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Illuminating Animal and Plant Sentience

At the end of 2015, a new academic journal, Animal Sentience, was launched with internationally renowned cognitive scientist Dr. Stevan Harnad as its Editor-in-Chief. The journal, published by WellBeing International, provides a moderated forum where invited experts debate challenging and controversial ideas relevant to the sentience and welfare of animals. The peer-reviewed target articles and the associated open-peer commentaries provide insights and guidance on which members of the Animal Kingdom (e.g., among mammals, fish, birds, bees, sponges) might be aware and feel, and how sentience, the capacity to feel, might be related to sapience, the capacity to think.

How the Journal Works

Animal Sentience is not a typical academic journal. Dr. Harnad was the founding editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), an Open-Peer Commentary publication. From its founding, it was decided that Animal Sentience should also be an Open-Peer Commentary publication. In an Open-Peer Commentary journal, a peer-reviewed target article on a particular topic is accepted, and a range of experts are then invited to submit commentaries and thoughts on this target article. The invited commentaries are published with the target article, and at an appropriate time, the author(s) of the target article are expected to respond to the commentaries. Online publishing also allows commentaries to be published at any point – maybe years – after the target article is published. Such a journal is an excellent and directed means of exploring challenging and controversial topics. The target article and the many (often 40 or more) expert commentaries critiquing the arguments and claims in the target article provide readers with an organized set of arguments, either supporting or opposing the thesis developed in the target article. Readers can examine the issue from all sides and draw conclusions on the coherence and legitimacy of the various claims and arguments.


One of the first target articles in Animal Sentience, by Australian biologist Dr. Brian Key, argued that fish are not sentient (2016). Most of the subsequent commentaries on Key’s article disagreed. Key then produced three separate responses to the commentaries defending his claim.

The Key target article and the subsequent commentaries and responses are an excellent example of the critical academic role that an “Open-Peer Commentary” journal plays in advancing human understanding of challenging ideas and topics – such as, for example, “The Other Minds” problem. Such a journal presents the many different claims and counter-claims regarding a particular topic in a coherent, organized, and readily accessible form. In addition, Animal Sentience is open to everyone. The articles are not behind a paywall and may be read and downloaded free of charge. Authors are also not charged to publish their thoughts and comments. WellBeing International sponsors the journal and covers the costs of its publication.

Animal Sentience recently published (March 15, 2023, in Volume 8) another target article by authors Miguel Secundo-Ortin and Paco Calvo at the University of Murcia in Spain that challenges conventional thinking. The article argues that plants are sentient. It has been downloaded over 2,300 times since March of 2023. It has, to date, prompted 30 published responses from other academics, including an essential commentary from Editor-in-Chief Dr. Stevan Harnad that addresses (and defines) the various key terms used in discussions of animal (and plant?) sentience and cognition.

Most of the responses to the target article do not agree with the claim that plants are sentient. In my opinion, the response by Mallatt et al. is especially constructive. It identifies specific arguments requiring more attention and experimental evidence before concluding with reasonable certainty that plants are sentient.

With co-author Natalie Lawrence, Calvo has also produced a book on plants’ cognitive capacity, titled Planta Sapiens (2023, WW Norton). Temple Grandin reviewed Planta Sapiens for the New York Times. She concluded that although the book included many intriguing and challenging examples of the sophisticated interactions of plants with their environment and of structures that could function like simple nervous systems, she was unpersuaded that plants had the neural machinery to integrate sensory input or to “make decisions based on multiple inputs and outputs.”

The target articles by Key (on fish sentience) and Secundo-Ortin and Calvo (on plant sentience) and the associated responses bookend the challenges faced by those who seek to understand the phylogenetic distribution of sentience and the variety of species that have the capacity to feel. Determining this range across species has policy implications. For example, the British government recently acknowledged that some invertebrate species (decapod crustaceans such as crabs and cephalopods such as the octopus) are sentient, raising questions about how those species should be treated and protected. The appropriate criteria used to determine whether a particular species might be sentient were explored in an article and associated peer commentaries in the second volume of Animal Sentience.

Final Comments

Animal Sentience (now publishing Volume 8) is an essential resource for public policy and animal advocates. The target articles and associated expert commentaries provide an organized and disciplined forum to determine which species are sentient and to follow up such determinations with appropriate public policies and legal structures to protect the interests of those species. The discussions on fish and plant sentience provide contrasting arguments on sentience and its extent across animal and plant species. Most of us likely would choose a boundary species for sentience somewhere between fish and plants, but the question is where that boundary should be placed. Thanks to the efforts of Key, Secundo-Ortin, Calvo, and the sentience unit at the London School of Economics, we have a much clearer understanding of the possible criteria that might lead to a considered and reasonable judgment.

The journal’s approach to engaging scientists and other stakeholders advances scientific dialogue and discussions. It provides a forum and citable authority for an organized and considered exchange of ideas and information. In contrast to social media, the journal promotes reasoned progress on some of the complex issues of our times.


WBI also draws the attention of newsletter readers to an open-access three-volume biography of Donald Griffin in the WellBeing International Studies Repository (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3). Griffin was the first to demonstrate conclusively that bats use echolocation to avoid obstacles

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