On Suffering: Biology, Causes, and Remedies.

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Lysander Dusseljee
Bio 160: General Biology.
May 28, 2015


Everyone has experienced suffering. Suffering is a common occurrence. It can take many forms. It can be as subtle as a poor night's sleep or a missed meal. On the other extreme, it can be as severe as permanent unbearable pain, severe chronic insomnia, or unrelenting suicidal ideation. There are many receptors in the brain that have been linked to suffering and happiness. In particular, the opioid receptors appear to play a significant role.
For many individuals, suffering is chronic and unavoidable. According to the Centers For Disease Control, about one out of every ten people over the age of twelve take prescription antidepressants, (Pratt, Brody, & Gu, 2011). Additionally, many more people will choose to self medicate. Some examples of drugs used for self medication include marijuana, alcohol, and opioids. Self medication is not always successful in the long term, and can make things worse if tolerance and dependence develop.
However, suffering is not specific to humans. Generally, the less related a species is to humans, the greater the controversy over whether they can suffer. For example, It is generally accepted that mammals feel pain. For vertebrates that are less closely related to humans, such as fish, capacity to suffer is still being argued in scientific literature, (Brown, 2015). The case of invertebrate suffering is even more controversial. Nevertheless, there is evidence to support the capacity to suffer in invertebrates. In my personal experience, the general population is accepting that insects are sentient and can suffer, as evidenced by the fact that spiders are often escorted outside rather than killed and disposed of.
Moreover, the sheer number of these animals in existence makes their capacity to suffer a nontrivial topic. Insects are particularly numerous, with estimates ranging from 1018 to 1019 individual insects alive, as cited by Brian Tomasik, (2009). Brian Tomasik is a prominent proponent of the reduction of wild animal suffering. He has written a multitude of essays on the topic.

Review of Literature

        In the case of wild animal suffering, some adjustments can be made to estimates based on assumed level of sentience. One metric that can be used is number of neurons. Considering that the current human population is less 1010, and considering that humans have less than 1011 neurons, insects would only need to have anywhere from one hundred to one thousand neurons on average to match that of humans, (Azevedo et al., 2009: Tomasik, 2009). Fruit flies contain 100 thousand neurons, (Chiang et al., 2011). Assuming fruit flies are a representative sample, that would make insect neurons at least one hundred times more numerous than human neurons. Additionally, the brains of small creatures have developed adaptations to overcome the challenges of limited space, (Niven & Farris, 2012). This means that it’s possible that we should lend more moral weight per neuron for insects than for humans. Naturally, there are many other factors that need to be considered.
        Fruit flies engage in complex behaviors regarding alcohol consumption in relation to sexual rejection, (Shohat-Ophir, Kaun, Azanchi, Mohammed, & Heberlein, 2012). Additionally, crickets, for example, display analgesic behaviors to heat after morphine administration, (Zabala & Gómez, 1991). This is highly suggestive that insects can suffer in similar ways to humans.
        Factory farmed animals are another impressive source of suffering. Chickens comprise the largest group of factory farmed land animals, with a rising trend of more than 20 billion chickens alive worldwide, and around 2 billion in the US alone, (“Production - Live Animals”, 2014). However, even though chickens experience the most suffering quantitatively, they don’t experience the most suffering qualitatively. For example, the ability to turn around is an unattainable luxury for mother pigs during the pregnant and nursing period, while they are kept in what are called gestation crates and farrowing crates respectively. Since the floor is typically made of concrete or metal, the immobility often results in pressure sores and a multitude of other conditions. However, animal product consumption appears to be entirely unnecessary, and may actually be detrimental to health, (Le & Sabaté, 2014).
        Furthermore, animal agriculture contributes more to global warming than the transportation sector, (Koneswaran & Nierenberg, 2008). The impact global warming might have on net suffering is complicated and unclear. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth consideration.
        There are many myths regarding the health properties of animal products. Among them is the belief that meat is a necessary source of vitamin B12. In reality, vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria in the gut, (Albert, Mathan, & Baker, 1980). Unfortunately, this B12 is not bioavailable to a sufficient extent. However, oral exposure to ones own feces is sufficient to reverse B12 deficiency, (Herbert, 1988). Yet, modern fecal exposure is effectively zero. In fact, as much as 39 percent of americans have serum B12 in the low-normal range, and could thus potentially benefit from increasing B12, (McBride, 2000). [I recommend taking a minimum of one 5000mcg (5mg) cyanocobalamin (a cheap b12 form) tab per week]. In an ever more sanitary world, it may be prudent to either supplement, or ensure proper bacterial exposure.
        Furthermore, the macronutrient profile of meat is similar to that of many nuts and seeds. Specifically, nuts and seeds tend to be high in fat and complete proteins, and minimal in carbohydrates. Additionally, nuts and seeds have other traits that are generally considered positive. These traits include being low in saturated fat, and containing fiber, minerals, and other beneficial compounds, (Ros, 2010).
        Animal testing is another source of suffering. However, in comparison to intensive animal agriculture, animal testing produces little suffering. In part, this is because the number of animals in animal research is only in the hundreds of millions range, (Ferdowsian & Beck, 2011). That’s a mere fraction of those used in animal agriculture, (“Production - Live Animals”, 2014). Additionally, moderate legal and self imposed protection is provided to laboratory animals, whereas minimal to no protection is provided to farmed animals. However, some cruelty does occur in labs.
        Drugs are currently the easiest way to reduce or eliminate suffering. In particular, opioids are able alleviate immense amounts of suffering. Unfortunately, tolerance and dependence is a common occurrence. Fortunately, there is a solution. There are three opioid receptor subtypes. Namely, the mu, delta, and kappa opioid receptors. Agonism at the mu-opioid receptor, in conjunction with antagonism at the delta-opioid receptor, offers minimal tolerance and dependence, while maintaining desirable properties, (Purington, Pogozheva, Traynor, & Mosberg, 2009). Therefore, opioids are a good candidate to eliminate suffering in humans and factory farmed animals. However, opioids have minimal application for use in wild animals due to difficulties with administration.
        Additionally, less powerful drugs can also improve quality of life. Over the counter drugs such as Ibuprofen, tylenol, aspirin, and advil can alleviate everyday pains. Additionally, drugs such as caffeine can improve daily function and quality of life for some people. Less well known, combining l-theanine, a non-protein amino acid, with caffeine produces desirable results (Haskell, Kennedy, Milne, Wesnes, & Scholey, 2008). Other drugs, such as alcohol, can, if used properly, prevent people from becoming overly stressed.
        Unlike the mu-opioid and delta-opioid receptors, antagonism of the kappa-opioid receptor produces antidepressant and antianxiety effects, (Urbano, Guerrero, Rosen, & Roberts, 2014). This mechanism appears to be a promising treatment, with phase II trials underway. Consistent with this, acute kappa-opioid agonism results in depressive like behaviors, (Carlezon et al., 2006). Conversely, chronic kappa-opioid agonism may result in antidepressive effects through tolerance like mechanisms, (Harden, Smith, Niehoff, McCurdy, & Taylor, 2012; Potter, Damez-Werno, Carlezon, Cohen, & Chartoff, 2011). Less formally, on the drug forums, a potent kappa-opioid agonist, salvinorin A, is known to have what is called the afterglow. Several internet forums exist with the stated purpose of harm reduction in regards to drug use. Many useful reports and resources exist on these sites. The afterglow is described as the positive emotional state after the initial effects wear off, lasting up to two days after the administration of a large dose. Several anecdotal reports suggest that repeated salvinorin A administration is useful for depression. The kappa-opioid receptor is worthy of further research.


        The implications of this information are wide ranging and significant. It appears necessary to question many everyday behaviors. The most obvious questionable behavior is the economic consumption of animal products. By economic consumption, I mean that adding to the economic demand is morally questionable, whereas dietary consumption is not inherently amoral. Thereby, there is no obvious moral objection to the consumption of roadkill, for example. Additionally, activities such as driving and walking may cause pain and suffering to insects. Insects killed instantly are of little concern.
        Regarding wild animals, an important question is whether they experience more suffering than happiness. If this is the case, then, according the utilitarian philosophy, reducing the number of wild animal lives is desirable.
        Additionally, Insects tend to be r-selected, having many offspring at a time. This selection strategy yields questionable welfare, as, on average, it results in many early deaths prior to sexual maturity. Additionally, insects experience many unpleasant forms of death, such as parasitoids, prolonged immobility (examples: abandoned spider webs, trapping on water surfaces, human made sticky traps, etc.), or predation. This lends likelihood to the possibility that insects experience more suffering than happiness. Due to this, some philosophers suggest that we should reduce insect populations. Furthermore, directly killing insects has little impact on insect populations, as r-selected populations can quickly rebound. One method that may be effective is to reduce available food sources. Namely, eliminating autotrophs or reducing photosynthesis by other means. In some cases, this could be achieved by killing or sterilizing predators of herbivorous animals.
        Solutions to the problem of factory farmed animal suffering range from in vitro meat, to chronically drugging the animals. In vitro meat is grown in a lab and lacks a central nervous system to experience suffering, thereby eliminating any direct moral dilemma. Likewise, powerful drugs, such as opioids, can eliminate the experience of suffering. Unfortunately, many people do not want drugs in the food they eat. Additionally, the most suitable drugs are not approved for human consumption by the FDA, so there would likely be many legal hurdles to effectively achieve this goal. Alternatively, non-animal based mimetics can be synthesized or constructed. However, animal products are unnecessary, and could therefore simply be eliminated. This philosophy and associated lifestyle is known as veganism.
        In the future, genetic technologies may offer effective solutions to either reduce suffering, or eliminate it altogether. In particular, gene drives may offer unprecedented control over the welfare of sentient life, (Oye & Esvelt, 2014). Gene drives work in sexually reproducing species by copying an allele to the other chromosome, ensuring that offspring will express the desired trait, as well as pass it on to their children. In this way, a gene drive can propagate an allele through an entire population, eventually overwriting all competing alleles. Gene drives could be used to promote alleles that result in less capacity for pain, promote endogenous opioids, extend lifespans, enhance or decrease photosynthesis, or otherwise alter populations or ecosystems.
        Since humans can have a massive impact on the amount of suffering in the world, it is important to maintain well-being in humans in order to avoid depression and apathy. Poor or insufficient sleep is highly correlated with depression, (Tsuno, Besset, & Ritchie, 2005). Additionally, poor sleep can obviously reduce general productivity, and can interfere with daily activities. Certain slow wave sleep properties can be enhanced using noninvasive auditory feedback in a brain computer interface, where audio stimulation is applied in phase with one’s brain waves during slow wave sleep, (Bellesi, Riedner, Garcia-Molina, Cirelli, & Tononi, 2014). The memory benefits this provides can, in itself, reverse some of the negative consequences of sleep loss, but this technique may also be beneficial in as yet undiscovered ways. Further, restoring impaired cAMP signaling that results from sleep deprivation restores associated cognitive deficits, (Vecsey et al., 2009). This is fairly easy to achieve using phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibitors or substances like forskolin.
Further, providing prospective parents with access to preimplantation genetic screening could allow the initiation of happier, smarter, more compassionate, and more productive future generations. That is to say, allowing and facilitating the ability for parents to choose genetically desirable embryos from a selection of in vitro fertilized eggs. In general, parents will tend to choose positive traits for their children. Additionally, as genetic technologies increase, it will become easier to modify genes in adults, allowing people to choose their own genetic code, (Chen, Twyman, & Manji, 2010). Gene therapy is already being used to treat genetic diseases, but allowing people unlimited genetic modification is more of a social problem than a technical one.
According to some utilitarian philosophers, there is no moral limit to the amount of effort one should put into reducing suffering. Peter Singer, a highly influential philosopher, popularized a concept called effective altruism. The most common form of effective altruism is called earning to give. With this strategy, the goal is to earn as much money as possible so as to donate it to the charity you believe does the most good per dollar donated. Other philosophers, including Brian Tomasik, agree with this general concept, albeit with different views on which charities are the most effective.


        Shifting dietary habits is an effective method to reduce one’s suffering footprint. Namely, eliminating animal products. Most of the suffering in the world is not human suffering. While the best way to reduce suffering in the wild is not immediately clear, ending intensive animal agriculture suffering is the most effective way to reduce suffering at this point in time.
Additionally, learning to use drugs responsibly and sustainably is important. It’s worthwhile to research new and better drugs. Drugs do not necessarily need to be used for medical reasons, and can improve general quality of life. However, it is most important to administer drugs to those who are suffering. In particular, administering drugs to factory farmed animals.
        Many daily activities are morally ambiguous, and should be thoroughly reconsidered. Furthermore, as humans gain more control over the world and ourselves, it is imperative that we strive to reduce suffering in all sentient life. Genetic technologies, in particular, have huge potential in this regard.


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