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Elephants are people, too.
September 4, 2002 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Elephants are people, too. A new book by Steven M. Wise, Drawing the Line, marshalls the latest research on animal cognition in arguing for legal rights for some animals, especially gorillas, chimps, elephants, and gray parrots. The author's previous book, Rattling the Cage, forcused on primates, as many researchers and animal rights activists do. After all, we share at least 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. Other researchers are expanding our knowledge of animal cognition in the octopus, dolphins, even dogs. See also: Next of Kin and When Elephants Weep.
posted by acridrabbit (40 comments total)

 
After all, we share at least 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees.

What does this have to do with legal rights? This is, at best, a non sequitur -- unless you can make the explicit argument that legal status is determined by degree of genetic similitude to humans.
posted by argybarg at 10:50 AM on September 4, 2002


argybarg, my statement was that researchers have focused studies of animal cognition on primates, due to genetic similarities between us and them.

~

Personally, I don't believe we'll see much in the way of legal rights for animals anytime soon. It's obvious that we humans have a hard enough time giving rights to members of our own species.

As the author of the Salon article says, "Only if and when enough people decide that it's morally -- "philosophically" -- wrong to treat animals the way we do, and then translate those beliefs into political action, will there be hope for the sort of sweeping change Wise advocates."
posted by acridrabbit at 10:53 AM on September 4, 2002


acridrabbit:

Fair enough. A misreading on my part. Still, as I understand it, there's tremendous overlap in the DNA among all animals -- lots of seemingly redundant "code," and lots of fairly universal basic-life functions.

I don't think that a determination to treat animals well has to come out of a legal basis or a biological proof -- we ought to be concerned about our own sanity, if nothing else, and massive, arbitrary destruction of life is a harbinger of insanity. And understanding the (sometimes alien) way animals feel and experience life is a crucial point of access to our own experience of being alive.

It's something I value too highly to want it to become an artifact of the legal system.
posted by argybarg at 10:59 AM on September 4, 2002


"Only if and when enough people decide that it's morally -- 'philosophically' -- wrong to treat animals the way we do, and then translate those beliefs into political action, will there be hope for the sort of sweeping change Wise advocates."

I disagree. No cognitive or ethical revolution need come to pass. All people, at some level, already know it is sinful to treat animals (and our fellow humans) as we do. The problem exists in the shameful disconnection between our behavior and our knowledge of right and wrong.

Laziness -- the single best synonym I know for evil -- lies at the heart of man's cruel use of animals.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 11:08 AM on September 4, 2002


The problem exists in the shameful disconnection between our behavior and our knowledge of right and wrong.

beautifully spoken and so true, fold...

I wonder if we'll ever get to a point (when all humans are given the same rights) where we could even begin to consider giving animals those rights.
posted by amberglow at 11:16 AM on September 4, 2002


Beautiful links, acidrabbit. Thank you.

Anyone familiar with "Elephant Orphanages" knows just how "human"* elephants are:

Stressed baby elephants are very fragile," Sheldrick explains. "Often they have witnessed the death of their families at the hands of ivory poachers or irate farmers whose crops have been trampled. The baby elephants are so devastated with grief that some die of a broken heart."

Orphans require much attention from their human caretakers, including touch, physical play and mudbaths. It's the absolute equivalent of drawing a terribly traumatized child back out into the world. It's always been an unattainable dream of mine to pack it up and volunteer on an orphanage like Sheldrick or Pinnawela . (Pinnawela also here.)

argybarg, fold_and, thanks too for your comments. I was afraid this would degenerate (again) into a debate on whether animals are cognitively equal to humans (and therefore "deserving of rights.")

(*...and what's so great about calling an animal "human"? I don't know that it is a compliment.)
posted by Shane at 11:19 AM on September 4, 2002


"Laziness -- the single best synonym I know for evil..."

Yikes, that's a scary sentiment. Laziness isn't remotely a synonym of evil. Evil is doing bad things. Good is doing good things. Laziness is usually doing nothing. Sometimes, that's good, sometimes it's bad. But watch most other large mammals and you'll realize that laziness is pretty much standard behavior.
posted by callmejay at 11:32 AM on September 4, 2002


Rights are a political construct - no matter what we'd like to believe, there is no such thing as god-given rights. What rights do you have in the desert, or in the middle of the ocean? What rights can be exercised by the passengers in a bus that has just gone off a cliff? Living in our republic, we have agreed through our constitution that some rights are important enough to assume that we should all have them... and in return for that compact, we agree to certain responsibilities, primarily among them to not violate the aforementioned rights and to abide by various laws. Cognition in and of itself has nothing to do with it

Until animals start taking up some responsibilities, it's ludicrous to discuss their rights. They simply don't have any. HOWEVER, this does not mean that they should be treated without due care, without compassion, or with cruelty. It is our jobs as humans to see to the careful husbandry of animals. In this, I too agree with fold_and_mutilate.

Next to laziness, I might add "narcissism" to the root of cruelty and evil.
posted by UncleFes at 11:32 AM on September 4, 2002


I posted this (lots of good links included!) back in another discussion about animal intelligence.

Perhaps we should look at it another way: Instead of describing animals as like humans, we should describe humans as a type of animal. Which is, of course, true. Humans are no better evolutionarily, only a certain branch of a certain branch of a certain branch of the tree of evolution.

Based on this, I say that humans are deserving of the same rights as animals, and humans had better check and correct what those rights are very quickly.
posted by The Michael The at 11:36 AM on September 4, 2002


Laziness isn't remotely a synonym of evil. Laziness is usually doing nothing.

A buncha buncha maxims don't agree with you:
"Idle hands..."
"Evil progresses when good men do nothing..."
"First they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew and I did nothing..."
Etc.

I say that humans are deserving of the same rights as animals, and humans had better check and correct what those rights are very quickly.

Excellent! Or, what say we judge species by what effect they have on the Earth as a whole?
posted by Shane at 11:40 AM on September 4, 2002


we judge species by what effect they have on the Earth as a whole?

Until the chimps stop throwing their own crap at each other and get busy on a Louvre, I think we've got them beat.
posted by UncleFes at 11:57 AM on September 4, 2002


Until the chimps stop throwing their own crap at each other and get busy on a Louvre, I think we've got them beat.

Crap is biodegradable. The crap humans churn out poisons the environment for millenia.
posted by Shane at 11:59 AM on September 4, 2002


Well, not millenia. Just a couple decades, for the most part. Only a very small portion of the poisons last for millenia. And we have books.

I prefer us, poison and all. A chimp will bite your finger clean off, nasty little buggers.
posted by UncleFes at 12:04 PM on September 4, 2002


I like books too. But I can't fault the monkeys. I get the urge to throw crap at my fellow human beings all the time. ; )
posted by Shane at 12:15 PM on September 4, 2002


Laziness isn't remotely a synonym of evil.

You obviously haven't read the People of the Lie:

...The poor in spirit do not commit evil. Evil is not committed by people who feel uncertain about their righteousness, who question their own motives, who worry about betraying themselves. The evil of this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisee's of our own day, the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination. It is out of their failure to put themselves on trial that their evil arises. They are, in my experience remarkably greedy people.

...Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. The evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one's own need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection. Strangely enough, evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil. The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil. Instead of destroying others they should be destroying the sickness within themselves.
My second conclusion, then, is that evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme. As I have defined it, love is the antithesis of laziness. Ordinary laziness is a passive failure to love. Some ordinarily lazy people may not lift a finger to extend themselves unless they are compelled to do so. Their being is a manifestation of nonlove; still, they are not evil. Truly evil people, on the other hand, actively rather than passively avoid extending themselves. They will take any action in their power to protect their own laziness, to preserve the integrity of their sick self. Rather than nurturing others, they will actually destroy others in thes cause. If necessary, they will even kill to escape the pain of their own spiritual growth. As the integrity of their sick self is threatened by the spiritual health of those around them, they will seek by all manner of means to crush and demolish the spiritual health that may exist near them. I define evil, then, as the exercise of political power---that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion---in order to avoid extending one’s self for the purpose of nurturing spiritual growth. Ordinary laziness is nonlove; evil is antilove.


I have my reservations about M. Scott Peck but I can't fault him for the words quoted above.
posted by y2karl at 12:26 PM on September 4, 2002


their lives are sacrificed in the sacred name of experimental science, which often is nothing but a euphemism for cruelty and brings no valid results except to boost the careers of men and women in white coats.

Um, what?
posted by delmoi at 12:32 PM on September 4, 2002


The Michael The: Thank you for pointing to that previous thread. Some interesting comments there.
posted by acridrabbit at 12:36 PM on September 4, 2002


y2karl:

That dosn't mean that lazyness is evil, but rather that evil is caused by a spesifc kind of lazyness (intelectual lazyness). You can still be very intelectualy lazy and not do anything evil.

If you were "good" to begin with then you could stay good without any spirital growth, even if you sat on your ass reading mefi and fark all day.
posted by delmoi at 12:41 PM on September 4, 2002


We are all made of the same chemistry, animal and man. But animals have characteristics that modern man wants, or would like to have. Have you ever wondered what technologies we would have never thought of inventing if not for them? Using an animal as a model when developing a technology like flight, we knew it was possible because of birds. So without animals would we have created sonar, radar… , for our use, too? No, I'm not for animal rights yet being cruel is cruel, so be a model of a human by showing respect for them as you do for yourself, and others.

Ps, y2karl, did you use word, for your comment then cut & paste? Because when I did, then I used the spell check here, I had squares on preview.
posted by thomcatspike at 12:54 PM on September 4, 2002


...their lives are sacrificed in the sacred name of experimental science, which often is nothing but a euphemism for cruelty and brings no valid results except to boost the careers of men and women in white coats.

Um, what?


Um, YES.
posted by Shane at 12:59 PM on September 4, 2002


I disagree. No cognitive or ethical revolution need come to pass. All people, at some level, already know it is sinful to treat animals (and our fellow humans) as we do. The problem exists in the shameful disconnection between our behavior and our knowledge of right and wrong.

Don't be silly. Morality is learned. Nobody knows right and wrong when they're born. The idea that "all people" know something is "sinful" is ludicrous when the very concept of sin must be taught.
posted by kindall at 1:14 PM on September 4, 2002


Morality is learned.

I disagree. But that's a philosophical argument worth several books, maybe starting with Aristotle and Nichomachean Ethics. I'm not goin' there today.
posted by Shane at 1:19 PM on September 4, 2002


Elephants are people, too.

And like some people, some elephants are artists too!
posted by homunculus at 1:32 PM on September 4, 2002


I'm kind of inclined to think that morality is an outgrowth of our emotional reactions to thinks and behaviors in our environment. In that sense, it's innate rather than learned.

However, I think what we do with our moral instincts is certainly learned.
posted by Fenriss at 2:23 PM on September 4, 2002


er... things or behaviors.
posted by Fenriss at 2:25 PM on September 4, 2002


as I understand it, there's tremendous overlap in the DNA among all animals

...actually there's a hell of a lot of overlap in the DNA of everything that has DNA. There's a lot of basic code for cell structure, replication, and production of the basic building blocks of life, that everything leverages.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 3:33 PM on September 4, 2002


i would love to see animals afforded rights of some kind, particularly as a step up from 'property'. i find it reprehensible that someone can get a similar sentence for stealing and destroying a car as for torturing some families pet to death. i know that we, as humans, are way too self possessed and insecure to ever elevate an animal to the same level as ourselves, nor do i really believe that would be wholly appropriate. Animals are not people, they are different, but they do deserve better than being listed as a commodity.

Unfortunately i don't think that is ever going to happen.
posted by quin at 4:22 PM on September 4, 2002


So if morality is innate, can we hold an animal accountable for a crime it could have committed?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:23 PM on September 4, 2002


i would love to see animals afforded rights of some kind, particularly as a step up from 'property'.

Unfortunately there is no way to justify this in a rational system of ethics. We have a rule against murdering people because it would be an intolerable world if everyone felt free to murder. There is no way, however, to get animals to abide by any such rule, so therefore they are free to murder while we are prohibited from doing so. The very idea of calling an animal attack on a human "murder" is ludicrous, of course, which only highlights the impossibility of incorporating animals into human ethical systems. Our ethical systems are really designed for guiding us in interactions with our equals, not with our inferiors. Reason falls down badly, and we have nothing else to fall back on but emotion, which is a piss-poor substitute for actual thought.

I get the distinct impression that most people who attempt to construct "rights" for animals are merely rationalizing their gut reactions. It is not wrong to react with visceral disgust to seeing an animal abused, or to the very idea of such an act, but it is an error to confuse the intensity of an emotional reaction with a moral imperative.

I am not saying that it is right to, say, torture an animal. I am saying that the strongest case that can be made for it under a rational system of ethics is probably that you shouldn't do it because it will cause your fellow humans emotional distress. This is a pretty weak case, considering that we don't generally allow restrictions on, say, speech merely because they might cause someone distress; instead, we also consider the benefit to society of that speech (saying "Joe is a liar" is of great social benefit if it is true, even if it causes Joe much distress). And by that benchmark, killing or torturing animals can in many cases be of great benefit to human society, so we as a society feel free to overlook any distress it causes some humans.

And that pretty much, I think, explains where we are today, and where we will be for the forseeable future -- and why.

i find it reprehensible that someone can get a similar sentence for stealing and destroying a car as for torturing some families pet to death

This is a strawman; nearly all localities have explicit laws against this sort of animal abuse, if only because most people get more attached to their pets than to their cars and are correspondingly more distressed about their demise.
posted by kindall at 5:35 PM on September 4, 2002


i always though whales were pretty smart for some reason (esp after watching star trek IV :) do not piss off teh humpback whales!
posted by kliuless at 5:41 PM on September 4, 2002


We have a rule against murdering people because it would be an intolerable world if everyone felt free to murder. There is no way, however, to get animals to abide by any such rule, so therefore they are free to murder while we are prohibited from doing so.

But we are allowed, even encouraged, to murder in self-defense, in war, etc., and let's not forget that whole eating meat thing. Aren't most (by most, I mean the vast majority of) animal murders (that is, animals killing other animals, humans included) for food or for defense of self, property, or territory? Hmm... humans and animals aren't so different.

I get the distinct impression that most people who attempt to construct "rights" for animals are merely rationalizing their gut reactions. It is not wrong to react with visceral disgust to seeing an animal abused, or to the very idea of such an act, but it is an error to confuse the intensity of an emotional reaction with a moral imperative.

The error part is true, but why not construct "rights" for animals just as they are constructed for humans, that is, in a continuous construction for all animals, humans included. Hence: a uniform code for all animals (including humans). Yes, you too. And me. Like I said before. Thus there is no error because animal rights are a moral imperative and not a mere emotional reaction.

I never used to think this way (me before: "nuke the whales!"), but having studied evolution and where humans fit into nature, I really think that we're nothing special. Perhaps we can reason and have these nifty opposable thumbs and bipedal upright motion, but biologically, we're just animals like kangaroos, wolves, trout, and chimps. Like Bloodhound Gang said... something about you and me and mammals...
posted by The Michael The at 6:15 PM on September 4, 2002


This is a strawman; nearly all localities have explicit laws against this sort of animal abuse

[winces] It wasn't meant to be, i was just trying to draw a parallel based on the sentence length. That said i still believe that criminal acts of violence against animals is woefully under-punished.
posted by quin at 6:35 PM on September 4, 2002


Unclefes wrote:

Until animals start taking up some responsibilities, it's ludicrous to discuss their rights. They simply don't have any.

And I say:

How could an animal take up responsibilities? Is the idea of their rights somehow connected to their intelligence? If so, then what about retarded people? Seriously, what about the mentally handicapped? Should they not have any rights either?

Just because something can't do calculus or build a fire or a helicopter, that doesn't mean that it can't FEEL.
posted by geekhorde at 2:16 AM on September 5, 2002


Not to mention all the animals who have lots of responsibility: burros in the Grand Canyon, guide dogs and police dogs, canaries in coal mines... You could argue that all our companion animals have taken up responsibilities.

Okay, I'm being a little facetious.
posted by acridrabbit at 5:39 AM on September 5, 2002


I get the distinct impression that most people who attempt to construct "rights" for animals are merely rationalizing their gut reactions.

I am saying that the strongest case that can be made for it under a rational system of ethics is probably that you shouldn't do it because it will cause your fellow humans emotional distress.


But all notions of Human Rights are also based on "abstract" ideas of goodness and equality and freedom. Can you really tell me why you deserve the rights you experience as a human? Is there some causal principle of physics that generates your own right to live free and unabused?
posted by Shane at 5:53 AM on September 5, 2002


Stephen Wise gets a lot of press, but his "sliding scale" is an unhelpful intellectualization of what is clearly a moral question. That question, how far we can or should go in ascribing "rights" to animals, is most succinctly and compellingly covered in Gary Francione's Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? Francione points out (as did fold_and_mutilate) that we all already know, and agree, that inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals is wrong. What we don't agree on is whether to do anything about it, given that such suffering is entwined with much of our lifestyle. Some people do something (alter their lifestyle) while others are ... lazier.
posted by soyjoy at 10:30 AM on September 5, 2002


I read When Elephants Weep over the summer. Very interesting discussion of emotion in animals. The authors recognize that the greatest challenge in research into animal emotion is to avoid anthropomorphizing animals--concluding that an animal is feeling a certain emotion because we would feel that emotion in their place, then reading that emotion into the actions of the animal. On the other hand, they also make a good case that it is very easy for those critical of such studies to level charges of anthropomorphizing, when such charges are not warranted. They do their best to address the issue of possible anthropomorphization in the cases they present--not always successfully, I think, but successful enough to make it thought-provoking.

Reading the book has presented a real moral dilemma to me as far as eating meat. Has the book absolutely convinced me that some animals are sentient? Absolutely not. Has it made me suspect that some animals (especially all mammals) are sentient? Yes. And, intellectually, I feel that it is wrong to eat animals which I so much as suspect may be sentient. Yet, I have not stopped eating meat--I'm so used to it that it would be very hard to give up. I sympathize with Thomas Jefferson, who from his writing seems to have been intellectually opposed to slavery, yet unable to give up the lifestyle that owning slaves allowed him to have. Am I morally weak because I feel I should stop eating meat (at least that of mammals) but have not done so?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:12 AM on September 5, 2002


Should a cat be put on trial for murdering a mouse?

Where do we draw the line on rights?

What do rights consist of?

(dangling preposition)
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:35 PM on September 5, 2002


Is there some causal principle of physics that generates your own right to live free and unabused?

Well, not of physics but of metaphysics: I can think. If you tell an elephant he has rights, what would he think about that?
posted by kindall at 3:29 PM on September 5, 2002


If you tell an elephant he has rights, what would he think about that?

Might depend on whether you tell him in a language he understands.
posted by FeetOfClay at 8:41 PM on September 5, 2002


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