About Sentientist

Evolutionary psychologist, academic, utilitarian and bivalvegan.

Cannibalism talk

Several months back my friend Els asked me to come up with a talk for her “Death Jam”, an evening of death themed talks, chit chat, tea and cake. I did this Cannibalism talk first at New Unity and then for my department where I recorded the video below. I cover a lot of topics including filial cannibalism, sexual cannibalism, cannibalism in Neanderthals and Hominids, gastronomic cannibalism, survival cannibalism, allegations of cannibalism used to malign groups of people (including the blood libel) and eating babies (e.g. “A Modest Proposal“). Please excuse the copious ums and ers!


For People Who Love Animals And Numbers: An Interview With “Counting Animals” Blogger Harish Sethu

Animal Voices

How many animals do you save each year by going vegetarian? Does factory farming make meat cheaper? Who’s more animal-friendly, Democrats or Republicans? Are well-funded animal rights lobbyists drowning out the voice of the poor old meat industry in public debate?


These are just a few of the questions Harish Sethu tackles on his blog, Counting Animals. Using the best data available, and being transparent about every step of his calculations, Sethu works to give animal advocates accurate, defensible numbers they can use in their arguments.

In our chat, Sethu will also cover a bit of the philosophy behind how to put a number on “how much good” our actions produce, and tell us how a rooster named Ghost changed his thinking about animals!

Listen right now:

or download an mp3 of the show.

P.S. At least 406 (in the U.S.), no, Democrats, and not even…

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Sexually transmitted infections selfishly increasing your sexiness

We have not yet begun to scratch the surface of how pathogens and other bugs can manipulate behavior. This is also a major cost of infection that many people don’t even consider; our personalities are no doubt shaped in part by our current and past infections and our microbiome.


In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins speculates that sexually transmitted infections, in order to spread as far and wide as possible, could increase the libidos of their hosts:

I do not know of any direct evidence that sexually transmitted diseases increase the libido of sufferers, but I conjecture that it would be worth looking into. Certainly at least one alleged aphrodisiac, Spanish Fly, is said to work by inducing an itch . . . and making people itch is just the kind of thing viruses are good at. (Dawkins 2006 pg. 247)

Recently I came across an amazing example of syphilis doing just that in Oliver Sacks’ “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” where a 90 year old woman who had a primary but suppressed syphilis infection tests positive for neurosyphilis in her spinal fluid:

A bright woman of ninety, Natasha K., recently came to our clinic. Soon after her eighty-eighth birthday, she said, she noticed ‘a change’. What sort of change? we queried.

“Delightful!’ she exclaimed. ‘I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt more energetic, more alive—I felt young once again. I took an interest in the young men. I started to feel, you might say, “frisky”—yes, frisky.’…

“No animals were harmed”: Strict film standards are not evidence that violence toward animals is decreasing

Blackfish, a film about orcas in captivity, has stirred up a recurrent debate about using animals for entertainment. This tiny fraction of animals who suffer under human care in the service of entertainment is much more controversial than other animal uses that cause greater harm in aggregate. This could be for a variety of reasons, and here I’ll reference Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, a framework for understanding moral reasoning. The harm/benefit calculation of animal suffering may not add up when the ends are as obviously unnecessary as entertainment. Liberals, those most concerned with animal welfare, tend to be more focused on harm/care but can also be concerned with purity (aka sanctity/degradation) in the form of what is “natural”. Eating meat is considered natural but using animals for entertainment (or shooting them for sport) is much more maligned. Moreover, animals used in entertainment are, almost by definition, charismatic and anthropomorphized, a recipe for identifying with those who are unfairly treated. Is this moral outrage the beginning of consciousness raising about animal treatment more generally?

In “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, Steven Pinker impressively maps out all the ways that violence is decreasing in our world. However, as I pointed out in a radio episode about this book and its implications for animals, I fundamentally disagree with his idea that violence towards animals is decreasing as well as what he sees as the major barriers to an animal rights revolution (e.g. where to draw the line of sentience, “meat hunger”). Moreover, as I pointed to in a previous blog, I am skeptical that pushing for improvements in animal welfare will have significant impact on actual animal welfare for a variety of reasons (e.g. evolved ethical blind spots toward animal suffering).

One of Pinker’s central arguments is that a reduction in animal harm in films is indicative of this trend toward a reduction in violence towards animals. At the time, I made the argument that, because of more nonviolent social norms, people have become less tolerant of visible animal harm (as in films) and their reputation regarding harming animals (e.g. distaste for hunting, better treatment of pets, support for stricter laws concerning animal treatment). Unfortunately, humane use of animals in films is a case study in superficial regulation that does a better job of assuaging the guilt of consumers and polishing the reputation of producers than actually preventing animal harm.   

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On retreat

Today I’m going on a Vipassana meditation retreat at Dhamma Dipa. It’s 10 days of silent meditation without reading, writing, internet, phone calls etc. I have less spiritual and more utilitarian reasons for embarking on this course than many people. It will certainly be uncomfortable but I’m interested in exercising my prefrontal cortex and learning techniques of self discipline and avoiding distraction that may help me be more effective. Also, I’m just quite a sensation seeking person generally and even if this doesn’t reboot my life it will be a deeply interesting experience (even if what’s interesting about it is how boring it is). Anyway, I won’t be on the blog, twitter or Facebook until late August. Hopefully when I get back I can make a video about the experience to post here. 

Will in vitro meat become cruelty free?

Today in London there was the first public tasting of in vitro meat (although it seems a bit
silly that the fate of such a potentially gamechanging technology would be influenced by the initial reaction of a couple of gourmands). The Guardian has dubbed Post’s in vitro patty as “the world’s first cruelty free hamburger” although Peter Singer, who actually wrote the piece knows enough to steer clear of this misnomer. This is a milestone for sure but how much difference will in vitro meat make to actual animal cruelty or the number of animals used for food? I previously explored how lab meat is created and whether in vitro meat would help animals in this podcast, including an interview with David Pearce where I asked (around minute 7), what market forces might move lab meat to involve the least amount of animal suffering.

In this blog, I first discuss the aspects of in vitro meat that are still potentially unethical. Then I talk a bit about how disgust, and the groups that are most disgust sensitive, may reduce the impact that in vitro meat will have on the reduction of animal suffering.

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The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels- Part 2

Pearl OysterIn the last blog, I made the case that there really wasn’t a good ethical reason not to eat mussels and oysters. As an astute commenter noted, I wasn’t really making a case FOR eating mussels and oysters so much as saying that the argument against lacked sufficient evidence from the perspective of reducing suffering. In this blog, I’m going to remedy that by outlining some positive effects that might result from the acceptance of oysters and mussels as ethical to eat if not defined as “vegan”. Specifically, I think that eating oysters and mussels 1) undermines the case that vegans are motivated by disgust and purity 2) offers some nutritional benefits that might make people more likely to eat (or continue eating) in a way that causes the least suffering.

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