Sentience for conservation

What would our life be like if we could see, but not discern? If we could hear, but not listen, and if we could touch, but not feel? How would we experience life if we could taste and smell, but not savour? What would we be like, as a species and as individuals, if we could sense everything, yet make sense of nothing? Would our life be the same? Would we be the same? Would we even be human?

Biologists and philosophers have many lofty answers to the deeply fundamental questions of human existence. Ask Richard Dawkins and he will, delving into the firmaments of the science of evolutionary biology, essay answers to the question he posed in the opening of his famous book The Selfish Gene: why are people? The answers provide one view of our existence. Ask the philosophers and they will thread you through the arguments as to what sets apart us from them, and how we know we are who we are. The religions and the prophets have their own answers, too, some deep, many dubious. For me, as yet, the glimmerings of an understanding hover at the periphery of my vision, but is clouded by an intellectual cataract that needs to be lifted.

We are a species named Homo sapiens, meaning the man that knows or the man who is wise. Sometimes it seems strange that sapiens, a Latin word meaning wise, is applied to our species. Behind and beyond our intellectual and cultural achievements is a litany of apparently senseless acts—war and plunder, environmental destruction and pillage, racism and genocide, crimes and violence—which questions the assumption that we are the wise ones. Are we truly sapient? I, for one, am not so sure.

We are also called human beings. I am not a trained philosopher, yet it seems to me this is a term of firmer substance. It suggests a species that has something above a mere functional existence, it hints at the possession of a mind of non-trivial cognitive capacity, and of certain existential qualities of perception and self-awareness. To me, it suggests and in some ways is inseparable from, a refined quality of sentience.

The dictionaries define sentience as the state of having or feeling sensation, or our faculty or readiness to perceive sensations. We may perceive our own sentience and those of others in many ways. A neurologist may see it in the firing of neurons in the brain as clearly as a behaviourist may see it in the turn of a head. It may be in the dilation of the pupils in the eye, in a lump in the throat, or, during the aftermath of an emotive moment, in an averted glance or in the words said or left unsaid. We feel it; it affects us.

Are we a sentient species? Sure, we are.

If we take sentience to refer to the form of perception or awareness of sensations emanating from our sense organs, we are clearly not alone, as a species on this planet, in being sentient. Yet, sentience has also been defined as “an example of harmonious action between the intelligence and the sentiency of the mind”. Applied to us, this view of sentience suggests the need to strike a harmony between our intelligent understanding of the world and our mind influenced by sentient perception. It suggests a marriage between reason and affect. A marriage that, if performed, may justify our claim, as a species and as individuals, to uniqueness.

I think of human sentience often, in the context of conservation. I think of it when a burst oil well a mile under the sea spews, not spills, millions of litres of oil into the open ocean. When equatorial rainforest of exhilarating diversity is cut and burned to make way for a vast plantation of one species. When the furrows of old roads and mines are still raw on the hills and the metal claws of heavy vehicles gouge for more. And when the rail track sings to the passing of an express train—sings a ringing requiem for the four elephants left behind, their life ebbing away in stunned and bloody repose. I think of it, even, when the man, by the side of the road, raises his crowbar to bring it down on the head of a small, harmless, and nearly-blind burrowing snake, just because it is a snake.

Image courtesy: Kalyan Varma (
Image courtesy: Kalyan Varma (

Aren’t these, and many other human-nature interactions, matters that not only concern us, but affect us? Should we then approach solutions for a reconciliation purely through reason and science, as is a common refrain (including of this blog), or include in our ambit human emotion and feeling? Can we build a popular movement, patriotic to a cause as to a nation, if we were to use only logic and dry fact, ignoring sentiment and disposition, music and arts, poetry and passion? Should we always seek answers in our intellect rather than in our humanity? In today’s world, where credible science is called for to inform debate and decisions, human emotion and feeling is treated as an errant child to be kept in rein—side-lined, side-stepped—or as an unwanted churl who would confuse rather than clarify. In the process, a great and material part of human existence is brusquely overlooked.

I think an approach built on science, alone, cannot help conservation. We must include human sentience. Both reason and affect must be brought to bear on conservation problems.

The idea is not new, yet it is seems worth articulating, reiterating. Fortunately, threads of support for this approach are emerging from diverse sources.

First, an over-reliance on science alone may turn out to be counter-productive (or at least insufficient) as seen in climate change campaigns. George Monbiot, writing about “The Unpersuadables” says:

The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away.

He sounds lost “that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science”. I cannot help wondering if an approach that did not rely only on science would help more.

Understanding human emotions and incorporating that into how we deal with human-wildlife interactions, conflicts, and conservation issues is now being suggested as an important direction to take. The discipline of conservation psychology is also taking shape, hoping to link the understanding of human behaviour with conservation. Writing in the book Who cares about wildlife? Michael Manfredo presents developing ideas and results of research on the effects of emotions on memory, decision processes, norms, values, attitudinal changes, and health. His tentative conclusion:

Emotions act with cognition to direct human behaviour. They play an important role in memory, decision making, and attitude change; they clarify roles and social structure… Wildlife professionals should re-examine the widely held view that emotional response issues are trivial, unimportant, or non-informative. Emotions merit careful consideration and thoughtful response.

He also quotes Jon Elster, who says, more pithily:

Emotions matter because if we did not have them nothing else would matter.

Another line of argument comes from the work and ideas of the renowned primatologist Frans de Waal in his recent book The Age of Empathy: Nature’s lessons for a Kinder Society. de Waal opens his book with the questions:

Are we our brothers’ keepers? Should we be? Or would this role only interfere with why we are on earth, which according to economists is to consume and produce and according to biologists is to survive and reproduce?

Linking both ideas of competition-is-good-for-you to their origins around the time of the Industrial Revolution, de Waal presents a survey of modern research in animal behaviour, primatology, and anthropology, where there is compelling evidence for the importance of empathy in moulding social relationships. He examines social animals from dogs to dolphins, monkeys and apes, wolves and elephants.

If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one.

He also does not shy away from talking about emotions and moods, greed and gratitude, attachments and morality. I have not read the complete book yet but the previews seem tantalisingly pertinent. “What is it that makes us care about the behaviour of others, or about others, period?” Can we probe the hidden wells of human empathy for a more benign and graceful citizenry on this planet?

The foundations of a conservation ethic must be built on human sentience. And for this to work it may need to sincerely garner the support, not only of conservation scientists, but of painters and musicians, poets and songwriters, playwrights and psychologists, humourists and social workers. It needs, as is often said, to rebuild burnt bridges across the arts, humanities, and the sciences. It needs to bring back into serious discourse our motivations, emotions, passions, sensitivity, and humanism. Then, perhaps, in the years ahead, we will tread our path on planet Earth as Homo sentiens.

7 thoughts on “Sentience for conservation

  1. A lovely thoughtful article. Most of your articles Sridhar are inspiring and am sure must compel people to take action. When I looked for Monbiot – the unpersuadables, i came across the climate change blog – . Surely there is a point, in blogging!

  2. Thanks, Karthik. And yes, I think there is a point to blogging. There are many good blogs out there now and I think they are beginning to influence the way people see, think, and act. We could do with more from India, though, on nature and conservation.

  3. A moral philosophy for conservation? A conservation of the heart as much as the head? It’s a lovely idea, Sridhar. What I am afraid of is how much our indoctrination as conservationists has changed our conception of what is ‘moral’ in a eco-social landscape of choices. I recently posed the famous trolley problem (modified for a conservation scenario) to a few young conservationists, and more than their responses (which startled me), was the self-assured promptness of their responses. I am not completely certain that we will make more benign choices with our hearts than with our heads, but perhaps it will make us just a little more circumspect about our choices. Lovely writing Sridhar. Thank you for making us examine the imponderables.

  4. I am tired and getting grey – too cynical perhaps with old age
    but none of these nice things seem to matter
    to me conservation is largely governed by politics
    over which we have no control however well meaning we are.

    Sentience, empathy, emotions and caring…
    None of this works.
    It is some strange intangiable
    I yet have not been able to figure out.
    Now where is my walking stick?


  5. Awesome Article.
    Not to forget “Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful”
    —Charles Darwin

    How are you stranger 🙂


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