Insect herbivores, life history and wild animal welfare


  1. Life history classification will hide some significant differences in the lives of wild animals. Not all species within a given classification possess all of the traits associated with that group even across all years or all locations. Therefore, when making moral decisions, one also has to consider how average quality of life should be determined in the face of large variance

  2. Among insect herbivores, some lifespans are relatively long, some modes of death are very quick, and some small-bodied herbivores may lead lives characterized by ample food resources

  3. Although determining the affective states of wild animals from this data is impossible, it seems quite likely that the majority individuals in some subgroups, such as those sheltered from both the elements and predation by feeding from within plant tissues, lead very high quality lives

  4. Knowing a group of organisms produce many offspring, have high mortality rates, small body size and are short-lived is not sufficient to determine that their lives are a net negative (or positive)

The argument from life history suggests that since many species produce many more offspring than survive to adulthood, are of small size and so subject to many abiotic and biotic threats, and are short-lived relative to humans, that there is more suffering than happiness in nature and therefore we have a moral obligation to end this suffering (e.g., Tomasik 2015). Here, we do not attempt to examine such moral quandaries (for a thought experiment on these issues see Brennan 2017). Instead, we aim to improve the quality of discussions by examining available data on one group of wild animals. Because of their broad scope, some previous analyses of wild animal welfare have lumped many species together at one pole of a continuum of life history strategies. Given these large groupings, and some issues with the life history classifications themselves, it is unclear to what extent this approach actually informs us about animal suffering in general. On the other hand, examinations of the lives of particular species are also unsatisfactory, since they refer to the specific rather than the majority. By narrowing our focus to one group, we may be able to bring more data to bear on our intuitions regarding wild animal welfare. In this post, we explore the literature regarding one group of organisms that are classically grouped in the “r-strategist” life history category: terrestrial insect herbivores.

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Life history classification


Understanding the life history of animals is important for understanding wild animal welfare, but has been understudied by animal welfare advocates. In particular, life history generalizations have been used to claim that the lives of most wild animals are net negative (see discussion of this position in Brennan 2017 ). However, there are several methods of life history classification in use in ecology and evolutionary biology. The theoretical foundations for r-K selection referred by some advocates have been discredited, and in addition some large species groups cannot be placed on this continuum. However, a related form of this classification, fast-slow is still in use in the sciences. Tripartite classification schemes seem to be more appropriate for plant, insect and fish species, which do not easily fit into a single axis. More generally, large scale reviews usually come to the conclusion that a single composite axis of variation is not sufficient to explain the wide range of life history variation. One very important point is that all classification methods are considered continuums; that is, most species will lie somewhere in the middle of axes of variation rather than at the extremes.

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Is EA Growing? EA Growth Metrics for 2018

Is EA growing? Rather than speculating from anecdotes, I decided to collect some data. This is a continuation of the analysis started last year. For each trend, I collected the raw data and also highlighted in green where the highest point was reached (though this may be different from the period with the largest growth depending on which derivative you are looking at). You can download the raw data behind these tables here.

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EA Survey 2018 Series: How Long Do EAs Stay in EA?

Not everyone who joins the effective altruism community stays around forever. Some people value drift, some people leave altogether, and some people continue to do EA-aligned things but choose to withdraw from the community. Better understanding how and why people leave EA is important for assessing our overall community health and impact, but getting reliable data on this can be very hard to do.

As of Giving What We Can’s 2014 Impact Analysis, they had noted that 1.7% of members leave each year and an additional 4.7% of members “go silent” each year, meaning that GWWC has not been able to hear a response from them after two years (doing roughly annual check-ins), with a total number of people ceasing donations at 5.8%. This would suggest ~74% of people involved in GWWC remain involved after a five year time period.

This number forms a good starting point, but it is fairly out of date, having been collected five years ago. It also may not be representative of the overall EA community, since being an active part of EA is a high time cost but may not require any financial costs, whereas pledging to donate 10% has a high financial cost, but may not require much time cost beyond sending in a check and returning an email once a year or so.

To try to address this question from a different perspective, we try to use data from three EA surveys run in 2018, 2017, and 2015.

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Cost-Effectiveness of RC Forward


  • RC Forward moved $4.4M CAD (~ $3.3M USD) from Canadian donors.

  • $430K to $3.7M of donations may have been counterfactually caused by RC Forward.

  • RC Forward appears to have increased donations by 11% to 500%, with a best guess of 25% to 35%

  • Donating to RC Forward seems between 3 to 55 times more effective than donating funds directly to the EA charities which RC Forward regrants to.

RC Forward is a donation platform through which Canadians can make tax-advantaged donations to high-impact charities located inside and outside of Canada. We hypothesized that previously inaccessible tax incentives and fee elimination offered by this service would increase the donation total and individual gift sizes. This post details a cost-effectiveness analysis of RC Forward in 2018 and some reasons to limit the weight put onto any specific numbers.

We find that compared to estimates of how much would have been donated if RC Forward did not exist, donations appear to have increased by 11%-500%, with a best guess of 25-35%. Operating with minimal resources during its experimental phase, $3 to $55 more may have been donated for each $1 spent, which offers a potentially large impact for funders who cover RC Forward’s costs. We should be clear that the cost-effectiveness estimates are generally less robust than one expects and are only our approximations of uncertain quantitative parameters, which are potentially subject to bias and error. Much of the uncertainty is reflected in the ranges given, but exact numbers should not be taken as high-confidence precise estimates of the actual value RC Forward.

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Animal Charity Evaluators' Farmed Fish Report

Animal Charity Evaluators has released an extensive report on farmed fish welfare focusing on current conditions of farmed fish and possible interventions. We contributed to this report, particularly to the slaughter methods and environmental enrichment sections.

Given the billions of fish raised in these conditions, the strong possibility they often undergo significant suffering, and the potential ability to improve their lives, we believe this is an important area of consideration for animal advocates. We further believe this report helps reduce uncertainty about how to best improve farmed fish welfare.

35-150 billion fish are raised in captivity to be released into the wild every year


  • Fish stocking is the practice of raising fish in hatcheries and releasing them into rivers, lakes, or the ocean.

  • 35-150 billion finfish are stocked every year.

  • Fish are stocked to:

    • increase the catch in commercial fisheries (probably tens of billions of stocked fish annually),

    • increase the catch in recreational/sport fisheries (billions of stocked fish annually),

    • restore a population of threatened or endangered species (the number of stocked fish seems to be lower)

  • Fish can be stocked when they are anywhere between the egg stage and multiple years old. The mean time spent in hatcheries/farms seems to be somewhere between 6 days and 4 months. Fish stocked to enhance recreational fisheries tend to be released when they are older than those stocked to enhance commercial fisheries.

  • Usually, fish are stocked to maximize economic outputs so we shouldn’t expect fish welfare to be given sufficient consideration. It’s unclear how much hatcheries are incentivized to breed healthy and unstressed fish that would have higher survivorship after the release. Bigger fish may also starve and suffer after their release due to their lack of survival skills.

  • I was unable to find any animal advocacy organization that is working on reducing the suffering caused by fish stocking. I found very few articles that talk about fish stocking from an animal welfare perspective.

  • Possible interventions include lobbying to decrease the number of fish stocked for recreational fishers and requiring better conditions in hatcheries. I am very uncertain if such interventions would be cost-effective compared to ACE’s recommended charities.

  • Fish stocking has various ecological effects (e.g., a decrease in the genetic diversity of wild populations) that would need to be well-understood before seriously considering trying to reduce the number of stocked fish.

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EA Survey 2018 Series: How welcoming is EA?


  • EAs rate a wide variety of different causes as requiring “significant resources”.

  • Global Poverty remains the most popular single cause in our sample as a whole.

  • There are substantial differences in cause prioritisation across groups. On the whole, more involved groups appear to prioritise Global Poverty and Climate Change less and AI and Long-Term Future causes more.

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Rodents farmed for pet snake food

In this article, I first estimate the number of animals raised for pet snake food in the world. Then I discuss some welfare concerns of these feeder rodents by comparing the conditions in which they are raised to the ones recommended for pet mice. Finally, I brainstorm about possible interventions.

Some key findings:

There are between 4.2 million and 7.8 million pet snakes in the world.

  • 160 million to 2.1 billion vertebrates are killed for pet snake food every year. Most of the vertebrates seem to be farmed mice.

  • Feeder mice are killed when they are anywhere between 48 hours and more than 9 months old. Most seem to be slaughtered when they are less 3–4 weeks old.

  • Farming of feeder animals seems to involve considerable suffering because they are often living in cramped and possibly unsanitary conditions, which don’t have shelters to hide in, lack daylight and activities.

  • I haven’t figured out what possible interventions in this space could be particularly promising. It’s possible that the problem is not very tractable.

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EA Survey 2018 Series: Geographic Differences in EA


  • EAs in the survey come mainly from a set of 5 high-income western populations.

  • The USA’s share of the EA population has decreased over time.

  • The UK has relatively higher support for Global Poverty and lower support for AI Risk than the other main countries.

  • The USA and Canada have a smaller percent of veg*n EAs compared to other large national cohorts of EAs.

  • Continental European EAs countries have particularly high rates of local group membership.

In this post we explore geographic differences in EA across the globe. A plurality of respondents reported being located in the United States (36.33%), followed by the UK (16.19%). It seems worthwhile to investigate if these populations are distinctly different from EAs elsewhere. This may help to point to causes or dynamics in the movement that are being missed to due to the dominance of these two nationalities.

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