In early March, The New Yorker published a fascinating report on a legal crusade to confer “personhood” on Happy the elephant to help protect her rights. The article, entitled The Elephant in the Courtroom: A curious legal crusade to redefine personhood is raising profound questions about the interdependence of the animal and human kingdoms, discusses the fierce debate over what constitutes personhood, and why that is important for legal protection. Several cases from around the world are discussed where various non-human species were granted “non-human person” rights as part of various efforts to protect them from abuse. Animals on the endangered species lists gain a few more protections as well, but they are still not considered persons and don’t enjoy the same freedoms as humans. While the legal calisthenics over which animals deserve additional consideration based on human determination of whether they are sentient or not provide an interesting intellectual exercise, there is a basic fact of science that is lost. Rather than being separate from the Animal Kingdom, humankind is part of the Animal Kingdom as any introductory biology class (based on science) makes abundantly clear. There is indeed an interdependence between various animal species, and our arrogance aside, it should not be a legal matter but a biological imperative that supports the expansion of what we call animal rights or perhaps even personhood.
Homo sapiens are mammals and are related to over 5,000 other mammalian species, and yet humans have created a society placing themselves above the rest of the Animal Kingdom as though we own every other species on the planet much like the clothes on our backs. We use our methods of communication and cognition to measure and subjugate every other species of life, or at least attempt to, rather than trying to live in harmony with the rest of nature. Even among humankind there has long been unwarranted stratification. Our U.S. history shows excruciatingly slow progress (but progress nonetheless) toward recognizing all living humans as equal under our laws, so it’s not surprising that other species are even further behind.
What do we use to justify placing ourselves above all other life on the planet? In simple terms, fiction. That fiction takes the form of all of our various societal myths as discussed in previous commentaries and book reviews including What is reality?, The God Delusion – Why limit our perception?, and Common Myths. Our common myths form the foundation of human society. Our laws codify them. The ongoing legal battles to secure non-human animal rights under the law focus on the idea of “personhood” and the means humans use to define it, yet the inconsistencies are astounding. We emphasize relationships in human terms. The key is that just because humans may not understand the communications among another species doesn’t mean those communications are absent, nor does it mean that they are any less important or worthy than our own. The societal complexities within various other species are often just as intricate and structured as our own. The irony is that at the same time non-humans are denied personhood, we grant it to non-living, fictional entities such as corporations. We are also embattled over whether fetuses, which clearly have no ability to communicate as an adult human, or even as a child who has learned to speak, write, or sign should be granted personhood while completely ignoring the rights of the human being carrying said fetus. Surely an elephant, or a dog, or a cat, or porpoise, or any number of other non-human animals have more self-awareness than a corporation or a fetus even when measured by human communication and awareness standards. And the person carrying said fetus has to have more rights than a clump of cells that isn’t yet sentient.
Humans have some remarkable abilities as a species, and using our fictive language to build narratives to encourage one another and foster extremely large-scale cooperation allows advances in understanding the world around us, but we are neither omniscient nor truly omnipotent. In our attempts to control nature, we have often caused great harm to other species with whom we share our planet. In many cases, species have become extinct due to human intervention either for pleasure or in some cases for food and materials. In other cases, other species have been driven from their habitats as humans invade and take over large areas due to human overpopulation. Humans settle in areas that destabilize the ecology of vast regions. One need look no further than the formerly remote areas of the state of California where massive wildfires now pose constant threats because forested regions and grasslands have been disrupted by human home building and industry and can no longer maintain their natural regenerative cycles.
From the standpoint of growth, humans have been too successful, and overpopulation is a serious problem worldwide. The startling thing with respect to the growth of human populations is that as a species, we have the intellectual understanding and the technology to limit or even stop our growth and reach a steady state. Humans are one of the few species equipped to do this voluntarily, but instead of taking a responsible approach, we fight over forcing more humans to be born even when they are unwanted, the life or health of the mother is in jeopardy, or the fetus if taken to term would face painful trauma throughout its life. The only possible reason for such cruelty with respect to human reproduction is to punish women. And that cruelty also hurts countless other species through our unrestrained growth, arrogance, and greed.
Based on the evidence of nature, we are not above the Animal Kingdom. As a species, we are destructive and cruel despite our impressive abilities. We can do so much more to help humanity and the rest of the Animal Kingdom of which we are a part and should work together to fix this. We have the ability, but can we find the will to look past our own noses to do so?
The Elephant in the Courtroom, by Lawrence Wright
The next frontier for the antiabortion movement: A nationwide ban
What is reality?
The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
Why limit our perception?
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
Trouble – when the story matters more than reality
A World Without Lies