost-effective interventions. The biggest hurdle in farmed animal advocacy is probably resources and access to good quality research. But with the wild animal welfare, it’s a totally different stage. It’s such early days and mostly, what people are trying to do is just get a foundational understanding of the problem. I wouldn’t really say I would measure the impact of the work people do in wild animal welfare in terms of years of suffering reduced. It’s more like, how much value of information can we get from this which, in expectation, we hope will reduce a lot of years of suffering.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, and so because they’re at these different stages, it’s kind of hard to sort of compare the impact that the two might have. I also just generally think they’re both really important. And that it doesn’t really make a huge amount of sense to try and compare them because they’re sort of two subsets of this umbrella called animal welfare. And basically, our goal regardless of which area you tend to focus on is to just improve the welfare of animals as a whole. And these are just two different ways that we might try and do that.
Robert Wiblin: What made you switch?
Persis Eskander: So I think for me, it was mostly that I felt my skills and my personal fit was better in farmed animal work. I think ideally what we want for people who are working in wild animal welfare is for them to have a really strong background in life sciences and that’s unfortunately not me. So when I started working on wild animal welfare, it was much more neglected than it is now. I mean, when I was working on it, I would say there was less than $100,000 going into the field. But in the last two years, we’ve seen a lot of people who are really interested, who have backgrounds in zoology or backgrounds in ecology and biology who have become really interested in doing this work. And I basically want to give them the space to develop the research in the way that they think best because they are the people that I hope will become the main experts.
Robert Wiblin: All right. Let’s move on to talking about some kind of common objections that people often raise and that potentially people listening might be thinking about in their head. Are there any compelling arguments for humanity not dedicating much or any resources to trying to help out wild animals that you think are legitimate and that you take seriously?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I think there are probably a few compelling arguments. I mean, the most obvious one is that we’re uncertain as to the sentience of animals. And I mean, if we expect that a core amount of the problem focuses on the largest number of animals and the largest number of animals are also the least cognitive and complex, then if we were to conclude that they weren’t sentient, that would probably dramatically reduce the scale of the problem. And I think just on the question of sentience, I mean, it’s pretty difficult to try and answer. I’m not sure how we would come to a confident conclusion one way or the other as to sentience. But a great resource for example is a report that Open Phil published a couple of years ago on consciousness of moral patienthood which, I think, does a really excellent job of highlighting just how difficult it is to get a sense of what it means for an animal to have morally relevant experiences.
Persis Eskander: So that would probably be like a pretty compelling case against focusing on wild animal welfare. Another might be that we don’t actually know how wild animals experience things like predation, injury and disease. So there is a case, for example, that it’s just … I mean, as we discussed, it’s not as bad as we think it is because they’ve developed coping mechanisms, because the chronic experiences for them are just less negative for some reason. It could also be that for example when animals experience some kind of severe bodily trauma, they enter shock and so they don’t actually feel the pain. I mean, there are a lot of ways in which we just lack a lot of knowledge on what it means for animals to have experiences that we think would be bad for ourselves.
Persis Eskander: And so that would be a compelling case against focusing on wild animal welfare if we thought that what we traditionally think of as negative experiences, were not negative enough to sort of outweigh the positive experiences that we hope they’re having. And so if the ratio is much more balanced, then it might mean that it’s just not as severe a problem as we thought.
Persis Eskander: And then the last argument that I think is probably the most compelling one is that it’s just too complex a problem to work on. And that there is nothing we can really do about it.
Robert Wiblin: Actually, I think my mom talked at some point about … We have dogs and they have cut themselves various times and then they get surgery, get stitched up. And she’s remarked that they’re running around a day after the surgery and just seem fairly unbothered. So I suppose some people think that humans extraordinarily will see animals that suffer much more and I guess wild animals are like much more capable of dealing with the vicissitudes of life ’cause maybe the environment is just so much harsher that they kind of have to. They don’t wanna be constantly distracted and unhappy about how bad things are. I guess I’m kind of skeptical about it.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I mean I guess a contrary argument you could make is that just because animals don’t express their distress in a way that’s familiar to us or in the way that we would expect, it doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it. But it might actually be safer for animals to be better at hiding their injuries or be better at not signaling that they’re weaker because it makes them less likely to be prey. And I mean, obviously, everything we talk about is really speculative. It’s really hard to know if that is actually the case or not.
Persis Eskander: But I would be weary of, I guess, into reading too much into whether or not animals express their pain in a way that we would expect because it might just be that we’re overlooking something or there’s just a massive communication barrier there.
Robert Wiblin: They have a different love language, right? That suffering language in this case. Another one you raised was the question of are these animals sentient? Obviously, a super hard question. Luke Muehlhauser, one of your colleagues now at Open Philanthropy has written this huge report that I think we’ve mentioned on the show before that we’ll stick up a link to. I guess, if you have like 20 hours of spare time to read through that and all the footnotes where they try to figure out, do we have anything to go on here? I think that the bottom line is, yeah, no, we are super uncertain. I guess people have different judgements.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose I find myself on the end of finding it quite plausible, very plausible that most mammals, for example, and fish have feelings that I take seriously perhaps more than most other people do that insects might well even have feelings. Although I find that very hard to judge. Did you find that people who are involved in this kind of project tend to be on one side of the distribution on how likely they think it is that animals, and especially small animals, are conscious?
Persis Eskander: I’m not sure. I’ve heard people who have been working on this express the view that they’re more likely to give credence to small animals having the capacity to feel pain. And people who seem pretty confident that they don’t and so tend to just wanna focus on other solutions to the problem or focus on slightly larger species but species that are still pretty unpopular. My impression is that perhaps people who work in wild animal welfare are just more willing to follow the precautionary principle and just avoid inflicting harm if they can which doesn’t necessarily say much about their probability that small animals are sentient. But I think it’s maybe they’re willing to pay a higher cost even if there is no payoff at the end.
Robert Wiblin: So they’re more just like running the math, you mean, or willing to take a big risk?
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I mean, they’re willing to sort of make decisions that might be more costly or might mean that we don’t do things that might be the most efficient thing that we do just because it could potentially cause harm but might actually end up having zero positive impact because they’re not capable. The animals we’re trying to help are not capable of feeling harm.
Robert Wiblin: The objection I hear the most is the one that we’ve kind of already alluded to is that anything you do with the population number is gonna backfire. So you get rid of the predators to try to help the prey but the prey increase in number and then they start eating other things or they make things worse in some other way. Sounds like you take that argument pretty seriously? Do you wanna present it maybe in its strongest form?
Persis Eskander: So I guess I could sort of run through a way in which it’s quite difficult to understand the next sign of an intervention that we try and implement. So, for example, Georgia, again, did a really interesting project looking at the potential effects of replacing the consumption of fish by the creation of alternative or cultured fish products. And so if we look, for example, at what this might mean for tuna fish, it becomes really quite complex when you go like only one or two steps in.
Persis Eskander: So tuna fish are both farmed and wild caught and so the first assessment we would wanna make is, well, are their farmed lives better than their wild lives. I mean, when they’re farmed, they’re in really close confinement, they often are susceptible to lice, they have really stressful de-lousing processes and then they are no humane provisions for handling transport and slaughter which could often be just blunt force trauma or decapitation or asphyxiation. Also, they will live for about a year or less. In the wild, tuna fish can live up to 15 to 30 years. Obviously, they don’t face problems like closed confinement but they might instead face problems like starvation. Tuna fish can be preyed on by whales and shark. There is some, I think, research to suggest that they have higher rates of parasitism in the wild as well.
Persis Eskander: So we might naively say, “Well, we think it’s slightly better to be a wild tuna fish than to be a farmed tuna fish.” And so then the next question you’d wanna ask is, well, if we want to think about replacing the consumption of wild caught tuna fish with alternative products, we need to think how bad is the death of a tuna fish in the wild versus being wild caught. And so tuna fish tend to be caught through a troll nets which can be quite stressful. And then they face the same sort of slaughter provisions as farm tuna. So there is no humane provisions. It’s often something like blunt force trauma or asphyxiation. It’s pretty unclear, though, how you would decide, whether that was better or worse than dying because you’ve been hunted or eaten, especially because the way fish are hunted and eaten is very different to what we would expect from terrestrial animals.
Persis Eskander: And then the next thing you’d wanna think about is, well, okay, let’s say we think it’s plausibly better that we don’t consume fish. Actually, no, let’s say it’s plausibly better that we do consume them, what would that mean? Well, if we say stopped farming fish and only ate wild caught fish, then we might expect to see the population of tuna drop. And tuna fish are also predators. So that might mean that the population of their prey ends up ballooning. But actually, most fish are predators and so what we might see is that the prey of the prey end up becoming depleted. And it’s not really a simple case to say that, well, if we’re like deplete this population that that might be a good thing because they tend to have really negative lives because often, if you deplete one population, what you end up seeing is that another population comes and takes its place.
Persis Eskander: So there are all of these different effects. And there are all of these different stages at which we just are very uncertain about what it means for the tuna fish’s prey population to increase. What does that mean for the quality of their lives. What are their experiences like? And what does it mean for the prey’s prey to then be depleted? What would take its place? It’s really, really difficult to understand, first of all how this trophic cascade works and then to make an assessment of how good or bad it is at various levels.
Persis Eskander: I think on this, Brian Tomasik actually has a really interesting article. I think it’s called Trophic Cascades caused by fishing. And that goes into much more detail. And I thought that was really an interesting read. So I guess that’s just one way to illustrate how difficult it is to get a sense of what their ecosystem effects are.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. We’ll stick up a link to that essay if people wanna learn more about fish trophic levels. There’s this famous interview, or at least famous to me, an interview between Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer where I think Tyler points out, so if you’re vegetarian and you’re choosing not to eat animals that are made in factory farms, that kind of makes sense ’cause if you eat more of them, then you get more of them created. It’s like, Singer, what about catching these wild caught fish? And he says, “Oh, it would be wrong ’cause you’re killing them and eating them.” And he’s like, “But they’re gonna die of starvation or be preyed upon in the sea anyways, so you’re not changing the number of animals that die there.” And then I think seems like Singer hadn’t really thought about this. This is a little while ago, 10 years ago, before this issue had been raised more.
Robert Wiblin: And he’s like, “Oh, but then you end up with less of them.” And he was like, “But are their lives good? Are you saying it’s like the tuna are having a good time in the sea and that having fewer tuna would be a bad thing?” What’s the evidence base for that? Why do we think it’s bad for there to be more tuna? And if you think it’s like, the life of the tuna is good, so we shouldn’t catch them then surely catching the tuna such that the tuna doesn’t hunt all of these other animals, so you end up with more fish. ‘Cause that would be good then, right? Because you’re getting rid of the predator. So it’s like the same kind of thing of like, at every point you kind of don’t know what to say. Is being caught by a human worse than the death that a fish would otherwise suffer? There’s so many different interactions here and so many different things we don’t even know whether it’s positive or negative to figure out what actions to take is incredibly hard..
Robert Wiblin: All of that said, I think I’m somewhat less sympathetic to this argument than some other people are. I think it rests on, or for many people in their mind, it rests on this misunderstanding of what nature is like where they imagine that there’s some longstanding stable state where the number of animals or the ratios between all of these different animals is fixed and whenever you get a pertubation to that, that’s undesirable and then hopefully, at some point, it will restored back to its natural, good equilibrium. ‘Cause if you actually study biological systems, if you actually study some ecosystem, you see that there are numbers of different species and the ratios between them are just flying around chaotically all the time.
Robert Wiblin: One species will take over or they increase in number and then they’ll be hunted away and this changes year to year, month to month. So it’s not as if there’s some stable thing that’s like, “Great, we can’t destroy this wonderful situation that we know is ideal.” It’s really just flying around all the time and yes, humans mess with it but so do lots of other species like increase in number and then catch other species. I guess I’m less nervous about interference than perhaps other people are because I just view it as like humans are just one among many other things that are changing the number of different animals at any point in time and there’s no particular reason to think that our interventions are gonna be especially harmful.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I don’t think I’m very sympathetic to the idea that we can’t intervene because anything we do will throw the ecosystem out of balance. I think that if you conceive of the problem as there’s this huge problem, it’s too difficult to do anything because anything we try and implement on a really large scale has these unforeseen effects. Then I can understand why inertia sets in. I think I’m more sympathetic to the idea that whilst we’re very uncertain, we should be cautious. And we should be reluctant to engage in an action that could have potentially negative effects. And so what I sort of prefer is rather than seeing the potential solutions to the problem as this binary of, “Well, we solve a large part of the problem or we solve none of it,” we could just break it down into subsets and try and just focus more on incremental change. And hopefully, while we implement incremental change and learn more about the problem, we will discover solutions that weren’t immediately obvious to us in the beginning.
Robert Wiblin: I guess not to pick on Peter Singer but another objection that he made, I guess, when someone raised the possibility of trying to help wild animals at a talk is I guess just to quote him, “For practical purposes, I am fairly sure, judging from humanity’s past record of attempts to mold nature to its own aims, that if we try to interfere, we’ll be more likely to increase the net amount of animal suffering if we interfered with wildlife than to decrease it. Lions play a role in the ecology of their habitat and we can’t be sure what the long-term consequences would be if we were to prevent them from killing gazelles. So in practice, I would definitely say that wildlife should be left alone.” What do you think of that argument? Kind of what we’ve done so far has been bad so we should be very cautious about interfering going forward?
Persis Eskander: I’m sympathetic to the idea that we should be cautious and I totally endorse the idea of not taking actions while we have massive uncertainties. I do think that I am not convinced that we will definitely increase suffering as opposed to reducing it if we interfere. Primarily, because we’ve never actually tried to help wild animals before, most of the ways in which we’ve interfered in the wild have been for our own gain. And we haven’t really paid attention to the effects that they have on wild animals. So I mean, I’m also uncertain that we could potentially do something positive but I guess I’m not convinced that we should be fairly certain that we won’t be able to have a positive effect for animals.
Robert Wiblin: And another one that I hear pretty often is that well, humans, we’ve kind of have a moral duty to help animals that are like pets or farm animals that we’re interacting with. In as much as wild animals are just not interacting with people at all, they’re just interacting with one another. We just don’t really have any moral duties to creatures that are just outside of our entire sphere of interaction. I guess it’s more a philosophical than practical objection, but yeah, what do you think of that one?
Persis Eskander: There are two ways I could answer this. And I intend my answer to stay as far away as possible from ethical theory because I’m just the furthest person from being a philosopher. So I guess the first response would be that I just disagree that we don’t have a duty to animals that are outside of our sphere of interaction. I think what’s at play here is an act / omission bias and it doesn’t seem to me to be compelling that just because we aren’t the direct cause of a negative experience, we don’t have a duty or we shouldn’t be interested in trying to alleviate that negative experience. That’s probably the first response.
Persis Eskander: The second response is, even if we assume that that claim is correct, I think that anywhere you try to draw the line, when you try and define which animals are within our sphere of interaction and which ones aren’t, I think would be pretty arbitrary. So often people think that because we don’t interact with wild animals or if they live in untouched land then we haven’t affected their lives. But that’s actually not true at all.
Persis Eskander: Any sort of urbanization or large scale agriculture necessarily has an effect on reducing, changing, removing the habitats of animals who used to live there. Those animals are then forced to either relocate or they end up potentially as a result of losing their habitats, their populations decrease. When animals have to relocate, that changes the balance of that ecosystem. And so even if you think about environments that have been totally untouched, anything that we do in adjacent regions will have an effect on that. If we build a dam, if we change the direction of a river, that changes where animals can access water and where plants have access to water which changes the way that ecosystem then functions.
Persis Eskander: I don’t think that there is a strong case that there are any animals that are outside of our sphere of interaction. I think we just have varying degrees of interaction with them. But essentially, we interact with all animals in some way and so we would have a duty to help them.
Robert Wiblin: If you’re a moral pluralist you might think, “Well, there’s many different reasons why we perhaps have moral reasons for action,” and say some of them might be because we have relationships with people or we’re engaged in some kind of cooperation with them that creates its own kind of ethical considerations. But, I imagine that most people will think all else equal suffering is bad. Even if there is weaker reasons to care about wild animals. Still, even if there is a creature that we haven’t had anything to do with that’s suffering horribly, we still have some reason even if not quite as strong a reason to try to help them out.
Robert Wiblin: Of course, I guess, to me, it just seems equally strong, to think that we have equal duties to wild animals as farm animals. I guess I know many listeners feel that way but perhaps not all of them. Another objection that I chased up from Jennifer [Ever 00:49:16] which I think might occur to people in one form or another is the idea that consequentialists or utilitarians might actually wanna endorse evolutionary selection, the survival of the fittest because even though it’s quite unpleasant to go through, it’s the only way that you can get rid of deleterious genetic traits. So if we try to stop the survival of the fittest, then this would basically result in just gradual deterioration of the capabilities of the organisms that were left remaining ’cause you’d be allowing genetic diseases to propagate and spread because the carriers of those weren’t being removed from the population. Sounds a little bit brutal but I guess probably a lot of people think something like that about the wilderness. Did you have any reaction to that?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting objection. I haven’t actually read the paper that it comes from. So basically, my responses will be purely in the context of that quote. I think that what’s interesting is the distinction between a scenario where the survival of the fittest or evolutionary selection allows for a better scenario than one without evolutionary selection. And one where we claim that the current scenario is the best possible one. So I agree that in some sense, allowing animals to only propagate if they are the strongest and the fittest probably does lead to healthier populations. But I don’t necessarily think that species health is the same as individual wellbeing. And I think that’s a pretty risky link to draw because then you essentially end up conflating the individual experiences with species which, as a category, doesn’t have the capacity to have positive or negative experiences.
Persis Eskander: So that’s the first concern. And then the second concern is that just because evolutionary selection is better than a scenario without one, it doesn’t seem to me as though we can’t still improve on it. And so I’m not really sure why our attempts to try and improve the situation of wild animals couldn’t actually result in an outcome that’s even better than the status quo.
Robert Wiblin: A middle ground might be that you could say sterilize the weak organisms or something so they don’t propagate their genes but they don’t have to die in some horrible way.
Persis Eskander: Or, ideally, we could just prevent a lot of animals that are unlikely to survive from being born at all. I mean, I think one of the cruelest effects of the current system or the status quo is that a lot of animals are born but then die very shortly afterwards or they might live slightly longer but then they don’t get to reproduce because they’re weaker or they have genetic defects. I mean, I think it would be much kinder if there were a scenario in which they never had to exist at all.
Robert Wiblin: So you’re saying we could just have some kind of birth control, produce a more reasonable number and then the survival rate will go up. So you don’t have the 99.9% infant mortality rate but you still get plenty of selection, potentially at later stages. It just involves less mass death.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: Another more simple objection that I get a lot from people who I don’t directly work with or are part of Effective Altruism is just why would you wanna interfere with nature. Nature is natural, that means it’s good. Changing it, that’s bad. Maybe I’m strawmanning that position. But, do you have any comment on that kind of thing? It’s like I guess this whole naturalness sphere of concerns.
Persis Eskander: I mean, I guess I would be curious how they define nature because it doesn’t seem to me as though there is a really world-defined concept of what is natural.
Robert Wiblin: It’s what’s there, Persis. Why would you ever wanna change anything that has been around for a long time?
Persis Eskander: Well, I would expect that people who truly buy into a belief system that places some kind of intrinsic value on nature would have to be willing to give up their homes and stop living in cities and stop-
Robert Wiblin: Record a podcast, unnatural.
Persis Eskander: Making use of … Exactly. Stop making use of technology because none of these are natural. It’s very difficult to give a very good response to an argument that is not extremely well defined. It’s very difficult for me to get a sense of what people actually mean when they say nature is good and changing it is bad because we make changes to nature all the time that have been to our benefit. And we will keep doing so.
Robert Wiblin: As you can probably tell, I’m not a huge fan of this objection. I suppose, yeah, you can cash it out into more concrete things like, “This is a thing that has persisted for a long time and has its own order and so interfering with that might be expected to be bad.” But I think many people, they’re not even thinking through to some kind of more consequential or practical argument and spitting out of this is just this is how things have been for millions or billions of years and so humans have no place changing this thing. But it just seems like absolutely fundamentally flawed reasoning. There’s no reason to think that something just because it’s been around a long time is good. It could also be terrible. And like humans have done all sorts of things like changed the way that humans used to live ’cause we thought it was bad. You know, we used to have slavery, used to be starved to death all the time. We changed that because it was bad.
Robert Wiblin: I guess this one actually often shows up on the left, the naturalness of nature thing. But I don’t think they’d accept a similar argument about different sexual practices or unnatural … I guess, people on the conservative are more likely to say, “Oh, homosexuality is bad ’cause it’s unnatural.” I think they’re factually wrong about that. But even if they were factually right that it was unnatural, I think we wouldn’t accept that that’s a good reason to discourage it or ban it. You have to have some greater objection to something other than that it hasn’t been what has typically happened before. It’s just not a good argument.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I agree. I would be surprised if someone who believed that what is natural is good held that as their sole belief as opposed to potentially being one belief amongst a mixture of other values that they constantly … And they constantly have to make tradeoffs between them and I think if you’re going to be engaging in that tradeoff, then what they’re essentially doing is saying, “Well, I would like to change nature when it benefits me, but, I don’t think I’m gonna change nature when there is no benefit or when it has zero effect on my life.” And I think that’s where the main flaw comes in that they’re just disregarding the experiences of wild animals.
Robert Wiblin: Another flavor of this is, “Oh, it’s natural and it’s beautiful,” some kind of aesthetic thing about how I guess humans have evolved to find nature really aesthetically pleasing ’cause that was the environment or at least some forms of nature, ones in which humans are able to survive very well, we find beautiful. I guess I often find that people confuse aesthetics and ethics. And this is another case where it’s like, something can be beautiful to humans, that’s affected by what humans like looking at. They’re not really affected by what is good in itself. You can have a wilderness that have a lot of suffering and it’s quite barbaric and the fact that it looks like a nice painting is kind of irrelevant morally, or only a tiny factor in the scheme of things.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I guess for people who strongly wanna preserve nature because it’s aesthetically pleasing to them, again, I guess there’s a tradeoff that I would be asking them to make. I mean, to what extent does the aesthetic pleasure you get from nature outweigh the horrible suffering experiences that animals have. And well, I mean, I’m sure some people would say that the aesthetic pleasure they get out of it does outweigh the suffering experiences but I guess I don’t really have a huge amount of credence in an argument like that.
Robert Wiblin: Now, I guess I wanna move on to how this plays with longtermism. And I guess the reasons that I don’t personally prioritize wild animal suffering that much. So I guess, yeah, what are the arguments for prioritizing wild animal suffering from a longtermist perspective? Is there much of a case for that that it improves the very long-term future of humanity and all of our descendants and the universe as a whole?
Persis Eskander: So I’m much less familiar, I would say, with longtermist perspective than maybe a lot of EAs or maybe even a lot of listeners. It’s not really an area I’ve spent a huge amount of time working on. But I would say, so the first thing I’d say is that, and it’s probably pretty obvious, is that if you do prioritize long-term outcomes, then I don’t actually think it makes sense to focus on wild animal welfare because what you’d wanna focus on are the most important leverage points and wild animal welfare is just not one of those. So I don’t think … I don’t wanna make a case that people who really care about the value of the long-term future should be working on this ’cause I don’t think that’s true.
Persis Eskander: I do think that there is a point at which it makes sense for people who take a longtermist perspective to sort of include wild animal welfare within the remit of the broad actions that we could potentially take. But I also think that that probably largely depends on what you sort of see as being the most urgent risks that we need to attend to. So I guess-
Persis Eskander: … the most urgent risks that we need to attend to. So, I guess like a very simplified example is that like if you have really high probability of short AI timelines, then it probably makes sense for you to focus on putting all of your resources into technical AI safety work, and it makes less sense to do something broadly useful like focus on improving democratic process. But if you have much longer, like a higher probability in much longer timelines, then it’s probably a little bit harder to … it’s a lot harder to predict the technical work will have long run impact.
Persis Eskander: So, it makes more sense to just focus a lot more on the broad actions you can do to generally improve things at a societal level. I think in the latter scenario is where it might be interesting to include wild animal welfare, primarily because part of the value of a long term future is one that is as inclusive as possible and factors in the welfare of all beings that could potentially be moral patients. And a scenario in which wild animal welfare is not included could be one in which we need up with these catastrophic oversight.
Persis Eskander: So, there are probably two goals I would say to including wild animal welfare or to I guess prioritizing wild animal welfare as a concern for people who care about the long term. The first is that if we include that nonhuman beings have the capacity to suffer, no matter what form it takes, then we would hope that the value of the long term future implicitly includes the value of all of these lives. So actually, if we improved the state of wild animals now and as a consequence improved or at least factored in the value of any nonhuman life that could potentially exist in the future, then we would actually be increasing the total value of the long term future.
Persis Eskander: But even if we don’t include nonhuman life in the value of the long term future, then I guess that just instilling norms of inclusivity and compassion would be a pretty robustly positive things that we could do. And that’s pretty speculative and I don’t actually know that promoting wild animal welfare or working on it now would actually result in an outcome like that. But it’s like a fairly plausible case. And even in that scenario, I would imagine that the primary benefit from a long termist perspective is for humans, but what I would want for wild animal welfare is that we actually address it now.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So, try to summarize that. I guess you’re saying if you think this revolutionary AI is gonna come about really soon and you’re gonna get big changes in the world very quickly, then it wouldn’t make so much sense to focus on wild animal welfare, ’cause you want to focus on these pivot points that are gonna happen soon enough that we should just be thinking about those. On the other hand, if you think that there is nothing like that, then focusing on wild animal welfare might be valuable because you get to change all those values and make sure the concerns of wild animals and other organisms in the future that are like wild animals would be taken into consideration in the very long term future. You’re like potentially changing the trajectory of human values or the kind of concerns that we would implement in this long term, much more advanced future.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I think that’s basically right.
Robert Wiblin: And I guess the reason to not focus on it would be that while it’s a very important issue, ’cause there’s so many wild animals that exist at any one point in time, it’s not quite that urgent. It’s a problem that is just gonna continue, in as much as humanity just continues in its current situation. It’s not a problem that’s going away any time soon, and it’s not a problem where if we don’t solve it now, then we never get to solve it or anything like that. If anything, it’s like getting easier to solve in future potentially. So, it’s one that we can just punt down to future generations or delay fixing, whereas potentially other things like the risk of nuclear war, if we don’t fix it now, then potentially we’ll never get the chance to do it because we’ll be totally screwed by it now.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I think it’s probably right that wild animal welfare doesn’t have the same sort of urgency as like existential risk does. But I’m not, I guess I have some concerns about the idea that we could just leave it to future generations to work on, because I think the expectation that we have that they will do it depends on how likely we think it is that they will think wild animals are morally relevant in the future, and it seems pretty plausible to me that there are many scenarios in which we’ve overlooked things in the past and that if we’re not working on promoting the idea that we should be taking a really inclusive approach, then maybe they will overlook it in the future, even if it does become easier and more tractable to work on.
Persis Eskander: I think there’s probably a medium ground here where what the field of wild animal welfare looks like is, in 10 years, it’s something like advocates are lobbying key decision makers to make decisions that consider the effects that they would have on wild animals as opposed to it being the sort of field where there’s like a group of people who are working on solutions and then trying to implement them. That would actually be my ideal outcome, especially if we expect things to become more tractable down the line. But that does still require that we start working on the problem now because there are a lot of really important questions we need to answer to be able to make that case convincing.
Robert Wiblin: So in the future we’ll be able potentially to solve this problem, but the question is will we, and I guess we want to set ourselves up so that we’ll choose to do that even though it might be quite inconvenient or quite costly, or difficult or controversial or something like that.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: I guess there’s also this concern that we might get, I guess over the last few centuries our values have shifted quite a lot from preindustrial society to where we are now. But I guess it’s conceivable that they could become more stable and harder to shift in future. I think probably that won’t happen, but it is possible that human values will become a lot more like static in future, in which case we would need to rush to improve them quickly before they start getting too stuck where they are.
Robert Wiblin: So, how much … people who are working on this problem, how much do they see it as mostly a vehicle for advocacy about not being complacent about how good the wilderness is and not being indifferent to the welfare of wild animals rather than actually trying to do anything to concretely help them right now for its own sake?
Persis Eskander: I’m not sure that I have a good sense of if there’s like a fair representation of what all the people who are working on this now are hoping. I would say that probably most of the people who focus on it have a new termists worldview and are probably really interested in actually alleviating the negative experiences or improving the welfare of wild animals, and that the potential benefits that it has for the long term future are sort of like the added bonus, whereas I guess if you take a long term perspective, then helping animals now is the added bonus and the value of the long term future is the goal.
Robert Wiblin: Is the real meat of the … not meat and potatoes, but at least potatoes. Yeah, do you think that this is like among the better kind of vehicles for moral advocacy? I guess if you’re just trying to think about, “Well, we want to improve the future by making humans care about the right things,” then yeah, does wild animal suffering stand out across the whole smorgasbord of possible topics that you could be raising with people and trying to shift their attitudes on?
Persis Eskander: I’m actually not sure. There are two ways to think about the new term work that we do as having an effect on encouraging a more positive shift of human values. There’s work where you’re just engaging in deliberate advocacy, you’re just trying to encourage people to become more inclusive or to expand their sphere of concern. And then there’s work that is just purely focused on trying to solve a problem. And as a result of that work, we start seeing traction and we start seeing change, and then when something becomes mainstream, people sort of shift their values in response to that.
Persis Eskander: I don’t really know which of the two is more effective. I would say that the work that we’re doing in wild animal welfare falls into the latter. The focus is not so much on telling people to start caring about wild animals. The focus is on trying to figure out what we can do about it and then basically trying to make that change happen, and hopefully as we start seeing that change happen, people get on board.
Robert Wiblin: I’ve noticed this phenomenon where if people think that nothing can be done about something and they think it wouldn’t be valuable to do it, are they kind of confused what’s practical with what would be desirable. So, it might be the best way to get people to actually worry about wild animals is to show them concrete ways that we could help and show them that it’s not impossible to fix, and then they would be motivated to actually think about it and care about it as a moral issue. ‘Cause I guess, not sure whether this is a justification, but an explanation might be that do you really want to think that something horrible is really important and a moral responsibility if in fact you can do nothing, then that’s just depressing and pointless. But then once you activate or do indicate, “Oh no, there are solutions to this,” then people will actually need to think about it on a more concrete level.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. And one really surprising benefit I would say to wild animal welfare is that there’s no really demanding or challenging ask that we have of people. Anything that we might think is like a viable or feasible change that we want to make, we’ll require asking … For example, if we’re talking about making fish slaughter more humane, that requires going to companies and encouraging them to introduce new provisions. If we’re trying to prevent the increase of insect farming, then it’s not like a decision that’s made on an individual level where basically again, either liaising with industry or with government, or with the people directly working on that.
Persis Eskander: So, it’s not the sort of cause area that is hard for people to get on board, because for every individual person, it doesn’t actually cost them very much to just agree.
Robert Wiblin: They don’t even have to stop eating meat.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly.
Robert Wiblin: You’re not asking for any … you need a systemic or governmental or technological fix rather than like individual action.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. And I would expect that people would find it easier to say, “Yes, I support making this change that is better for these wild animals, even if it might incrementally increase the cost of something,” so introducing more humane pesticides might incrementally increase the cost of vegetables that they have to buy. But that process is pretty well hidden and it’s not immediately obvious, so it’s quite easy for people to say, “Yeah, I really care about rabbits in agriculture and I don’t want them to have to die in these horrible ways.”
Robert Wiblin: It’s only gonna cost them a few cents and some different poison.
Persis Eskander: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Do we have any sense of, has there been any public opinion polling on wild animals? What do people think now and I guess how far away are they from thinking the things that we’d ideally like them to think?
Persis Eskander: I don’t know if there’s been large scale public polling. I know there was like, animal charity evaluators did a few small scale surveys, but I’m not sure if they were just asking, “What is your impression of wild animal suffering?” I mean, it’s also kind of important how you communicate it, like I could imagine that people are really on board with the idea of helping an animal that’s been hit by a car, but not on board with eliminating lions. That’s just not an idea that I would want to get on board with. So, I guess it really depends on how you tend to communicate the concept of wild animal welfare and what you’re plausibly asking people to get on board with.
Robert Wiblin: I imagine this is, like out of all the issues that we talk about, one of the things that people thought about the very least. It’s not something that most people have really given much consideration to at all, in which case the initial framing, or the nature of the question that you ask will more or less determine kind of the answer that you get, and they might just not really have stable opinions at all. I suppose I am interested to get a sense of how do people respond to different questions, ’cause you might have heard on one of the episodes with Spencer Greenberg, he had all this opinion polling that he’d done on Mechanical Turk on what do people think about farmed animal welfare and I guess the biggest update for me was that I had thought that many people thought that farmed animals weren’t conscious, and so the justification for their horrible treatment was that they can’t feel anything, so it’s fine.
Robert Wiblin: But it seemed like that was actually an extremely minority view. Really, we’re talking less than five percent of people thought that pigs couldn’t feel pleasure or pain. Actually, people thought that their lives were good, it’s more that they were ignorant of the farming conditions and that they believe that pigs weren’t moral patients. And that’s kind of a big, that might shift your messaging quite a bit, just to get some basics of like what do people actually think. I suppose you might think, “Well, maybe the poll was asking leading questions.” I think Spencer was pretty responsible there. The questions are fairly neutral and didn’t lead people really that much one way or the other.
Robert Wiblin: But it might be, I guess it’s conceivable that we could do some polling on wild animal stuff and find that if you just ask the question the right way, people are like, “Oh yeah, it is bad that all these animals are dying at birth.”
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I would definitely say that the way you communicate probably plays a really big role in terms of how people respond, because there are ways of communicating wild animal welfare that are really intuitive and then there are ways that are counterintuitive. And I think that’s something that the wild animal initiative is hoping to work on, so they did some early and very small work on communication strategies and might be looking further into what are the most effective ways that we can have conversations on this, which I would love to see the output of. I’m really excited to learn more about that.
Robert Wiblin: I guess this raises the issue of it potentially being quite a risky thing to be working on, because if you’re among the first people framing this whole issue and pushing it out there, then talking about it the wrong way could be really harmful and fix in people’s minds a negative attitude about it. Is that something people worry about a lot and perhaps is one of the reasons that people are more just trying to do basic research rather than go out and do any kind of big campaigns?
Persis Eskander: I think that’s a pretty important consideration. You’re right. The way people communicate it could be like a sticking point that ends up being kind of detrimental in the future. But I would say maybe that the larger consideration for why maybe it’s not the right time to do really broad or mainstream public outreach is that we’re just not really at a point where we, I guess have a good sense of what the problem is, what the extent of the problem is, and it’s kind of risky to also communicate a problem without … especially one that is like, relies very heavily on scientific data to back it up without having the support of academics behind you. So, I’m pretty wary of just going out and saying to the public, “Here is something we should care about. You should be outraged that there is all of this suffering happening in the world and we have to do something about it,” if we don’t also have ecologists and biologists and psychologists behind us saying that yeah, there is really good evidence that this is actually what’s happening and that we should be able to do something about it.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have any advice for listeners who I guess might end up talking about this issue, about how they can frame it in such a way that it’s not off putting to people who they might be speaking with?
Persis Eskander: Well, I guess I can give advice based on the sort of approaches that I’ve tried to use. The general approach I try and take is that I change the way I frame the issue depending on the audience that I’m talking to and on what I expect them to care about the most. So, for example, if I’m talking to EAs, then I might focus a lot more on the scale of the problem, whereas if I’m talking to maybe animal advocates, I might focus a lot more on the experiences that animals have. Those are probably a bit cliched. But you know, the idea being that if you can get a sense of what people care about, you can try and find intersection points where there are existing values and then for lack of a better word, leverage those to communicate wild animal welfare in a way that isn’t going to be very off putting to them.
Persis Eskander: But unfortunately, I wouldn’t really say I have very general principles. I think there might be some content out there on this. I would probably check either the animal ethics website or the wild animal initiative website. I think they might have both done some work on this, but there are no clear general principles that come to mind. I tend to sort of take a case by case approach.
Robert Wiblin: So to me it’s really obvious that long termists, at least me and the people that I know personally, are concerned about the welfare of farm animals, including wild animals as well, and I guess other beings that might exist in future that are moral patients and have experiences as well. Do you think that we should make that clearer to the rest of the world as maybe something that we don’t talk about that much and I guess perhaps animal activists don’t understand where we’re coming from?
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I think that’s a really interesting question. It seems, so I guess based on my understanding anyway is that it seems as though a long termist perspective, it does implicitly include nonhumans in the worldview. I think that if I maybe put myself in the shoes of someone who works primarily on long termist issues, then maybe there’s a concern there that if you try and more widely emphasize that you’re talking about nonhumans, that it becomes much less certain what you mean. So, are you talking about biological animals that exist now? Are you talking about animals that will exist if we colonize space? Are you talking about animals that will exist on different planets? Are you talking about extraterrestrial biological life? Are you talking about artificial life? I mean, it’s pretty unclear. It’s very poorly defined what nonhuman means when you’re talking about the long term future.
Persis Eskander: And so I can imagine there’s like a tension there between wanting to have a very explicit and clearly defined concept of what you’re working towards that as a result means you try and avoid talking about things that you’re less certain about versus trying to be more explicitly inclusive in the way we communicate it. And I guess that’s maybe like a strategic call for people who spend a lot of their time thinking about the best ways to communicate long termist issues.
Robert Wiblin: Usually if you’re trying to get people to come around to a position that’s not super common, you want to kind of do it one at a time. I think usually rather than wrap it all up together. So, if you’re trying to get people to worry about how the world’s gonna be in thousands of years time, then usually just focus on that and don’t add in another odd thing. It’s like talking about animals in thousands of years time, that’s just piling one thing onto another. And likewise if you’re trying to get people to worry about farm animal welfare, you probably don’t open with farm animals in thousands of years time. You just do one and then do the other.
Robert Wiblin: But I guess that could lead to misunderstanding about what people actually … like somebody’s talking about farm animals, doesn’t mean that they don’t care about the future, it’s just that that’s what they’re talking about now, ’cause it’s easier to make one point at a time.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I think that’s probably fair. Often when I talk about wild animal welfare work, I do talk about it within like a near termist perspective ’cause that’s what it’s most relevant to right now.
Robert Wiblin: So, in terms of us needing to do this moral advocacy now rather than just leaving it for the future, one reason would be that we won’t get the chance to change values in the future. I suppose another possible reason might be they think, “Well, we have the seed of people who are worried about this issue now, but it’s possible that that could just get extinguished and then there won’t be anyone around who worries about this in the future.” So, this set of ideas could die out and never really take off.
Robert Wiblin: I guess I feel a bit skeptical of this whole line of argument, maybe ’cause it feels like we were doing something for one reason and now we’re kind of justifying it on different grounds. It seems a bit more spurious. Maybe I’m also just temperamentally, I’m more inclined to think that we’ll get moral convergence and ideas that we’ll actually, in the long term we’ll get to the right answer and that it’s fairly unlikely that we’re gonna get to some situation where people will just, where we just stop deliberating on what’s morally good. So, fingers crossed, if this is correct, then people will eventually realize it and we don’t have to rush to get the right answer on this one accepted by most people right away.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, and I guess the idea that concern for wild animal welfare will just die out and not really be revived, maybe just because it seems like such an intuitive idea to me. It’s very hard for me to imagine that happening. People who are more moral non-realists who don’t think that there’s any real truth to the matter here, perhaps people who think that ideas and ideology kind of just evolve in a more random way as such that they’re just flipping around chaotically and there’s not really any kind of convergent direction to them. I guess for those people, it might make more sense to focus on this issue and make sure that it persists soon and gets taken up by a lot of people sooner, ’cause it’s just a greater chance that we could fly off in some completely different moral direction and end up never returning to worrying about this as a species.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. These are really interesting ideas and I think they sound plausible, but it’s really hard to know. It’s really, really difficult to get a better sense of what is actually happening here.
Robert Wiblin: I imagine you’ve got to have a similar kind of agnosticism about this one, but what do you think of the odds that kind of we take wild animals, or kind of their equivalent to space hypothetically, if we were to go out to space? I know this is something that some wild animal folks worry about, is it’s not just about wild animals and similar creatures on earth, but rather like there could end up being an awful lot more wilderness in the future than there is today.
Persis Eskander: I guess the first way I would start is I don’t actually know what humans will or won’t do. If we get to a point where we colonize space. There are a whole series of potential parts that could be plausible. Maybe if we colonize space, we bring wildlife with us, either because we’ve terraformed new planets and so we want to recreate the environment that is familiar to us on Earth on different planets.
Robert Wiblin: Or perhaps we need them as part of the terraforming process.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. Exactly. To make environments more habitable for humans. Maybe if we colonize space, we engage in something like directed panspermia where we basically just release or seed biologically life on some planets and let it grow at will. And that’s obviously a lot riskier because we have no idea what that biological life will grow into and whether that could potentially mean the situation is worse. I mean, it could also mean that maybe things evolve in a better way, but there’s much more uncertainty there. It’s also kind of not really clear to me to what extent biological life will play a role in the long term future if we end up colonizing space. So, another consideration would be, well, what would be the goal of bringing wild life? If they’re not necessary for our survival, then is it purely aesthetic or is it that we just think there is some value to spreading more biological life? There’s a lot of things that I am pretty uncertain about.
Persis Eskander: And I also don’t really know what the likelihood of any of these events occurring is. But assuming that future generations do place some sort of high value on biological life, then ideally what I would want is that we’ve either found some sort of solution or we’ve improved wild animal welfare enough that we aren’t spreading suffering on like a catastrophic scale, or that we’ve found a way to introduce wildlife to new planets that just avoid the problems that they currently face.
Robert Wiblin: I’m as usual more inclined to speculate than you … I suppose I’m pretty skeptical that we’ll bring wild animals to other planets or take to outer space. Okay. So, we’re gonna try to terraform planets. One thing is that I think we can do that more easily just with plants and bacteria. I don’t think that we really need animals, maybe even like insects as part of this process. I just really don’t see how they fit into that and they’re just creating a bunch of extra problems. And I guess also in as much as we go beyond Mars or go beyond the solar system I think is just so much more likely that we’ll do that in the form of solar panels and electricity, and computer chips than in the form of biological humans. It is just gonna be so hard for I think biological life or the kind that we have here on Earth to survive the trip out to other solar systems and then colonize these planets. Just the engineering challenges there are so massive that I think we’re gonna have to change the form that life here exists in before we can possibly go out and spread at any significant rate out to other parts of the universe.
Robert Wiblin: Perhaps something like a bit … perhaps I’m in a sense being too pessimistic about what’s possible, but it also just seems like those other approaches would be quite a bit more efficient and so more likely to actually take off.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. You probably know more about this than I do.
Robert Wiblin: That’s not clear.
Persis Eskander: I guess I just … I’m not really sure how we can predict what will and won’t be feasible in the future and what will and won’t be necessary, but I think it does make sense that if we are traveling beyond the solar system, then it’s less likely we would do that with biological life.
Robert Wiblin: I guess to push even further into weird territory, some people who worry about wild animals think that this is kind of a good prototype for being worried about suffering that you might get as like a part of artificial intelligence or as part of kind of digital systems, where you might have yet subroutines I guess is the term that people use, or like parts of computer programs that are sentient, but not able to control their lives, perhaps in some kind of analogous way to wild animals, and that we might kind of neglect the welfare of those computer systems in the same way that we kind of do our wild animals today.
Robert Wiblin: How good do you think is that analogy and how much should that play a role in the case in favor of working on wild animals, hoping those will flow through the concern about other agents in the future?
Persis Eskander: I think there’s a pretty interesting line of thought that goes something like if we keep constantly trying to expand the type of beings that we consider moral patients, then it makes us less likely to overlook something like sentient subroutines. So, that would obviously be a hugely positive thing if it were the case that subroutines were sentient. There’s another line of thought that is contrary to that, which is something like, “Well, if we created something artificial, we would just do so in a way that meant it didn’t have the capacity, there was no possibility of it being sentient, because there would be no need,” or that there would be, I don’t know, there’s some way in which we would be able to factor that out.
Persis Eskander: I don’t really know how plausible either of these are. I think there’s probably good arguments on both sides, but it’s just really speculative and I’m not really sure that I have a huge amount that I could sort of add to the argument. I think it’s interesting and I definitely think there is some value to the idea that we should constantly stay alert to the possibility that we’re overlooking some beings from our moral circle, but I’m not really sure … It doesn’t really seem obvious to me that focusing on wild animal welfare is the most promising way to do that, or that there’s necessarily a link between wild animal welfare and whatever the next version of potentially sentient being that we’re unfamiliar with is.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think that’s kind of my take as well. I agree that there’s some effect here, but it seems … and I think trying to get people to worry about possible suffering, that’s in non biological forms like in computers in future is a good goal. It does just seem like doing it via the wild animal route is like bringing with it a whole lot of challenges that you might be able to avoid just by talking about that directly. I actually, I remember seeing some opinion polling, I’ll try to chase it up, suggesting that many people did believe that it was possible that artificial intelligence in future could have pleasure and pain, so there might not even be that much skepticism about that. It might be almost easier to get people to worry about AI as a moral agent than to get them to worry about wild animals, and certainly to try to get them to worry about AI via getting them to worry about wild animals. I tend to favor directness in plans in general.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I guess there’s maybe some value to the argument that people tend to change their values incrementally, so it might be quite a large step to take them from the small number of animals that are currently within our sphere of concern to intelligent or sentient subroutines, and maybe it’s easier to sort of introduce gradual changes to people, to introduce gradual moral patients so that when they do encounter something as strange as artificial sentience, they’re less likely to object to it, or they’re less likely to find it really absurd.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think that long termists like me kind of overrate or underrate, or perhaps appropriately rate the work to address our wild animal welfare?
Persis Eskander: If we’re talking about trying to promote the value of the long term future, then I think long termist EAs have probably accurately rated the importance of wild animal welfare. I mean, it’s kind of hard to get a sense of how important people think it is, because when long termists talk about what’s important, they tend to just talk about, “Well, what can we do if we’re focused on promoting … if we’re focused on having impact from a long termist perspective?” I guess one thing that would be interesting if there was more …
Persis Eskander: One thing that would be interesting if there was more discussion of where and if, or if at all there is intersection between the things that might be really promising from a new term perspective and that could potentially also be promising from a long term perspective. And I think these are probably likely to be much less important, but I would be interested in seeing if there are ways that we can leverage things that are already happening or that, I guess cause areas that people think could be quite robustly positive, because we can do something about them now, whether we can leverage that to add value to the long term future as well.
Robert Wiblin: Let’s move on to talking about different approaches that people might take to solving the problem and how tractable they are, and maybe looking at some more of the details. I guess in terms of direct work, what interventions other than the ones you’ve already mentioned do we have some confidence actually are, do have a positive impact on wild animal suffering right now?
Persis Eskander: Unfortunately, I don’t actually think there are … other than the category of interventions that I mentioned, so ones that don’t really have an effect on populations and just try and improve things that we’re already doing, I wouldn’t say that we’re confident that there is anything beyond that that could have a positive impact on wild animal welfare. I think there are probably lots of potentially promising ideas. So for example, Ozzy Brennan who worked on the Wild Animal Suffering Research Project did a really comprehensive literature review of contraceptive techniques that we could use on overabundant species. So, not just on species that tend to be culled because they interfere with agriculture, but also just generally overabundant species, and sort of came out after doing the literature review with a sense that it’s likely to be a net positive intervention.
Persis Eskander: But I would say that that’s just the beginning of a much more detailed investigation into what it would mean to try and implement something like immunocontraceptives for overabundant species, particularly if we’re not constraining the region.
Robert Wiblin: Why is the region important?
Persis Eskander: The way we currently cull animals tends to be we focus on where they are most overabundant and minimize the population in that particular environment, largely because they have the most adverse effects in that environment. If we’re interested in just addressing overabundance, then we would be addressing it on a much larger scale. It would still be localized in the sense that overabundance tends to … species will tend to congregate within one environment. But you’d be applying it across a lot of different regions at the same time maybe or consecutively, and that sort of increases the risk that we see some effects that were unintended or unexpected.
Robert Wiblin: How would you actually, at an affordable price, do contraception on animals at a mass scale?
Persis Eskander: I don’t actually know. There isn’t actually any contraception that exists currently that you could do on a mass scale at a low price. A lot of the contraceptive techniques that have been trialed on deer or wild horses, or even on rat populations, they tend to be species specific. So, that increases the cost if you try to apply it more widely. I think there’s some research that suggests that immunocontraceptives could work across species because they target the immune system as opposed to targeting some specific reproductive element. I guess as opposed to targeting the specific reproduction system of a particular species.
Robert Wiblin: So, if you engage in mass contraception on some animal there was a lot of, people might be concerned other animals would fill the same niche? Yeah, what are the ways that this might backfire and why do you think Ozzy came out thinking that it was probably positive overall?
Persis Eskander: The ways it might backfire could be that when we reduce one population, what we end up seeing is just another animal comes and fills up that space. Another reason it might backfire is that it’s not really obviously to us that we can appropriately manage populations when we try and reduce them. And this could be when we try and cull them as well, so like governments try and set quotas, but these quotas aren’t really based on a very accurate understanding of what the ecosystem or environmental carrying capacity is. So, it’s very hard to strike the right balance, and with something like immunocontraceptives, it might be even harder because you could be introducing it either animal by animal, or you could be trying to have it just transfer from animals.
Persis Eskander: I’m not really sure if the second way would be feasible, but it sounds like it would be a much more cost effective approach.
Robert Wiblin: The goal of using the contraceptives is to reduce the population numbers so they’ll have fewer children and that means that they’ll be seeing more food to go around for each member of this species. Or I guess like more nice places to hide for some species, to reduce their stress by reducing the population density.
Persis Eskander: The idea behind it is that overabundant species exist because something’s gone wrong with the balance of the ecosystem. Either predators have been removed or animals have been introduced into the environment and they’ve been able to take it over, or for some reason, what used to be a controlling factor no longer exists. So, animals tend to become overabundant and then they have a strain both on the environment, they start to face an increase in resource competition and it also has a negative effect on the other animals that share that environment. So, it might be harder for them to access resources as well. There might be an increase in aggression, because there’s just a much denser population of animals altogether. We might also see it becomes easier for diseases to spread, again, just because there’s a much denser population of animals.
Persis Eskander: So, there are a lot of ways in which overabundance can be negative beyond just the fact that there is like an increase, or there’s a shortage of access to resources.
Robert Wiblin: Being Australian, I can’t … the thing that I always imagine in this case is kangaroos, which is commonly, there seems to be overpopulation of kangaroos and I’m not sure why. I’m not even sure whether there really is overpopulation or whether they’re just inconvenient to certain people. But I guess there, they just tend to go out and shoot them en masse, right? To lower the population numbers. And I suppose this is an alternative way of doing that that seems less cruel. And I guess might have a more lasting effect on the population by just reducing the number of children that they can have the next generation.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. It would definitely be a much more humane approach, because while the current problem with culling is that it’s not a sustainable way to reduce populations, you have to do it every few seasons to keep populations low. And especially when you have overabundance of a native species like kangaroos in Australia, it’s very hard to control because part of the reason that they become overabundant is that in Australia in particular, predators have been largely eliminated in the environments that they tend to live in and we’ve reduced their natural habitat quite a lot.
Persis Eskander: I mean, technically they’re overabundant because they have a smaller habitat, not because they’re reproducing at a rate beyond what the environment could have contained.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Is there any role for gene drive technology here? I’m just kind of spitballing.
Persis Eskander: I think there’s a lot of promising options that are coming out of CRISPR technology or the sorts of stuff we’re seeing from gene drives. I think it’s kind of hard to see how we could feasibly use gene drives at the moment. One of the main concerns is that you wouldn’t want to release something in an environment without being able to contain it, but it’s also irreversible, and that’s because if we don’t know exactly what will happen, we can’t really take back the decision we’ve made, if it ends up meaning that things get worse.
Persis Eskander: So, I’m pretty wary. I think there’s a lot of promise and I’d be really interested to see more work being done, but I’d be pretty wary of placing too much emphasis on the benefit of gene drives at the moment.
Robert Wiblin: And as much as we’re worried about diseases causing ongoing suffering, what about kind of vaccination programs? Is there any kind of medical treatment you can provide to make animal’s welfare a better … while keeping them without necessarily changing the numbers so much?
Persis Eskander: I think this is something that animal ethics has looked into. I haven’t actually looked into this a huge amount. It wasn’t the focus of my research and Ozzy also didn’t get a chance to look into it. It could be interesting to see if there are ways that we could vaccinate animals that doesn’t necessarily shift their populations. We did it in Europe with rabies, and that was largely so that rabies transmission to humans would decrease, but I would’ve expected that it would’ve had an effect on the population of foxes in Europe as well. And I’m not really sure what the outcome of that was, so it would be interesting to maybe look at the 10, 20 year effects of … vaccinating foxes, seeing whether or not their populations fluctuates or whether they would manage to remain stable as a result of this program that we ran.
Robert Wiblin: I guess it seems like maybe it’s naïve to think that you can get rid of diseases without changing population numbers, ’cause kind of any disease is gonna reduce the fitness of those individuals to some degree, which changes the population a bit. But maybe you could find diseases that are particularly unpleasant to have that don’t have a huge effect on fitness. I suppose, yeah, I guess I’m not sure what those would look like, but there must be some that are more suffering heavy than they are population changes.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, there might be diseases that don’t necessarily shorten or drastically shorten lifespans. They just create chronic pain. I guess the contrary argument is that if a disease weakens an animal, it makes it easier prey, so even though an animal might not die as a result of a disease, the disease contributed to them being predated and that is the way the population was controlled. So, if you eliminate diseases that don’t necessarily kill animals but weaken them, then you might still be inadvertently increasing populations, because it the becomes much harder for predators.
Robert Wiblin: Another objection would be that if there’s a parasite that is causing pain to the animal but it doesn’t actually affect their reproductive fitness, then eventually they’ll just learn not to feel any pain in response, ’cause that’s just a distraction that’s not actually tracking their reproductive fitness, which is ultimately what the whole kind of sensory system is designed to pick up.
Persis Eskander: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: What about humane insecticides? That’s not one that I’ve heard mentioned, which I guess also falls within stop humans doing additional damage rather than trying to interfere with the ecosystems, per se.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I think that probably falls into the make more humane pesticides, rodenticides category. It’s a bit harder with insecticides because we don’t really have a good sense of what these physiological effects of insecticides, like what they are for insects. So, we have a sense of what they end up doing to insects, but we don’t really know, I guess we don’t really know how that affects the insect. So for example, there are insecticides that basically coat an insect and insects have, this is again gonna be a very layman’s description, but they basically breathe through their skin. So, if you coat the layer, if you cover an insect’s skin with this layer of poison, we would assume that they asphyxiate. But it’s not really obvious if they asphyxiate very quickly. If when we see that an insect has stopped moving, is it dead? Is it just unable to move and dying of starvation? Is it conscious in the sense of being awake or not?
Persis Eskander: It’s really, really hard to get a sense of what is actually happening to an insect and so ideally what we would want is an insecticide that kills rapidly. But it’s not really clear how you would do that. One question is does anything like that already exist, and the second one is if not, can we do that.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose if you could find some chemical that shuts down the nervous system or something like that, as quickly as possible. Assuming insects are conscious, that that’s much better than having them starve to death really gradually.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, that would be ideal. But again, it’s not really clear how you would … yeah, how do you find-
Robert Wiblin: Dioxin for insects.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly. But that would be ideal if we could find something like that.
Robert Wiblin: I wonder if people who invent insecticides, I would think that it’s a pretty big business and that they would study exactly the effect that it has on them. I suppose they’re not thinking about it from a welfare point of view. They probably couldn’t care less about that. But you’d think they’d want to know the pathway by which it’s killing them quite intimately so that they can come up with other variants of the same thing to find other products, the same way we make one medicine, then we look for variance on it and we kind of want to understand how it works so we can understand the disease better.
Persis Eskander: I think there is an understanding of how it works in the sense that they understand how it immobilizes an insect and then the insect dies. But there’s not an understanding of what is internally happening to the insect.
Robert Wiblin: How does it feel.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. Or even just what functions are happening-
Robert Wiblin: [crosstalk 01:40:00]
Persis Eskander: … inside the insect as a result of this poison or bait that they’ve eaten. And that is probably much less important to people who are interested in pest management, because for them it’s just what is the most cost effective way of eliminating as many animals as possible, or eliminating as many insects as possible.
Robert Wiblin: So yeah, which of all of the things that we could do to help wild animals today do you think we might actually want to start doing?
Persis Eskander: I guess id’ go back to sort of the examples that I gave at the beginning when you asked what are the things that we materially could do now. I think it’s a smart starting point, because we’re unlikely to get a lot of objection. They’re pretty robustly positive and it doesn’t really seem too difficult to try and come up with ways to solve a lot of these problems. I don’t know how we would create humane slaughter methods for wild crawfish, but there’s a pretty clear path we can follow, and same for if we follow trends of insect farming and it looks like it’s growing and becoming cost competitive, well there’s like historical advocacy that we can rely on to help us prevent this from becoming a much larger problem.
Persis Eskander: So, I think with things that humans are already doing, the reason I like them is because they’re easier to accomplish, they’re clearly positive, you’re more likely to be able to get support for them, and they also, I guess, give the movement in general a bit more cache. They sort of ground it in things that don’t seem very strange or weird, but things that seem quite sensible that we should all be striving towards.
Robert Wiblin: One angle on this is what things can we do now that are robustly helpful to wild animals. The other angle is what’s kind of the first thing you want to do from a publicity stunt point of view, or from an opening up the public to … so perhaps like humane insecticides doesn’t look so good because it’s about insects, which is like a bridge too far perhaps for most people. But this thing about catching fish and killing them humanely maybe is a better starting point and then you kind of move on to the thing beyond that once that’s got general recognition and so on.
Robert Wiblin: I guess something around doing contraception of kangaroos rather than culling them might be a fairly good one here because kangaroos are very sympathetic animals, people tend to … don’t like the fact that they’re getting culled. That’s quite controversial. If you’re like, “Well, they’re wild animals but even so, we shouldn’t kill them. We should use contraception, ’cause that’s nicer,” maybe that’s a way of opening up people up to this whole sphere of concern gradually.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I think that’s roughly the point. And we could get to something like humane insecticides by first starting with the ways that we kill foxes and rabbits, and other animals that tend to create homes in crop agriculture. If we start with those, we can gradually progress to insects and it becomes less and less weird to be talking about humane insecticides.
Robert Wiblin: All right. Moving on from direct work, I guess most of what we want to be doing at this point is actually research and outreach. So, let’s talk about those in turn. What is the key research that needs to be done and who should plausibly be doing it?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, there’s heaps of really important research that needs to be done. Basically what we want to do is reduce the uncertainty we have as much as possible. So, we want to understand what experiences do animals have, how prevalent are the ones that we think we should be most concerned about. How subjectively bad are they? And hopefully we could try and do that by building some sort of objective measures based on how animals respond to various stimuli. We also, of course, want to understand the flow through effects of any decisions that we make in ecosystems.
Persis Eskander: And in general, I think we just need to gather a huge amount more data. There’s just very little large scale data on wild animals available. So, who should be doing it? Ideally, we would have biologists and ecologists doing a lot of the field research and what I would also like to see is this interdisciplinary mix of people with a background in philosophy or people who are very interested in the welfare effects addressing what we think the impact of a lot of this empirical data that’s coming at us is for animals.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. How can that be made to happen? How do you get academics to take an interest in this? Are there any steps?
Persis Eskander: That’s a good question. I think we’re still in early days of a lot of the academic outreach work that we’re doing. I don’t know if there are sort of definitive … actually, I’m sure there are definitive answers for how do disciplines develop. I’m sure there is like a path that an academic could tell you, “Well, you publish a special edition in a journal and then you organize a symposium, and then you have someone start working on it in a department and they build the team.” There’s probably this path, but I’m not an academic and so I don’t know the details of that path. I guess what I can do is sort of comment on what we tried to do or what I tried to do when I was working on wild animal welfare.
Persis Eskander: I sort of tried two different paths. I tried to target … Well, first I tried to reach out to really established academics who had labs and who were doing research in areas like population ecology, neurobiology, microbiology, basically all the subsets of ecology and biology, some psychology as well. And basically reach out to them and talk to them about the research that they were doing. And usually it was research that I thought was adjacent, but like empirically useful. But I didn’t really, I guess I didn’t really require that they were aligned to our values. I just wanted to get a sense of what they were doing and how it could be useful, and then try and figure out how receptive they might be to working on issues that were like slightly more useful to us. And although I had a lot of really interesting conversations and I learnt a lot, I found that people who are much more established in their careers are much less flexible. It’s much more difficult to try and get them to either shift or introduce a new element into their research because they have pretty well defined path.
Persis Eskander: The other path I very briefly worked on but that the wild animal administrative is now focusing on is trying to work more closely with early career researchers. So, the idea here is that there are lots of students, people who are doing masters or PhDs or who are starting their post docs or who have just begun their academic careers who haven’t sort of set themselves up. They are maybe more receptive to the ideas. It would be easier for us to expect them to be value aligned if we wanted to say fund them to do the research that we were interested in. And then have them actually do the work, so they could do the basic research. They could also do a lot of the leg work for us by building the networks within academia by attending conferences, by speaking at conferences, by organizing the symposiums.
Persis Eskander: So basically, finding these early career researchers and having them use their connections to establish it from the inside, I guess. So, that’s a path that I think could be potentially really promising, but it’s early days yet, so we’ll see.
Robert Wiblin: I think Open Phil has actually done some research into how do you get academic field started. I’m gonna horribly butcher this, but I think one of the lessons was that it’s very hard to go from having, “Oh, we’ll get one person to work on it and then they’ll recruit a second person,” you kind of need a whole lot of stuff to happen at once, because it’s just so hard for one person to stake out and go out into a new area. They tend to just, if they’re not within some existing discipline, then they just tend to have no support and get kind of booted out. So, you need to probably bring like a bunch of funding to the table to encourage many people to start working on something somewhat simultaneously.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think that we want to get academics to care about wild animal suffering per se, or is it more useful to just try to co-opt people who are working in kind of adjacent areas for other reasons and then get them to try to answer questions incidentally?
Persis Eskander: I’m actually kind of torn about this and I’ve had a lot of discussions with other people who I’ve worked with specifically about this question. I think it depends on what you are hoping to get out of the relationship you have with that academic. I would want an academic that I hope would be able to lead a team in the future or one day form an institute. Basically an academic that I expect to be a leader to be extremely value aligned. So, if there were young academics that I thought were really promising or early career researchers that seemed really aligned, I’d basically be really interested in just investing in their 20 year career or 30 year career.
Persis Eskander: But on the other hand, there are a lot of very talented scientists already who are doing research that is really important and who have great networks, they’re established at really good universities. They have almost everything they need. And they’re really open to doing a research project if they get funding for it. Then I’m also kind of open to just taking advantage of those opportunities, because it’s much more cost effective to just fund someone for two years who already has access to a lab who only basically needs funding for their field work or for their salary as opposed to funding them to establish everything from scratch. So, wherever we can find those opportunities, I think it would make sense to take advantage of them. But I don’t think it would make sense to just rely on them.
Robert Wiblin: Are there groups that should be doing this research other than academics? I mean, there’s just random nonprofits where you hire people to do specific research, but it might be a little bit challenging to get traction on that kind of without existing institution and without a training, an established training process to get people to be able to do this kind of, what’s effectively ecology.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I think you could get independent researchers to do a lot of the theoretical side of things. You could get them to do a lot of the literature reviews, a lot of the synthesis and analysis of data. But if we’re talking about wanting to gather new information, then I don’t see how we could do that without the resources of something like a university.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any agricultural groups that are like … I guess I’m kind of again just speculating here. Or like spitballing ideas outside of academia. I guess like farming groups or something?
Persis Eskander: There’s probably organizations like the CSIRO out in other countries that tend to have like huge amounts of government funding.
Robert Wiblin: But that’s Australia’s like commercial-ish government research agency.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly. And it’s very difficult to have any say in what their agenda is. And I imagine it would just be extremely difficult to sort of get any leverage out of something like that. But I’m not really sure if there are smaller research groups that are doing independent field based work. I’m not really sure of that.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any kind of technologies that could eventually enable us to really successfully reduce wild animal suffering in a very big way, and how fanciful are they?
Persis Eskander: I’m not really sure if this counts as a long term technology, but there are things that already exist that I think we could be utilizing to a greater extent than we are. For example, I think we could be using autonomous drones more effectively to gather information. They would be much more cost effective than sending people out into the field and much more useful at gathering more detailed information across a wider scale. I mean, across like a larger region. I also think we could be maybe taking advantage of satellite technology more to get a better sense to build or map out climate models or ecosystem models to try and sort of build historical maps and maybe forecast future trends.
Persis Eskander: I think this stuff does happen, particularly in population ecology work. We do see a lot of this already. But it could be used to a greater extent. And one reason that maybe it hasn’t so far is that it’s very expensive. And no one has really come with the funding to enable existing researchers to do that unless there’s like a very strong incentive, so unless there’s a reason that the government is really interested in this, or there’s an industry or a corporation that’s really interested in this research. It’s pretty hard to just, for researchers to access that kind of technology.
Robert Wiblin: Do you want to speculate about something you know, further in the future? I guess in 1000 years time, could we have lots of drones everywhere teaching insects to have small litters and I don’t know, providing just the right amount of … monitoring the numbers of each different species and providing just the right amount of contraception such that they have an easy life?
Persis Eskander: I do think that if we are going to do anything on a larger scale, it probably will be autonomous. It’s not going to be people going out to all of these remote places around the world. I guess I don’t really have a good sense of what exactly that would look like. I don’t know if it would be … we would just have robots maybe monitoring ecosystems and making sure that they are always in balance, even after we make the changes that we think are beneficial to wild animals, or if it would be a change that’s like much weirder and much more unexpected than that. I think Brian and David Pierce have both speculated much more ambitiously than I’m probably willing to. And so I guess I would probably recommend reading some of the stuff they’ve written on this. They have some really interesting ideas.
Persis Eskander: But yeah, I think I’m maybe not someone who spends a huge amount of time thinking about what it would actually look like. I’m more just focused on what can we do now and then hopefully we’ll get a better sense in two or three years what it might look like in twenty years.
Robert Wiblin: When it comes to big mammals, I guess you’d want robots to be going out and I guess providing lots of food and water and shelter to all of the animals, but then also using contraception to make sure that they don’t increase their numbers in response to having all of these new resources, which is basically like what we have for humans. It’s like we’re really rich, ’cause we’ve got all these machines that provide abundant wealth for us, but then we have to make sure that we don’t produce way too many people such that like all of those gains are then whittled away just by massive population expansion. So, if we could just try to do that, something like that for animals, but it’s obviously much harder to do it for animals that don’t understand what’s going on, whereas humans kind of do.
Persis Eskander: I think it would probably maybe be easier for animals, because we … I anyway am a bit more comfortable with taking a paternalistic approach to animal welfare than I would be to human reproductive rights. So, the challenge will be in how effectively robots can monitor environments and make the changes as needed. And to get to that point, we just need to have much more information than we have now. But I think it’s plausible that one day we will be able to have super detailed accurate information that would allow robots to make those kind of judgments, or at least to assess the information and decide what needs to be done.
Robert Wiblin: It’s like a crazy technology to envisage, but computers are crazy by the standards of someone in 1700, so is it like a greater step forward than 1700 to today. Yeah. Being able to do that. I’m not quite sure what the solution looks like for insects, though. I guess that’s … in as much as just their entire reproductive method is to have very large numbers of children … very large numbers of offspring. It’s very hard to see. What’s the intervention look like, that changes… Do you re-breed every insect species to get them to have fewer children? I don’t have any great ideas there.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. I don’t either. I guess the one main concern would be if you want to sort of play around with insect populations, then we need to be able to make sure that the role that insects play in ecosystems is counted for.
Robert Wiblin: That’s especially tricky, yeah.
Persis Eskander: Yeah. So, it’s much harder to get a sense of what it would even look like to help insects.
Robert Wiblin: All right. Moving on from research to outreach, how important do you think outreach is in this whole package of work to address wild animal welfare? And do you think it might be premature to be doing much outreach at the moment?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I think we maybe talked about this a little. I think outreach is really important, but I think it’s not super important to do a huge amount of broad public outreach. It makes a lot more sense to focus more on encouraging academic support or encouraging support amongst communities where we expect to have or expect to find people who could and are interested in doing this work. I don’t think wild animal welfare is one of those cause areas that needs a huge amount of public support, at least not at the moment.
Persis Eskander: Those cause areas that needs a huge amount of public support, at least not at the moment, and maybe not even at the point where we’re contemplating policy. It seems more likely to me that it’s the sort of issue that is kind of obscure to most people, the solutions might seem kind of obscure and far removed, and so maybe it’s the sort of issue where we just have lobby groups that liaise directly with policymakers and that’s actually the best form of outreach that we do.
Persis Eskander: I don’t really know when we will get to that point, but I think for now it probably makes sense to try and limit the outreach we do to the communities that we expect to be the most useful.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, which communities are the most plausible allies here? It seems like some people are enthusiastic in the animal welfare and animal rights communities although certainly not everyone, and philosophers I guess seem to be the other group that are very interested in this topic, or unusually interested. Yeah, do you think those two are good groups to expand into and are there any others?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I mean, the EA community obviously has been a huge supporter of wild animal welfare work. I do think that the animal advocacy community is the promising next ally, I think it’s a bit more of a challenge there because there’s a lot of, I wouldn’t want it to seem as though we are, well actually wouldn’t want to detract people from farm animal work if that’s what they’re focusing on, so right now what I would ask of people in animal advocacy communities is to just be aware and maybe encourage them to think more about the issue but maybe not so much encourage them to shift their priorities if they were already working on farmed animal welfare.
Persis Eskander: I think the other communities are probably also ones that I have already touched on, so primarily academic communities at the moment. I imagine that in future doing outreach within the political sphere will be really useful, and that potentially there could be allies like think tanks or research institutes, but for now I think that we’re trying to keep it as limited as possible, at least until we have built a larger group of people working on it, like we’ve built a larger community, and we have better answers to some of them, or core questions.
Robert Wiblin: I know the wild animal welfare agenda sometimes gets a bit of antipathy from I guess animal liberation people, I guess probably some animal welfare people as well, I guess environmentalists are also sometimes find this a bit confronting. Yeah, have you encountered any of that yourself, and do you have any thoughts on how to address it?
Persis Eskander: I’ve actually been really lucky in that most of the conversations I’ve had with people who were initially, or even after the conversation, skeptical of wild animal welfare work, but they’ve been very polite and positive experiences. I haven’t really encountered a lot of people who are seriously engaged and then come away, well, I mean they’ve seriously engaged and then come away unconvinced but there hasn’t been any animosity as a result.
Persis Eskander: I guess if I were giving very general advice, I would encourage people to not spend too much time trying to convince people who do have-
Robert Wiblin: Philosophical objections.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I mean to the extent that people have pre-determined values that they’re unwilling to change, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to try and change them, I think there are probably more effective uses of time-
Robert Wiblin: Just like, go find someone else who’s more sympathetic to begin with.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, exactly, and there are probably a lot of people who are actually very undecided, and so it might make more sense actually to focus on the majority of people that don’t have very strong opinions than to focus on the minority that vehemently disagree with you.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think that’s generically good advice, is that it can be a real trap to constantly argue with people who strongly disagree with you. I mean, the thing is they’ll come to you, they’ll definitely be available for conversation potentially, but it makes a lot more sense to try to identify people who are undecided or leaning in your direction, already sympathetic but don’t yet know it.
Robert Wiblin: I guess other people reported that they sometimes get antipathy from these groups. I guess you’re just a more sober, reasonable person who doesn’t like to mouth off a lot. Do you think that is one of the reason why you haven’t had many difficulties with people in other communities or people with different values being hostile to the work that you do? And maybe that’s an optimistic thing, they’re like “Well actually if you just, I’m a serious person who isn’t just there to have a provocative philosophical argument,” then people are more likely to take you seriously and not just get annoyed.
Persis Eskander: I mean, it could mostly just be that I don’t expose myself to a huge amount of people, and so maybe it’s just that there are less people who have come into contact with me than with others.
Robert Wiblin: Well we’re changing that here.
Persis Eskander: So I’m expecting the hate mail to come flying in. I don’t know, I mean, I can imagine that a lot of the animosity that people might have comes from feeling very put off by a counterintuitive case for disregarding the integrity of nature or proposing that maybe the best way to help some animals is actually to reduce their populations or limit the number of animals that come into existence. I can imagine how these would rile people who are very passionate about ensuring animals live their full natural lives in the way that, I don’t know, nature intended.
Persis Eskander: I mean, my approach if I was speaking to someone like this would be to try and identify exactly what their biggest concern is and try and change the way I communicate wild animal welfare to them in a way that makes sense from their perspective, or at least communicate it in a language that they’re really familiar with.
Persis Eskander: I don’t think that that’s necessarily a very efficient thing to do, but if your biggest concern is that a lot of people respond very negatively to an argument that you’re making or a claim that you’re making, then I would probably say that the easiest change you could make is just to change the way you’re communicating it.
Robert Wiblin: All right, so we’ve talked briefly about direct work and research agenda and some outreach. I guess people’s biggest complaint with this whole area is that it’s not tractable to work on, so I suppose all things considered, how tractable do you think wild animal welfare is as a problem area?
Persis Eskander: I think the answer to “Should we intervene” is pretty clearly “Yes,” I don’t really find it compelling that we only have a duty to animals whose suffering we don’t directly cause and I don’t really find it compelling that we should preserve nature untouched, I think both of these have pretty serious flaws.
Persis Eskander: So I think we definitely should be intervening and I think it’s quite clear that there is no clear cut solution to the entirety of the problem, or even to a very large portion of the problem, but I think that there are a lot of incremental improvements that we can make, and I don’t necessarily see that as a cop-out, there are a lot of cause areas where we start with incremental improvements and then see what develops as a result, and so I think if we’re thinking, or if we’re not conceiving of tractability as “How can I solve the largest amount of this problem,” but “What can I actually do to address it,” and “What I can do to address it is quite small but still important,” then I do actually think there are really promising, cost-effective things that we can do.
Persis Eskander: There actually are some tractable things that we can do to help improve wild animal welfare, and while we’re doing that we can also be spending time acquiring more information which will help us figure out the answer to the bigger question, “What are these feasible long-run net positive things we can do on a really large scale.”
Robert Wiblin: In this last little bit, it’d be good to talk to people in the audience who’ve listened to this and are potentially interested in actually trying to solve the problem. First up, would you recommend working on this problem? I mean, you’ve kind of transitioned out of it into something that’s adjacent. Yeah, do you think that wild animal welfare is a good thing for more people to be going into, and if not then what else would you recommend they do?
Persis Eskander: I think I would recommend the problem, but it depends a lot on, so the strength of my recommendation depends a lot on the type of person that I would be speaking to, and it also depends on what they’re most motivated to work on and where their skills happen to be a really good fit.
Persis Eskander: So I mean, I wouldn’t recommend working on wild animal welfare if your primary motivation is [long termist 02:04:16] considerations. I wouldn’t recommend working on wild animal welfare if you’re already working on farmed animal welfare and your skills are really well suited to that.
Persis Eskander: But I would recommend working on this problem if you’re someone who has really strong research skills, you have the right background in life sciences and also you’re motivated by problem solving, and by really difficult problems that don’t have a clear cut solution, and also if you’re the sort of person who’s just really comfortable working with uncertainty. So this is very early days and the sorts of people who work on this now can really shape the movement, but as a result of it being unshaped there’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be done. But there are a lot of people, I’m one of them, who just really love jumping into something that is really unshaped and trying to give it some form, so I would probably recommend it to people with those particular attributes.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, are there any other attributes that are important given the importance of not messing up, shaping this set of concerns in its early days when it could spin off in the wrong direction?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I’d say it’s probably important to have quite strong communication skills or to at least be savvy in the way you communicate. I think it would be really important for people who work on this to be the sorts of people who are willing to engage in a lot of conversations with people and figure out how to have disagreements in a really respectful and positive way, which is not that easy. And outside of the EA community is not a norm that a lot of other communities have developed.
Robert Wiblin: Not always a norm in the EA community either, but at least it’s an ideal.
Persis Eskander: Sure, okay, maybe it’s not even an ideal in other communities, which would make it much more of a challenge, especially given how strange the [cause area 02:06:06] is.
Robert Wiblin: So as you said earlier, there’s something like under 20 full time people working on this and under a million dollars going into it per year. So my question is what projects are there and what are they working on and what people are in the space, and I guess it sounds like we might be able to almost give a completely comprehensive global index of this. Do you want to try to do that?
Persis Eskander: Sure, so I know of three organizations at most that are working on this. Wild Animal Initiative does this exclusively, Animal Ethics does this with majority of their time, and Rethink Priorities does a little bit of research, they spend a portion of their time on this. That’s basically the extent of the not-for-profit organizations that I know are working on it.
Persis Eskander: As far as I know there are no academics that are specifically focused on this particular issue, so I haven’t really included them, but what I’m hoping is that through academic outreach efforts we will soon be able to point to at least individuals if not teams that are really really interested in this, that could be a really good reference point for students in particular.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, do you mind going through those organizations one by one and just describing them in a couple of sentences?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I mean, I guess I’m most familiar with Wild Animal Initiative and I’m a bit worried that I’ll misrepresent the other two.
Persis Eskander: So Wild Animal Initiative is the organization that I helped found and they do a couple of different things, so they work on the foundational prioritization research that, basically all of the research that I’ve been saying we need, they do some work on communication strategies, they also do some programmatic work trying to assess the cost-effectiveness of some near term interventions.
Persis Eskander: So they are working on this super small scale test of indoor cat advocacy, and another one which is trying to figure out how feasible it might be to advocate for more humane versions of insecticides that currently exist. Those are the two programs they’re running and I’m sure there’s something else they do, oh, academic outreach, of course. They spend a large portion of their time basically trying to build relationships with early career researchers.
Persis Eskander: Animal Ethics does a lot of outreach, particularly also to universities, they have a pretty clear focus on establishing welfare biology as a discipline, and they’re taking a slightly different approach to the approach that Wild Animal Initiative is taking. I am probably not going to explain this correctly, but my understanding is that they want to basically get a sense of how receptive scientists already are to wild animal welfare ideas, and they’re basically trying to use the information that they gather to figure out how to best create the discipline.
Persis Eskander: I think they’re trying less of a, I guess piecemeal approach, and more of that definitive way to establish a discipline, so “What are the steps that we need to take to build this up from scratch,” and then they just wanna take all of those formal steps and try and establish the discipline. And so I think that’s really interesting, it’s like a totally different path and I’m really excited to see how that develops.
Persis Eskander: And Rethink Priorities, again I’m sorry if I’ve totally mischaracterized their work. So my understanding is that they do a lot of primarily close prioritization research but in a lot of different, well because it’s close prioritization research they work across a lot of different cause areas, and they spend part of their time answering, I guess like key foundational questions for wild animal welfare advocates.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think Rethink Priorities is pretty new, I think it kind of, at least certainly appeared as kind of its own project within the last year, but they’ve hired a bunch of researchers to look at a whole range of different questions of which “Things that can be done to help wild animals” is one of them.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, yeah, exactly, and they have an agenda on their website which explains in more detail what they’re working on.
Robert Wiblin: I guess it sounds like there might be opportunities to help with this problem not just by going and working directly but also by funding. To what extent is the issue funding constrained, and do you have any ideas where it would be best for people to give?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I guess there’s kind of this, I was gonna say there’s this chicken and egg problem but then I thought “No, I don’t really wanna use a farmed animal example-”
Robert Wiblin: Speciesist metaphors.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, but I guess that’s the only one I can think of. So there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem in that funding was, up until at least maybe this year, the main constraint. I would say it probably still is a funding constraint and that these organizations, all three of them could benefit from a lot more funding. Talent constraint though has also recently become something that’s like, since organizations have brought in a lot more funding it’s now become much more important to try and bring in enough talent.
Persis Eskander: I think I recently, or I think through either recent conversations or published posts, both Wild Animal Initiative and Rethink Priorities mention that they were more funding constrained than talent constrained, they’ve both recently run hiring grounds and found that there were many actually quite qualified people that they couldn’t hire. I don’t know if that is the case for Animal Ethics, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were, and so I guess in summation I’d say they’re probably funding and talent constrained, but a funding constraint is a bit of an easier remedy, and I think that with an increase of funding, the teams can do a better job of attracting more people.
Persis Eskander: So I don’t think that the talent isn’t out there, it’s just that maybe people aren’t really aware that there are these opportunities available to them.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, some people object to this whole talent versus funding dichotomy, and there’s some truth to that just in that, like, even if your issue is that you can’t attract the right people, can’t attract the right job applications, then surely at some price, surely if you had some amount of money, then you could get people in. I think that that’s not always true, because sometimes people are just like “I’m willing to work on stuff,” even for very large sums, especially if you’re targeting a fairly small number of people who already have lots of good job opportunities, but it can be a little bit hard to, there’s absolutely no fixed line there.
Robert Wiblin: It sounded like you were saying that there’s more funding that’s become available for wild animal work lately. Do you know where that’s coming from, and why things changed?
Persis Eskander: So I guess if I’m comparing it to the state two or three years ago when there was no funding available, a large amount of funding has come from EA funds and I would also say a large amount of funding has come from the effective animal advocacy community. Those are probably the two main sources of funding, there is probably also a smaller, more diverse set of funding coming from either interested EAs who don’t identify as people who donate to EA funds or as part of the effective animal advocacy community, or maybe people who are purely interested in animal advocacy but have really resonated with this issue.
Robert Wiblin: So it sounded like you thought a background in the life sciences was kind of the ideal one. What specifically do you think people ought to study?
Persis Eskander: Yeah, so I think that historically, wild animal welfare advocates have had a pretty strong background in philosophy or economics, the sorts of subjects or the sorts of backgrounds I’d be really interested in would be ones like zoology or neurobiology or ethology, evolutionary biology, these are basically all facets of the two mains disciplines of biology and ecology, primarily because they will build a really strong understanding of biological organisms and also because you get a really good understanding of ecosystems, and those are basically the two are areas that are core to the sort of work that we need to do.
Persis Eskander: So any sort of degree within these disciplines is useful, I’m sure there are some that are slightly more useful than others but I don’t think the difference is sufficient enough for it to mean that you should switch from microbiology to zoology, I don’t think there’s a significant enough benefit to doing that, so I would say just generally having a strong background in some of these subjects, and also just being really interested in it is really important as well.
Robert Wiblin: What are the classic events that people in this community go to, where it might be possible to network really quickly?
Persis Eskander: The main event I would say is the EA Global conference, that’s sort of historically where most of the wild animal welfare community tends to congregate. I’m hoping that Wild Animal Initiative will soon start organizing a wild animal summit, which would be great because it would give advocates a more focused space to talk in more detail, so I guess for people who are interested I recommend that they sign up to the newsletter to stay up to date with their progress.
Robert Wiblin: What are kinda natural jobs that someone can do to try to lead into working in this area if they can’t find a position right away?
Persis Eskander: I don’t know about specific jobs, I guess I know about the sorts of skills that I imagine would be really useful. So if people can’t really get a job straight away at one of these organizations I’d probably recommend trying to build really strong research skills, and that could be something that people do independently or voluntarily for an organization or trying to get contract work. I would recommend that people also, if they’re interested in one day becoming a researcher, making sure they are as familiar as possible with the literature, particularly in the area or the subset that they are most interested in, and stay involved in conversations as much as possible.
Persis Eskander: If people are not really interested in a research role and they’re interested more in an operations or communications role, then I would imagine that the skills that you could get at an organization working in that role would be largely transferrable, and so it wouldn’t really be necessary that they need to work at a wild animal welfare, y’know, work in that space to build their skills, they could build their skills elsewhere and bring them over.
Robert Wiblin: Some people might worry that working in this area is like, little bit risky because it’s quite a quirky thing that some people might not understand, it’s like “Why do you have on your CV that you worked at a nonprofit, working at wild animal welfare, what on Earth is that.” Yeah, is that something you’ve experienced, and do you think it’s something that people ought to take into account?
Persis Eskander: I definitely think it’s something people should consider, it’s not something I experienced but I think that’s because I had quite a lot of work experience prior to joining wild animal welfare, and quite a lot of conventional experience as well. So for me it was a much less risky decision because if I ended up wanting to move back into something really conventional and I thought working in wild animal welfare looked a bit strange, I could always downplay it and play up working at the Department of Defense and some of the other, more mainstream stuff that I’ve done.
Robert Wiblin: I think it’s quite a unique career transition, from defense to wild animal welfare. You’re a pioneer in that.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, I really hopped through quite a few different fields. I think if you’re new, you’re fresh out of uni, then it definitely is worth thinking about taking positions that offer you a broad range of skillsets and that you can leverage into other jobs. And so if you’re concerned that you don’t think wild animal welfare is where you wanna spend your career, or you think it might harm you in future job applications, then I would recommend going into something that’s a bit more conventional and maybe spending some of your volunteer time supporting these organizations and then making that decision when it feels less risky for you.
Robert Wiblin: What are some of the top articles, or I guess possibly even books that the people could read to learn more about this, that we can stick up links to for people to check out?
Persis Eskander: A lot of the introductory pieces, so Brian Tomasik has The Importance of Wild Animal Suffering, Yew-Kwang Ng has the Towards Welfare Biology, which is very important to read. Animal Ethics has a series of introductory essays that take you through the key considerations in wild animal welfare which I think are really great, especially if you’re really interested in just getting a good foundational understanding.
Persis Eskander: For more complex or more unusual content, I would recommend checking out both the Animal Ethics library, so they’ve collated all the content that has been published on wild animal welfare, both at peer review journals and through independent research. So I would recommend checking that out. It’s also I think ordered, and so you can go through, y’know, if you’re most interested in the philosophical side you can focus on that, if you’re most interested in the economics perspective you can focus on that.
Persis Eskander: So that’s a really great resource. I also think that their archives on the Wild Animal Initiative page that link to the research that the Wild Animal Suffering Research Project did, and the stuff that utility farm did as well.
Robert Wiblin: That makes me wonder, what is the intellectual history of this idea? I guess I know Tyler Cowen wrote a paper about this and Yew-Kwang Ng wrote about it two decades before that. Do you know how far it goes back, is this something that people have worried about for a more significant period of time?
Persis Eskander: I actually have no idea how far back it goes. I know when I was trying to get a sense of academics that had written on something relevant to wild animal welfare, there was no trend. There were a lot of philosophical papers that popped up but they didn’t really seem to come out at the same time so it didn’t seem as though they were in response to each other. I think it might be one of those philosophical dilemmas maybe, that just comes in and out of vogue.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, yeah.
Persis Eskander: But in terms of when it became something that people decided was more than just a theoretical question and something we should do something about, that’s probably quite recent, I don’t think it has a very long history.
Robert Wiblin: Like the history of philosophy, especially of different worldviews, is so vast, so it wouldn’t shock me if you found out “Oh, the Incas were very worried about this in the 14th century,” or some random group like “Yeah, we really got into it” and then they just kinda died out and there’s some Wikipedia article that’s three paragraphs there that describes this.
Robert Wiblin: But yeah, could also just be, I think it’s slightly important to know this, just in terms of how many independent conceptions have there been of this idea, because if it’s only really come up with this one thread or this one intellectual community that we have right now, then that suggests that it’s not gonna reappear necessarily in future, whereas if throughout history people have been running into this concern about animal welfare and thinking “Oh, what can be done, well it’s actually really hard to fix,” then that suggests that we can be hopeful in the future it’ll come up repeatedly.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, there are probably iterations of the idea that have existed. I mean, Jainism seems to be a fairly old faith and they promote no harm to wild animals, well actually no harm to all animals. It’s sort of the same vein as the wild animal welfare work-
Robert Wiblin: Slightly different motivation, I think.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, but it has a similar motivation in a similar sort of focus on reducing harm.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, let’s get a link to the page about Jainism. I guess obviously Buddhism also has some elements of that as well, and that is pretty different conception I suppose, it’s not part of the same consequentialist English analytic philosophy track.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, listeners, if you know more about the history of how far back does this line of thinking go, I’d be very interested to hear where it bottoms out.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, how can other people who don’t wanna spend their whole career on this potentially contribute through politics or academia or journalism, might be cautious about people doing this part time because they just, like, not gonna be able to do quite a professional enough job.
Persis Eskander: I mean, it would be great if there were a way that we could utilize more people who didn’t want to make it a focus of their careers. I think at the moment we don’t currently have a huge amount of those opportunities. There are, I mean, if people wanted to volunteer their time, there is a lot of work that I imagine organizations could benefit from, but if you’re not really interested in either research or in academic outreach for example, I’m not really sure how useful additional work would be at the moment, because of the stage that we’re at and I think how, I mean, I think it’s kind of responsible to be a bit cautious about how widely we want to, y’know, share these ideas before we’ve locked down some of the key questions.
Persis Eskander: Yeah, it’s much less easy to take advantage of the interest that a lot of people have. I’m hoping that that won’t be the case for very long, and that as the organizations that currently exist keep growing, there will become more opportunities, and so hopefully in six months or a year from now it will become much more obvious how organizations can better utilize the time of people who are interested in helping out.
Robert Wiblin: So to finish, what’s been some of the biggest highs and lows of trying to work on wild animal welfare while you’re at it?
Persis Eskander: I mean, the biggest highs have definitely been how responsive people have been and how, I guess the positive reception I’ve received from so many people, especially in the EA community. I have often been really anxious about delivering speeches, especially about talking about this issue because it’s quite strange, so it’s been really really great how supportive a lot of people have been.
Persis Eskander: I guess I would say my biggest low is that the very first time I ever spoke, I gave a talk on wild animal welfare, was at an EAGx conference and at the very beginning I confused R selection and K selection, and didn’t realize I had made the mistake and so I kept making the mistake throughout the whole talk, and only realized when an audience member asked a question using the correct terminology and I corrected him incorrectly, only to then look down at a colleague who was sitting in the front seat who just looked up at me and shook his head very slowly, and I had this moment on stage where I sort of felt all the blood rush to my head and I thought “I don’t really know how I can come back from this.”
Robert Wiblin: Well, thanks for coming back and continuing to chip away at this quite neglected and interesting problem. My guest today’s been Persis. Thanks for joining me on the podcast, Persis.
Persis Eskander: Thanks, it’s been really fun talking to you.
Post episode chat
Robert Wiblin: All right for an after-episode chat, I’ve got Niel Bowerman, our AI policy specialist.
Niel Bowerman: Hey, Rob.
Robert Wiblin: And over Skype, with a slightly dodgy connection, we’ve also got our head of advising, Michelle Hutchinson.
Michelle Hutchinson: Hey Rob.
The importance of figuring out your values
Robert Wiblin: So`there’s a couple of things that stood out in this episode for you guys. Niel, you thought this episode highlighted the importance of figuring out your values, your philosophical values and perhaps also just your general cause prioritization before you set out on getting a bunch of skills that may or may not be transferable.
Niel Bowerman: Yeah. So in my particular case I was really keen and excited to work in climate change, and I dove into a Ph.D on climate physics and studied that for several years. And then during my Ph.D I met Will MaCaskill and Will started getting me to think about my values more seriously and thinking about, how much do I prioritize long term future, what do I think about nonhuman animals, and a whole bunch of questions in this space that led me to prioritize effective altruism movement building and working on AI policy more highly than working climate change. And so my Ph.D didn’t end up being that useful. And so I think wild animal suffering is one of these really fascinating cause areas because it brings up all sorts of interesting questions.
Niel Bowerman: But it also requires a interesting combination of values where you’re caring a lot about the suffering animals, but you have either a bunch of empirical claims about why the future isn’t that important to work on, or why the future, why you don’t have a lot of leverage over it. And so that’s a whole bunch of things that you could change your mind about to end up thinking that wild animal suffering wasn’t the most important thing to work on. And so I think it’s a fascinating cause area and one that I think a whole bunch of people should be working on. But I also think that if you think this is your top priority, it might be worth thinking through a whole bunch of these other empirical and philosophical claims that you would need to believe to think it’s your top choice.
Michelle Hutchinson: I wonder if it seems sensible, if you all are thinking of going into this area, to think through what kinds of things would be useful to study that would also leave other options open. So you mentioned that a lot of the kinds of assumptions you’d have to have in order to care about wild animals suffering, like generally caring more about creatures that other people don’t, would lead you to being longtermist, in which case maybe it would be a good idea to do the kind of biology Ph.D which would also allow you to go into bio-security afterwards if you ended up thinking that that was a more important cause area.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good and pretty interesting strategy to me.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess what’s unusual about this cause here, I suppose one thing is that a lot of people have gone through it and then perhaps, like Persis, moved on to other areas, because I suppose it occupies this odd niche of, I guess, a cause area that is quite unusual. So it tends to attract people who are very open to cause prioritization, very open to potentially working on unusual things that other people aren’t into. But then perhaps it’s almost not strange enough. So people tend to think about wild animal suffering or wild animal welfare and then move on to other even more neglected or potentially larger scale issues, but no one stumbles into working on wild animal welfare, so it can perhaps be this slightly fragile intermediate state.
Rob Wiblin: Another side of it is not people working on it longer term, but I suppose maybe that does counsel in favor of being careful not to produce skills or a CV that’s only useful for working on this area, if the outside view, looking at other people, is that many of them work on it only part time, or they go through working on that and then do something else later on.
Was Rob too harsh on people in favour of preserving naturalness?
Rob Wiblin: Michelle, you thought that I was a bit too harsh on people who are in favor of preserving naturalness, or in favor of just keeping the status quo to some extent. Did you think that I’m under weighting the kind of philosophical arguments that might be in favor of just non intervention with with nature?
Michelle Hutchinson: I think that you did give it fairly short shrift, and I also don’t agree with the arguments from naturalness, but I think there is something to be said for taking a somewhat outside view, and there are a lot of philosophers who take this kind of view very seriously. So I think that we probably shouldn’t simply write off the objection as being essentially contentless. I think there’s some inclination to do that, because it feels pretty difficult to work out precisely how you draw the bounds of what things are natural and what things aren’t natural, because there’s some sense in which humans evolved to do exactly what we do now. And so presumably everything that we do is natural in some sense, but I think that there is in fact going to be better ways of articulating this kind of objection.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s one objection. How do you define what’s natural and what’s not? But I guess it’s the conflation of naturalness and goodness that troubles me in particular. I just don’t see any reason to think that even if you’re going to define something as natural that that’s a reason to to keep it around.
Niel Bowerman: You might have a non-interventionalist perspective, which is coming from a more of a, “do no harm.” I think that that’s where some of this more environmentalist perspective comes from, it’s like, “We don’t want to destroy this pristine environment that we’ve been handed, and we don’t want to do harm that.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, pristine is kind of a loaded word, stacking the deck in favor of it. But yeah, the idea of, it seems more intuitive to me. That would be like worst to cause harm than it is obligatory to do good. But I guess that in that case if you had an unnatural situation then you might also be in favor of non-intervention. There’s a slightly different point and then just presenting nature, because if if you’d already changed it then you might no want to change it back.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think that do no harm is an interesting point, but I’d have thought that stronger than the asymmetry between it being worse to do harm than good to create benefit, is some worry that evolution has created some kind of somewhat unstable equilibrium and humans are really likely to rush in in some way that actually is going to destroy things that are creating value for them or something. Which in fact we have done a bunch in the past, and so it seems plausible that things have developed gradually in a way that we should appreciate rather than being too quick to assume that we’re smarter.
Ways of attacking this problem that didn’t come up on the episode
Robert Wiblin: Michelle, you thought that there was a couple of different ways of potentially attacking this problem that didn’t really come up all that much in the episode. What were they?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I was pretty interested in a lot of the specifics that Persis gave on ways that we could make traction here. And I thought that people might not have picked up on some of the specific parts that they seem to imply. So one of them was chemistry and going into chemistry in order to be able to develop poisons that are particularly cost effective ways of killing animals painlessly. Because I feel that that’s not something that pharmaceutical manufacturers are usually focusing on. So it seems like there’s a real niche for people there.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I suppose that’s also a case where objections about intervention that don’t really buy it as much, because we’re already killing so many animals using other methods. So this just changes the method rather than changing the number potentially.
Michelle Hutchinson: Right.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And were there any others? Oh, Niel?
Niel Bowerman: Yeah. I worry a little bit about taking a big bet on chemistry. I agree it’s a useful field, but it doesn’t have a ton of different ex-options into priority paths. And so it feels like you’re taking quite a big bet if you go down the chemistry route. And maybe that’s fine if you know the wild animal suffering is your thing, but I just wanted to flag that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s fair.
Michelle Hutchinson: You might think of this as something that people should think about going into if they’re already in chemistry, because I feel I do talk to people in advising sometimes who’ve done a Ph.D in physics or something like that and then decided that actually they thought that their Ph.D wasn’t that useful and they end up wanting to move onto one of the priority paths.
Niel Bowerman: Yeah, that sounds reasonable.
Robert Wiblin: It’s kind of funny that we’re talking about an ethical career being developing poisons. One starts to wonder sometimes if something hasn’t gone wrong at some earlier point. But anyway, carry on, Michelle. What are the other options?
Michelle Hutchinson: Some wonder more than others, Rob. Yeah. So another I was wondering about was how much work to do with making sure that animals are killed humanely is going to end up being regulatory work that needs to be done by people with a legal background. Because again, it feels like a lot of people who really care about others go into the law, and particularly in the UK where you can do undergraduate in law, might then find that their ethics shifts from the area of law that they had initially planned to go into. And I wonder whether this would be a useful thing for people to work on.
Robert Wiblin: Cool. Yeah. What were some of the others?
Michelle Hutchinson: So there wasn’t much discussion of psychology either, but figuring out how we can get people to care about groups that aren’t usually cared about does seem really important. There are a few effective altruist already lacking in this area. I was actually thinking about this, Rob, because you mentioned that you thought that people wouldn’t be able to work on a novel area if they were the only one in it, and I think it’s definitely going to be hard to do that kind of thing. But there are definitely people who are making it work. Lucius Caviola is a Ph.D student at Oxford and an effective altruist who’s recently released a paper in a pretty prestigious journal on speciesism, which he was expecting would have real trouble gaining traction because it’s not something that tends to be written about in psychology, but it ended up doing really well. I think the kinds of things that you need to have there are a pretty supportive supervisor and a good understanding of how, even though this is novel for your field, it’s going to be of interest to others in your field.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Is there this factor that, if you are the only one working on a particular thing, then perhaps it seems very original or it can be more interesting to people than if you’re just plowing the same ground? So it’s like, if speciesism is a new idea, then maybe you can build a career around that.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think that’s definitely right. I think it probably depends on precisely what field you’re in. So this is very much the case of philosophy where single author articles are the norm, and being confrontational and original is just actually really important. And being the one person who thinks some particular controversial thing ends up being great. It’s much harder in science, where you need to be publishing with many other coauthors. But even then it seems like it could be pretty viable.
Robert Wiblin: Was there any particular kind of psychology research that you could envisage being really useful here? I suppose it’s just persuasion, or how do people think about this issue so you can … I guess, I suppose you have to understand how people actually approach it and maybe how the framing effects it before you can go about persuading people on a larger scale?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think that was my thought. You guys did discuss a bit the surveys and the fact that it’s not trivial to know whether people are fine with factory farming for example, because they think that animals don’t have feelings, or because they think that the animals are well off. It seems like it would be pretty interesting to understand how people think about animal suffering. Do we do the same kind of empathy with animals that we do with humans, or is there something pretty different going on where we have them in different classes? I imagine there’s quite a lot of different questions that’d be pretty useful to look into here.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess you could tinker with different scenarios with wild animals and seeing, well, what are the things that make people actually care about it? So it seems like people do care once humans start intervening, and maybe it depends on the species and maybe different characteristics of the species, things like that.
Niel Bowerman: Another area that I’d be excited to see people go into is, as you mentioned a bit in the episode, the study of consciousness, and some of the fields around that, particularly in neuroscience, I think, have this interesting dual possible tracks out of them, one into wild animal suffering, but then they also allow you to start thinking about things within AI policy and then possibly even if you go down that route, some of the weirdest stuff, like digital minds and things that might become more of an issue into the future.
Robert Wiblin: Cool. Yeah. Were there any other approaches that you guys thought of as you’re going through that that didn’t come up?
Michelle Hutchinson: I’d be pretty interested to know how fruitful it seems to maybe start new effective charities, perhaps lobbying on a particular issue. So maybe lobbying in favor of more humane culling of particular animals or something. The reason I was thinking about this was based on the Centers for Pesticide Suicide Prevention, which seemingly has been very successful in lobbying to get rid of the pesticides that are most dangerous to humans. It seems like you could pick a similarly specific area and try and get some particular humane thing implemented.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess sometimes it seems like the cost differences between different pesticides, at least in that case, were so small that a relatively small lobby group could potentially change what people are using or potentially get one banned, because there just isn’t that much interest in continuing to use any particular one. And then there might be the case with other pesticides. Because I guess there’s also potentially quite big returns from finding some humane way to kill fish given that we’re killing billions, hundreds of billions, possibly trillions of them each year. Something better than the suffocation, which surely is out there.
Niel Bowerman: Yeah. One thought here is that before people dive into setting up a new charity in this area, I think there are already existing animal organizations that lobby governments on a range of areas that include more ethical culling practices. And so it’s often quite a fair bit of work and a bit of a gamble set up a new organization and people generally need to have a bunch of expertise and experience if they’re going to do it well. And so I think it can be better if, especially if you’re earlier on in your career, to jump on board with an existing effort and learn the ropes there.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. Do you know any examples of these kinds of organizations?
Niel Bowerman: So, a bunch of the organizations that, say, Open Philanthropy has been funding in the animal welfare space are aware of issues like, for example, preventing the speed up of the lines that are used when culling chickens. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they also had on their radar culling of other animals and especially in a factory farming context. But really this is not my area of expertise.
Ways to break into the field
Robert Wiblin: I thought both of you had some ideas for ways to break into this field that you thought perhaps were under-discussed in the episode. What were they?
Niel Bowerman: Yeah, one of the ones that I’m a huge fan of is just cold emailing people. I think reaching out to Georgia Ray was someone who was cited several times in the episode. Brian Tomasik, even Persis, and not just saying something like, “Hey, let’s catch up,” but approaching with a specific question. Ideally you’ve maybe even done some background writing and reading in the area, and indicating how they can add value to you in some research project or in your career or something like that. I think it’s often quite a valuable way to get that initial step into the field, and it’s something that I’ve done in the area of AI policy several times.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah. I think people in particularly these kinds of fields that are pretty small are actually really keen to hear from other people who would be interested to work on that area as long as it’s clear that the person is taking things seriously enough that they’ve really thought about things and come up with a specific ask.
Niel Bowerman: Yeah. One other suggestion I had, I guess maybe slightly disagreeing with Persis, where in the episode she thought it was maybe a little hard for people to get involved as volunteers and involved doing useful work on their own, I was going to argue that there are actually a whole bunch of small empirical projects that could be quite helpful here, and these might just be a few days of work and writing it up somewhere like a forum, like the Effective Altruism Forum, or on your own blog. Things like, I don’t know, updating and extending some work that Luke Muehlhauser did on neuron counts in different parts of the brain in different animals and the arguments for and against neuron counts in different parts of the brain being a relevant thing. There’s intervention reports on specific different interventions and just diving into some of the details on that. My guess is there’s a whole bunch of different points where you can start making small amounts of progress in the field, and then just writing up your work online and starting a conversation on them, I think is a good way of getting yourself noticed.
Michelle Hutchinson: That sounds great to me. It’s really providing value to the community and is also giving you some sense of how much you would actually enjoy working in this area. I also think it could be a good way of testing out whether, if you already think that you want to do research within wild animal suffering, whether you want to do it in the context more like a charity or whether you prefer to do it somewhere like academia. Because those two can be pretty different. While doing this for a charity, like Rethink Priorities, will end up having pretty concrete questions to be answered that are quite close to providing value. They’ll often be trying to answer fairly broad questions quite quickly. Whereas going into academia can allow you to dive really deeply and become more of an expert in a specific area.
Wild animal welfare from a policy point of view
Robert Wiblin: Niel, did you have any ideas of what steps you might take if you wanted to work on wild animal welfare from a policy point of view? I’m not sure how practical that is.
Niel Bowerman: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, one of the things that first comes to mind to me is just what jurisdiction is going to be most important in this area? And it’s something I don’t have a good sense of, but my guess would be that some areas of the world are going to have a policy processes that are more easy to influence that have jurisdiction over a lot of different animals in the wild. Whereas others might be more competitive, maybe because they’re more dense urban areas that are going to have influence over fewer animals in the wild. And so just mapping that out I imagine can be quite useful. And then in terms of taking your first steps into policy, obviously a case of reading up a bunch. If you end up going into UK policy, would definitely recommend the UK Civil Service fast stream as a way of getting started here. Also, the UK is one of the places where you could start doing more pioneering work on, say, fish culling standards, and hope that that work is then used as best practice that is spread out to other places around the world.
Michelle Hutchinson: Why is the UK such a good place to work on that?
Niel Bowerman: Yeah. My impression is that the UK has somewhat stronger animal protection laws. And another thing is that right at the moment with Brexit, one of the upsides of Brexit for British policy making is that it’s allowing the UK to rehaul a lot of its agriculture policies and think more about them in terms of environmental services. And so I think there’s a lot of room for innovation in UK policy in agriculture and related fields at the moment.
Michelle Hutchinson: I think it’s really interesting that the UK pulls Europe in a direction of being more humane to animals, because I tend to think of places like Germany and the Netherlands as being typically more left wing than the UK, and the left wing being better on animal rights. But it seems like that’s not in fact the case.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it is funny, is it. It could just be an Anglo cultural thing. There’s a particular concern for animals that yeah, it could just be kind of idiosyncratic. It’s also like oddly bipartisan in the UK. It seems like it hasn’t become a left-right issue in the same way that it … Maybe also just possibly the farm lobby is weaker or something in the UK compared to some of these other countries.
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah.
Niel Bowerman: Yeah. I’m not sure. One of the hypotheses that I had when thinking about this on climate change was that the conservative party in Britain is very pro environment, and because of that reason has better relationships with the farmer’s union in places like that. And because of these relationships might be able to negotiate better farming standards. I’m not sure.
Academic field building
Robert Wiblin: I noticed in this episode we’re talking so much about academic field building as the way to set out on starting to solve this problem as a species. It’s not the first time that we’ve been interested in academic field building. It seems to come up again and again with all of these niche issues that we’re trying to pioneer, I suppose. Do you think that it’s just the case that building academic fields is incredibly useful and that that is often a good first step? Or is it possible that we’re just, we know too much about academia and so we’re just biased with, “Well, obviously the way you start solving a problem is to build an academic field.” Is there some possible bias here?
Michelle Hutchinson: There’s certainly strong reasons why you might think that it’s an important way to go. Academics are often the people that policy makers go to when they want to work out what framework to use. Universities are where all of our future leaders are taught, and they tend to have good access to the media, so I guess it feels unsurprising to me that if you want to make a really long run change, then you want academia to be properly on board with the change that you’re trying to make in society.
Niel Bowerman: Yeah. I think another thing that we can see from past case studies is that when academia is not on board, it’s quite easy to stumble when trying to create a new field of endeavor, particularly one that is pushing the boundaries on empirical claims that science would have something to say about.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess if you break down society into different kinds of institutions, you’ve got businesses, are they going to pioneer this? In most cases not. You’ve got government, maybe, but most of the time not, because there’s not enough pressure from voters to prioritize it over other things. And what you’ve got now left? You’ve got, I guess, civil society, nonprofits and academia. I suppose, so we’re thinking about both nonprofits and academia, so, maybe those are just the only places that you can really get the ball rolling on something as unusual as this.
Michelle Hutchinson: We’re also talking about an area where there’s just a huge amount of knowledge that we don’t yet have, that would be crucial for actually solving the area, and academia is just absolutely full of really smart researchers. So it’s unsurprising that you would want its resources to be put towards this.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think this is a whole lot of research on this academic field building stuff, which I think people in effective altruism, and I know Open Philanthropy’s been looking into this, which to my shame I haven’t really yet read. Have either of you read any particularly interesting articles about that, that we should link to?
Michelle Hutchinson: Yeah, I think there’s also, if you want a more accessible introduction, there’s quite a nice piece on the Center for Effective Altruism website, by Kerry Vaughan, on the rise of the neo liberals. They’re thought of as a really good example where they set out an explicit plan to turn economics academia from being broadly socialist to being neoliberal. There’s a pretty good academic paper on how this worked, as well. I can’t remember right now, but I can send it to you and you can put it up.
Robert Wiblin: Cool. All right, well, thanks for making time to chat about this episode, guys. Hope you enjoyed it.
Niel Bowerman: Thanks, Rob.
Michelle Hutchinson: Really did, thanks Rob.