Dr. Hope Ferdowsian – What is a Person?
Should animals have some of the same rights as humans? That is the question motivating “The Politics of Species,” a collection of essays edited by Raymond Corbey and Annette Lanjouw. It’s a trick question, and the trick, of course, lies in the fact that humans are animals, sharing as much as 97% of our DNA with chimpanzees, and as much as 60% with the humble fruit fly – and all but an insignificant fraction with any other human on the planet.
Recognition of this fact came very late in history. Traditionally, as David Livingstone Smith writes, “it has been quite common for people to count all and only members of their own ethnic group as human beings.” Equality among the races was a radical notion as late as the 18th century, and it took the Second World War before it became a universal value, in principle if not always in practice. But as Raymond Corbey notes, the very document that institutionalizes the civilized world’s rejection of racism – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 – drew a firm distinction between humans, who have rights, and animals, who do not. In that way it inadvertently promulgated what he calls “speciesism,” the elevation of one particular species – ours, naturally – above all others on Earth. Will future generations someday look back on our era’s treatment on non-human animals and wonder, as we do now about slavery and genocide, how could they do this?
Let’s consider our family. That is, the family Hominidae, which includes, besides us, the other great apes: the chimpanzee and the closely related bonobo, two species of gorillas native to Central Africa and two of orangutan, the large ape that lives in Southeast Asia. Together with the other family Hylobatidae (Gibbons and Siamangs), we constitute the Superfamily Hominoidea, or, apes. That is one branch of the order primates, which includes monkeys, baboons, lemurs and related species. In The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins’ marvelous recasting of evolution as a backwards walk through time [link],we learn that humans share a common ancestor with chimps about 6 million years ago, with gorillas 7 million and orangutans 14 million. So they are our cousins, albeit distant ones, which explains the slightly uneasy fascination they evoke, when we see them up close in zoos. They are like us, but they are not us. How are we alike, and different?
They are, obviously, intelligent, social animals, who use tools, communicate and maintain complex, stable social relationships. “As a philosopher going into a Bornean forest [to observe orangutans], I came with a healthy dose of skepticism,” writes Kristin Andrews. But “in only a few hours I saw things that looked like social learning, joint attention, declarative showing, surprise, imitation, relationships and lots of play.” Crucially, all the great ape species, including humans past the age of about 18 months, pass the “mirror test1 of recognizing their own reflections. Chimpanzees, according to Steven Wise, who has brought a lawsuit to have them declared as “persons” (section 2) “understand abstract symbols, construct complicated societies, transmit culture…and engage in such complicated mental operations as deception, pretending, imitation, and insightful solving of difficult problems.” When you put it like that, what actually separates them from us, other than our technology?
Well, one unanswered question is whether apes, or any non-human animals, have what philosophers call “theory of mind” – the recognition that another sentient being has a mental state and point of view that may differ from one’s own. Psychologists have invented many ingenious experiments to answer this question, often involving what are called “false belief” tests2. “Theory of mind” has been held out as the gold standard of self-consciousness, and a bright line that separates human intelligence from that of other animals. But both Andrews and Daniel Hutto argue that’s setting an unrealistically high bar for the other apes – or, indeed, for humans, who can function perfectly well in society according to simple rules of behavior, without invoking a full-blown hypothesis about what other people are thinking.
But if any family of animals deserves moral consideration due to their similarity with humans, it is the other apes. And few have suffered as much at human hands. In the wild, all the great apes are endangered – hunted for bushmeat, dependent on shrinking and occasionally war-torn habitat. In captivity, they have been infected with HIV, hepatitis B and C and assorted other viruses, for research meant to benefit human beings, not them. Animals “experience pain and discomfort associated with disease,” Hope Ferdowsian and Chong Choe write. A whole roster of psychological disorders can result, including “lethargy, depression, anorexia, sleep disturbances and enhanced sensitivity to pain. This is particularly relevant to the use of animals in research, since diseases are commonly induced in non-human animals to model human diseases.”
It is precisely their likeness to humans that makes them useful experimental subjects – but also “demands greater justification for their use,” said Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health in announcing that the use of chimps for research would be phased out. [link] Just the day before Thanksgiving, the same day he pardoned the Presidential turkey, President Obama signed a bill that will allow all but 50 or so of the several hundred chimps still owned by the National Institutes of Health to be retired to sanctuaries. To state the obvious, animals cannot consent to their use in research, and humans in a similar situation – such as children – have numerous protections in the law against their exploitation for research. And surely, even if one believes that inflicting pain on animals in research is justified by the goal of saving lives, the same cannot be said of using them for entertainment in circuses, movies and TV shows. As infants, they are dragged “kicking and screaming,” as Anjelica Huston explains, away from their mothers and forced to perform for cameras, often under the threat of punishment from their handlers. The movie industry characterizes them as “props,” as if they had no more feelings than a lamp or a telephone. [link] Fortunately, advances in CGI (computer-generated imagery) have the potential of making live-animal filming obsolete. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the newest installment in the series, was shot, at the insistence of director Rupert Wyatt, without any actual animals at all. [link]
And even in the best of zoos, as Lucy Birkett and William McGrew demonstrate, chimpanzees exhibit symptoms of what we would call mental illness in humans, including self-mutilation, repetitive rocking and pacing, feces-eating and incest. “Wild chimpanzees,” they write, “have the freedom to choose their companions, mates and home ranges. They choose when, where and what to eat…and they range widely over varied landscapes and habitat types.” In contrast, “zoo chimpanzees face the chronic presence of human observers and restrictive human management of most aspects of their lives.” They live in unnatural social groupings and cannot forage, hunt or build their own nests, as they would in the wild. They are, of course, fed regularly, safe from predators and are treated if they get sick. But captivity is captivity. Would any human animal choose to live that way?
1. The “mirror test” is used to determine whether an animal displays awareness of itself as a distinct individual. It involves marking the animal in a way that is visible only in a mirror and watching to see if the animal examines the mark. Animals known to pass the test include humans (above the age of 18 months), the other great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants and European magpies.
2. There are many variations of this test, but one basic version involves an experimenter, a human confederate, and a subject – a child, or an animal. In view of the confederate and the subject the experimenter hides an object in a box. The confederate then leaves the room, and as the subject watches, the experimenter moves the object to another hidden location. When the confederate returns, the subject is tested (either verbally, with children, or non-verbally, with animals) to determine if he understands that the confederate possesses a false belief about the location of the object.