Reducing Wild Animal Suffering Literature Library: Empirical Foundations

This is a reading module put together by the members of the group Wild Animal Welfare Project Discussion as part of the RWAS Literature Library Project.

This series of articles and essays together lay out crucial considerations explaining the epistemology, ethics and meta-ethics underpinning the reduction of wild animal suffering (RWAS) as a potential focus area for effective altruists. This module is intended to serve multiple functions:

Empirical/Applied Foundations (biology, economics, etc.)


Yew Kwang-Ng (1995) - Towards welfare biology: Evolutionary economics of animal consciousness and suffering

Welfare biology is the study of living things and their environment with respect to their welfare (defined as net happiness, or enjoyment minus suffering). Despite difficulties of ascertaining and measuring welfare and relevancy to normative issues, welfare biology is a positive science. Evolutionary economics and population dynamics are used to help answer basic questions in welfare biology: Which species are affective sentients capable of welfare? Do they enjoy positive or negative welfare? Can their welfare be dramatically increased? Under plausible axioms, all conscious species are plastic and all plastic species are conscious (and, with a stronger axiom, capable of welfare). More complex niches favour the evolution of more rational species. Evolutionary economics also supports the common-sense view that individual sentients failing to survive to mate suffer negative welfare. A kind of God-made (or evolution-created) fairness between species is also unexpectedly found. The contrast between growth maximization (as may be favoured by natural selection), average welfare, and total welfare maximization is discussed. It is shown that welfare could be increased without even sacrificing numbers (at equilibrium). Since the long-term reduction in animal suffering depends on scientific advances, strict restrictions on animal experimentation may be counter-productive to animal welfare.

Brian Tomasik - Medicine vs. Deep Ecology

Ecosystems are extraordinarily complex and require care to understand well. However, other systems are complex too: Macroeconomies, national political structures, and even the human body. Complexity has not stopped us from rightly aiming to improve those systems by careful scientific investigation, so why shouldn't we apply a similar attitude toward intervention in nature to reduce wild-animal suffering?


Brian Tomasik. Applied Welfare Biology and Why Wild-Animal Advocates Should Focus on Not Spreading Nature

Applied welfare biology involves assessing how environmental policies affect net wild-animal suffering. This research is important and should be pursued, and I outline some interesting questions in this field for people to study. That said, applied welfare biology has some risks, including encouraging policies that are unpopular and whose implementation could slightly increase international conflict. Therefore, I think the first priority of animal advocates should be to argue against future projects to spread wilderness into space or computational systems. Not expanding wild-animal suffering is an easier case to make and is ultimately more important in expectation.


Michael Plant (2016). The Unproven and Unprovable Case for [Net] Wild Animal Suffering

I’ve been surprised to learn recently that so many people I know in the effective altruism community believe there is more total suffering than happiness in the lives of wild animals. Brian Tomasik appears to be the main current proponent of this view, developing the work done by economist Yew-Kwang Ng in the 90s. Tomasik has taken his concerns with wild animal suffering (WAS) to its logical limit, arguing we should consider destroying ecosytems so that fewer animals exist. This cuts against the popular intuition, frequently promoted by nature documentaries, that wild animals live enjoyable, if somewhat barbaric, lives and are best left to their own devices. As the number of animals in the wild is so vast, WAS is therefore potentially of huge moral importance. Concerned that I had overlooked the area, I investigated. After some consideration, I think the arguments in favour of there being net WAS are unconvincing. I decided to write this essay to explain why others should be similarly unconvinced.


Ozy Brennan (2017). “Fit and Happy”: How Do We Measure Wild-Animal Suffering?

In order to understand wild-animal welfare, we must be able to measure it. To target the most important causes of wild-animal suffering, it is important to understand which animals suffer the most and what causes their suffering. In this paper, I begin by reviewing theoretical arguments about wild-animal suffering, then move to discussing various empirical strategies for assessing the welfare of wild animals. I conclude with a brief discussion of how to reduce the time and expense of assessing wild-animal welfare.


Georgia Ray (2017). Parasite Load and Disease in Wild Animals

This piece looks at the scale of the parasite load on wild animals, and the effects of parasites on wild-animal suffering. There is an appendix on ways in which researchers measure parasite and disease load and the challenges associated with these measurements.


Brian Tomasik (2017). How Many Wild Animals Are There?

This page offers some rough estimates of the numbers of wild animals on Earth. Collectively, wild land vertebrates probably number between 10^11 and 10^14. Wild marine vertebrates number at least 10^13 and perhaps a few orders of magnitude higher. Terrestrial and marine arthropods each probably number at least 10^18.


Georgia Ray (2017). How Many Wild Animals Are There?

For such a straightforward question, the answer to how many individual animals exist is surprisingly unexplored in scientific literature. A variety of reasonable estimates have been made for the number of animal species, but means of gathering data on animal abundance in different environments are so varied that the actual number of individual animals is relatively unexamined. Here, we discuss some estimates that approach this number, and assess their accuracy.


Wladimir J. Alonso and Cynthia Schuck-Paim (2017). Life-fates: meaningful categories to estimate animal suffering in the wild


The study of wild animal suffering and design of putative strategies to mitigate suffering in the wild can greatly benefit from the development of analytical and conceptual tools to measure the irregular distribution of suffering within species and natural populations. To this end, we propose a new concept, that of life-fate. A life-fate is a unit that operationally aggregates individuals from the same species based on the similarities of critical life events and hazards befalling them. The analytical framework based on this concept is thus one focused on categorizing major differences within the diversity of experiences that sentient individuals are exposed to during their existence. Such a framework forces a focus on the investigation of at-risk groups, or hotspots of individual suffering within a population. Additionally, the approach can provide insights into  potential biological adaptations evolved in response to subsets of hazards individuals are exposed to, enable the description of the diversity and distribution of suffering within species in a systematic manner, and inform the public about a widespread, yet neglected, aspect of life in the wild (suffering) based on the notion of individual life experiences and stories – concepts easier to empathize with than mortality and morbidity figures. Finally, the concept of life-fates should also prove useful to reveal commonly hidden sources of suffering in other contexts, including those involved in the production of animal-derived products and services.

Comments (1)

Comment author: Ronja_Lutz 05 May 2018 10:15:27AM 0 points [-]

Thank you - this sounds like it will be very valuable for our local reading/discussion group! In previous discussions, we were struggling a bit with the term "suffering", since we couldn't find a clear definition for it (we read Thoomas Metzinger's paper, but didn't find it very useful). Do you have any recommendations for that, too?