Animal Personhood In The Age Of Empathy

If corporations get to count as people in the eyes of the law, why not dolphins and chimpanzees — or entire ecosystems, for that matter?
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    Animal rights took a huge leap forward late last month when India’s environmental ministry ruled that dolphins could not be held in captivity due to their intelligence and apparent self-awareness. Indeed, by terming dolphins “non-human persons,” India’s version of the Environmental Protection Agency has opened not just a new chapter in how the second-most populous country on Earth treats animals, but reopened a debate on man’s vision of himself as master of the natural world.

    This giant leap forward for Flipper-kind comes, as so much progress does these days, from the world of scientific research. In February of 2010, for instance, biologists convened for a panel discussion on cetacean – i.e. dolphins and whales – intelligence and its implications for public policy during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. There, researchers summed up the extensive scientific evidence on these creatures self-awareness for the scientific community.

    Science demonstrated, said these researchers, that dolphins and whales exhibited all the characteristics of personhood that humans do. Bottlenose dolphins, for instance, have very large brains – about 300 grams larger than humans – and have a larger brain-to-body-weight ratio than most apes. Moreover, the dolphin neocortex, where most higher-order functions are located in the human brain, is very large and well developed, and even includes neural formations that, in humans and apes, are linked to emotion, social cognition and something psychologists call “theory of mind” – the ability to understand and act upon what others might be thinking.

    As a result of this impressive brainpower, dolphin behavior is recognized by scientists as being extraordinarily complex. They recognize themselves in mirrors – something very few animal species can do – as well as understand complex gestures, use tools, and communicate desires and intentions to human handlers, say scientists. In the wild, dolphins have been shown even to engage in a form of cetacean politics whereby genetically unrelated males form long-term alliances for purposes of hunting and mate acquisition. Huge groups of contending dolphin alliances, each with hundreds of individual members, have been well documented by researchers. All this points to a creature that is very self-aware and intelligent – at least as intelligent as young human children.


    Chimps know about ‘justice,’ and other mind-blowing discoveries

    A similar level of cognitive ability and self-awareness has also been widely demonstrated in other large-brained social animals as well. Our closest evolutionary cousins – chimpanzees and bonobos – whom both share about 97 or 98 percent of our genetic code, exhibit traits which are eerily… human.

    These creatures are not only highly intelligent – chimpanzee two-year-olds are easily smarter than a human two-year-old – but also exhibit “higher-order characteristics” that look very much like the human concepts of fair play, justice and morality.

    More fascinating still, culture and tool use have also been widely observed in wild chimpanzees and bonobos by field primatologists. Chimpanzee troops, for instance, can be differentiated according to whether they use a stick to fish for termites or hunt for monkeys, or if they use different types of rocks to crack open nuts.

    Then, most famously, there are those apes and gorillas held in captivity that have been taught to communicate either through human sign language or via pictographic symbols. All this suggests that when compared to human intelligence, dolphin and ape cognition differs only in degree, not in kind, from that which is found in our own species.


    Declaration of Cetacean Rights

    But, one might ask, does all this make dolphins, whales and our great-ape cousins, “people”? Do they deserve rights? If so, how should we go about providing them and what are the implications for human society? At present, very few outside the animal liberation movement, progressive legal scholars and some members of the scientific community are willing to go as far as demanding full legal rights and stronger protections for these creatures, though there have been some efforts to do so.

    Prior to the Indian environmental ministry’s decision on dolphins, for instance, a group of researchers convinced of cetacean sentience met in Helsinki, Finland in May 2010 to issue a Declaration of Cetacean Rights that argued that, on the principle of equal treatment of all persons, the rights of cetaceans included the right to live in their natural environment, to do so free from human interference and ownership, and that said rights should be respected and protected by the full weight of domestic and international law. No such declaration has been made for non-human apes as of yet, but the ratcheting down of biomedical research on primates and growing awareness of their cognitive abilities by the public at large may eventually lead to a similar movement.

    More critically, some legal scholars have begun to push this argument by suggesting that non-humans — even entire ecosystems — could have legal standing as persons and thus rights that the state should protect. In August of 2012, for example, the New Zealand government granted the country’s third-largest river, the Whanganui, legal standing as a person much as a corporation enjoys legal standing as a person with rights that can be defended in court.


    Ecological personhood

    In the United States, meanwhile, a famous 1972 Supreme Court case – Sierra Club v. Morton – opened the door to such giving legal standing to animals, plants and ecosystems in much the same way. In an oft-cited dissent in that case, Justice William Douglas opined that since inanimate objects – such as ships and corporations – are commonly recognized as legal entities, so too should “valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, or even the air.”

    More from Justice Douglas’ dissent:

    The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes — fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water — whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger — must be able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction.

    The provision of personhood rights to animals like dolphins and the great apes is thus not a concept that is completely new nor at odds with present legal theory. As Justice Douglas pointed out in 1972, if ships and corporations are commonly and uncontroversially considered “people” by our legal system, then it stands to reason that self-aware creatures that approach and surpass human children in intelligence ought to deserve protection under the law as well.


    Conclusion: overcoming prejudices

    To be accepted by the public, however, animal rights of this sort would have to overturn millennia of human thinking that places mankind far above animal kind in a great “chain of being” that places humans on top with a divine mandate to have dominion over the “beasts of the land and the fish of the sea.

    Reason and the extension of our innate empathy towards others – two legacies of our evolutionary past which are by far humans’ greatest biological assets – may now be in the process of overturning this long-held, religiously-inspired belief system. As our civilization has grown more advanced, technological mastery of the elements and the satiation of human survival needs it has wrought in places like the modern West have allowed a slow, steady expansion of our empathic impulse towards those not like ourselves. Amongst humans, this movement has created the modern “rights” movements that have overturned ancient, often divinely-inspired, social prejudices.

    Now, however, this impulse is turning towards nature itself.  Our moral universe – primed by evolved empathy and fueled by modern technology  – has expanded to encompass the entire Earth. We not only care about what happens to people on the other side of the planet, but to everything on it as well – even dolphins, apes, rocks and trees. We may now be evolving into an empathic civilization that does not view humanity as inherently separate and divinely superior to nature, but a uniquely powerful part of it.

    Indeed, this newfound power gives us the ability to affect the planet in ways that rival that of an Old Testament God. Even God, however, evolved over time – transforming from the cruel, tyrannical, ethnocentric despot found in Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus into the kind, empathic Supreme Being found in Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. As humans gain more technological mastery over our physical environment one hopes that, for Nature’s sake as well as our own, we begin to act as creatures formed in the image of something more like the latter deity.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

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