“I am relentlessly naturalistic” – Barbara J. King – Animal Author & Advocate – Sentientism Episode 100!

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.

Barbara is emerita professor of anthropology at William & Mary and a freelance science writer and public speaker. The author of seven books, including the new Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, Barbara focuses on animal emotion and cognition, the ethics of our relationships with animals, and the evolutionary history of language, culture, and religion. Her book How Animals Grieve has been translated into 7 languages and her TED talk on animal love and grief has now received over 3 million views.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple and here elsewhere.

We discuss:

00:00 Welcome

01:39 Barbara’s Intro

  • Biological anthropology, animal advocacy & writing
  • 28 years in academia then freelance science writing & speaking
  • Animal cognition & animal-human relationships
  • Watching Jane Goodall & Dian Fossey go from scholarship to advocacy… doing fieldwork with apes…
  • “Soon it became clear I wanted to work for animals as well as on animals”

05:05 What’s Real?

  • Growing up in New Jersey
  • Raised Presbyterian, sent to church & sunday school
  • “It wasn’t really part of my identity”, more background & community
  • “My parents didn’t question that there was a god, that god was… in charge of us.”
  • “I fell into that… & then came college”
  • First person in the family to go to college. “I arrived with my Bible – within 2 or 3 semesters that was kind of exploded”
  • Taking theology & pre-med classes
  • Agnostic then atheist
  • Choosing evolution & science
  • Mum at 88: “I wonder if what I thought all those years is really true… is there a god?”
  • “I was never particularly interested in reconciling religion & science”
  • Refusing money from The Templeton Foundation… “I don’t accept the claim that there’s no agenda”
  • Religious ethical problems: Homophoba, sexism, fears of hell, human dominion
  • Writing “Evolving God”. Finding the earliest roots of religious expression in non-human animal imagination/rule-following/empathy/perspective-taking
  • Jane Goodall’s claim that chimpanzees feel awe & wonder
  • The universal “religious” sense
  • Frans de Waal
  • “I think that I am relentlessly naturalistic”
  • Working with primates
  • “Concentrically my circles began to widen”
  • Realising bison, octopus, spiders are all sentient… “I briefly flirted with the idea that this was a spiritual experience”
  • Feeling awe, wonder & connection with nature
  • Watching gorillas & bison & Springsteen! & feeling “in synch”
  • “I’ve been informed by other people that I was having a spiritual experience – but no”
  • Writing “How Animals Grieve” then about farmed animals, now “Animals’ Best Friends”
  • Animal cognition. The risks of “like us” as a measure
  • Invertebrates
  • Meeting octopuses “gets me out of that human box”

29:21 What Matters & Who Matters?

  • Multi-species community & compassion
  • “Seeing each other & who needs help”
  • Kindness as a family value (including to dogs & cats)… “We’re doing this while passing around the chicken [at dinner]” & visiting zoos
  • Anthropocentrism
  • A patronising conditional compassion vs. a genuine concern for the “other”
  • Eating animals & using animals in science
  • “15 years ago I was still pretty much eating everyone”. Now “pretty close to vegan”
  • “These animals want to live”… “I can’t make sense any more of the phrase ‘humane slaughter'”
  • “The world needs to go plant-based” but we need to offer alternative proteins that are affordable & accessible
  • “If it’s not possible for the world’s people… then we’re not really talking about global food justice”
  • A supportive life partner & child helped… but struggled with food cravings
  • How can people see these crises & not act? “I’m impatient – the animals are waiting… it makes me a bit crazy”
  • “I’m not always the advocate that animals need”
  • Bio/ecocentrism?
  • “I don’t see an equivalence between plants & animals in the sense of their experience”
  • Just One Health
  • Animal free bio-medical science: “I feel that I’m working for human health as much as I am against animal cruelty”
  • “Culling is a go-to strategy so often” vs. compassionate conservation

49:55 How Can We Make a Better World?

  • “I’m an activist… I don’t have the luxury of proceeding without hope”
  • Science-based story-telling & practical changes (e.g. plant-based foods)
  • Hope in young people’s wish for suffering/death free food
  • Reducetarian?
  • “If we don’t have a habitable earth we can’t get to a lot of these other questions”
  • Education
  • Good Food Institute
  • Aysha Akhtar
  • Caring about individual victims… and it’s better for you!
  • “10 years on… a different way of being in the world”
  • The fear that welfarism/increments lead to us “getting stuck in a dead end” of ethicswashing
  • Moral purity & practical change
  • “When it comes to animals in laboratories I am done with welfarism… I am pushing for abolition”… “but with food we need to meet people where they are”
  • “This is not a sacrifice at all”
  • The social norms will shift… will purity come to play a stronger role
  • #JustTransitions
  • Recognising disability constraints and local constraints around the world
  • Campaiging with compassion
  • “The more we train ourselves to see another being’s experience, day by day, the better we are placed to make a positive difference.” If we can do that for non-humans that can only help us do the same for our fellow humans
  • Homophobia & transphobia – in a conservative Southern US community “studded with churches proclaiming that they’re a loving community.” The Gavin Grimm case.
  • “Vulnerable individuals are simply not seen… not valued”
  • “What is proclaimed to be loving kindness is a screen for what isn’t”
  • “My whole focus of where to make change is the community”
  • Human & non-human sentient issues are “meshed together”… “the intrinsic value of a being who is sentient in this world and deserves a place and deserves to flourish”
  • From humanity to sentientity?
  • Eduardo Kohn: “The world is not a meaningless one made meaningful by humans.”
  • Human power comes with responsibility
  • We are surrounded… by other lives where everything that happens matters to them as much as what happens matters to us”

Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at

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Thanks Graham for the post-production.

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