Sadly, “Star Trek” and “Transformers” lead us astray.
When it comes to science fiction and even fantasy, writers tend to describe higher-thinking organisms as “sentient” and therefore people in their own right. “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings!” However, “sentient” means merely that the organism is capable of feeling; a dog, a rat, and even a wood tick are all sentient.
Anything that has senses, that can feel, is “sentient.” The Martian blob reacts to various painful stimuli; it appears to be sentient.
Anything that possesses higher cognitive functions is “sapient.” When we came upon the squid-city on the ocean floor, we learned that this species was actually sapient!
Sentient is senses; sapient is from the Latin sapiens, meaning wisdom. Homo sapiens is the thinking man.
I’ll admit to sharing this misconception. But I’m not sure Star Trek and Transformers are directly responsible. When those shows use the word “sentient,” it’s typically to make the distinction between intelligent life and unliving artificial intelligence.
For example, “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings” uses “sentient” to indicate that the right is owed to humans and thinking, feeling robots but not lifeless machines like toasters and such. I suppose technically Optimus Prime’s credo advocates freedom for frogs and and bears and stuff. But given the context of Transformers, I can see why the line is more concerned with establishing organic life is not the only source of sentience.
Similarly, when Star Trek brings up the topic of sentience, it’s usually because the crew is trying to determine whether some android or computer is truly alive or merely a sophisticated Turing machine. Is the gizmo trying to take over the ship alive—can it perceive its place in the universe—or is it just really smart? Sapience only becomes a question when dealing with organic critters, and when said critters reveal they can communicate, Star Trek prefers to just use the term intelligence.
But like I said, I’ve made the mistake of confusing these terms. So yeah, I’ll try to keep the distinction in mind. Bumblebee and Captain Kirk are both sapient and sentient; Teletraan I and the Enterprise computer are sapient but not sentient; and Data’s cat is sentient but not sapient.