Annette Lanjouw – An Animal Bill of Rights?
When he died in 2007, Alex, an African Grey Parrot who had been raised and trained for 30 years by the psychologist Irene Pepperberg, had a vocabulary of more than 100 words, which he could use correctly in context to form simple sentences. He could count and add up to eight, identify seven colors and five shapes, and understood concepts such as “same,” “different,” “bigger,” “smaller” and “none.” He evinced emotions including frustration, boredom, regret and love. [link]
Crows can use as many as three different tools in correct sequence to get a piece of food. Bees routinely compute the shortest route among numerous sources of pollen, a problem that taxes even the fastest computers. Octopuses recognize human faces and prefer some people to others, can learn by observation, and will play with a floating ball by squirting jets of water to move it around their tank, evidently just for the fun of it. [link]
When we consider extending the mantle of personhood to non-human animals, we begin, naturally, with our own family, the apes. The next step would be to include the larger group of primates (which includes monkeys) and other terrestrial mammals, such as dogs, cats and horses. On further reflection we may include marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales. That still leaves out, to name a few, birds, reptiles, fishes, and the entire invertebrate class, including worms, mollusks and insects – the great majority of species on Earth, in fact. Many are smarter than most people realize.
The octopus is a particularly striking example, because it is unexpected to find intelligence in a creature so distant from us. Anatomically, not only is its body wholly unlike ours, its brain is barely recognizable as the same structure we carry in our heads; it appears that a large part of its nervous-system function is decentralized, dispersed along the tentacles. Evolutionarily, its lineage (mollusks) diverged from ours more than a half-billion years ago, which means it evolved its intelligence independently of ours. The driving force behind primate intelligence is a subject of much debate, but it likely had something to do with the need to communicate, coordinate, and maintain hierarchies among social groups. But in the octopus, which is a solitary animal, it must have served a very different purpose, and its intelligence, although considerable, must be very unlike ours.
But perhaps our focus on intelligence misses the point. Intelligence is important to humans, obviously, but other animals do perfectly well without much of it, at least of the kind we can observe and measure. In her essay, “The Rights of Sentient Beings,” the writer Joan Dunayer argues that the emphasis on human-like qualities such as intelligence and communication represents a kind of bias she calls “new speciesism.” The “old speciesism” drew a hard line between humans and all other animals, which were outside the circle of moral concern. It is a distinction that is difficult to justify, except by reference to the Bible. At the individual level, she writes, it is difficult to specify any criterion that reliably separates all humans (including infants, the mentally handicapped, and sociopaths) from all non-humans, some of whom display high levels of intelligence, sociability and compassion. An alien visitor to Earth might question why the standard of morality should be the species that routinely kills other animals as a sport, not just for food.
What Dunayer calls “new speciesism” is the superficially more enlightened attitude of extending certain privileges to a handful of species, primarily mammals chosen on the basis of intelligence or emotional kinship. That would bring in apes and monkeys, whales and dolphins, elephants and domesticated cats and dogs. But it excludes virtually every other living creature. Those who hold this view rest it on such distinctions as the capacity for abstract thought or complex communication. But on what basis, other than our human prejudice, should those be the criteria for deciding whether an animal lives or dies? “[A] capacity for abstract thought doesn’t signify a happier or more valuable life,” Dunayer writes. “Is the pleasure that a dog feels running through a meadow, a lizard feels basking in the sun, a condor feels soaring at a great height or a human feels smelling a rose, more or less than the pleasure a human experiences formulating a theorem?” Nor are humans uniquely sensitive to suffering. Many non-humans experience intense fear and grief, and of course pain. It has been estimated that the sensitivity to touch of the skin of a trout is akin to the human cornea. Any creature with a brain – or even a primitive nervous system – is putatively sentient, meaning it is capable of sensing and reacting to stimuli, such as being dropped alive into a pot of boiling water. “Freedom from deprivation and pain is no more relevant to humans than to any other sentient beings,” she writes. “The same is true of a right to life…For protection against humans, all sentient beings need legal rights, including a right to life.”
Putting those principles to perhaps the ultimate test, cultural anthropologist Eben Kirksey seeks communion with Ectatomma ruidum, a common ant native to Central and South America. It is distinguished, he writes, by the appearance of a very un-ant-like sense of altruism. Ectatomma colonies share food windfalls with their neighbors. While most ant species defend their nests ferociously, killing intruders on contact, Ectatomma sometimes leaves nests unguarded, permitting entry to members of neighboring, or even distant, colonies. “Introducing ants from other colonies, I found that they were often bitten at first…with time, I found the strangers were sometimes adopted – enlisted into the social world of the colony.” Kirksey takes issue with the conventional view of ant colonies, as a “superorganism” of interchangeable, genetically identical automatons, engaged in a mindless struggle to outcompete their neighbors. “I suggest,” he writes, “that Ectatomma colonies might be understood as ensembles of individuals – associations composed of conscious agents who are entangled with other beings through relations of reciprocity, accountability, as well as kinship.”
So be careful where you step.