Total Drek

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Forget science, what the hell is a human?

Taking a break from the interesting conversation sparked by yesterday's post, I'd like to direct your attention to a bit of news coming to us from Europe. It appears that a very, very interesting human rights trial is in the works over there. Interesting because, in this case, the question at hand is just what it is that defines a human:

Matthew, a 26-year-old chimp, is headed to court in Europe as part of a human effort to classify him as a person.

Beyond the legal challenges, anthropologists say chimpanzees are not humans, though without a clear definition of what it means to be human, backing that claim up is a challenge perhaps fit for some great courtroom drama.

Animal rights activist and teacher Paula Stibbe, along with the Vienna-based Association Against Animal Factories (AAAF), says she wants the chimpanzee, named Matthew Hiasl Pan, declared a person. That way, Stibbe says she can become the primate's legal guardian if the bankrupt animal sanctuary where Matthew lives closes. (Under Austrian law, only humans are entitled to have guardians.)

The appeal has been filed in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The case comes after Austria's Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling in January, which rejected a request to appoint the chimp with a legal guardian. The rulings did not address whether a chimpanzee could be declared a person.


Now, this case may strike some of you as ridiculous, but I want you to hang in there, because it's quite the opposite. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, they share a wide variety of traits in common with us including tool use, some communication, sociability, and a propensity for intra-species violence. That last similarity isn't really to our credit or theirs but, in perfect honesty, I suspect that any species as advanced as ours will almost certainly exhibit the same tendency. At the same time, however, most of us probably react to this story in a fairly predictable way:

"Granted, chimpanzees show many similarities with us as humans," said John Mitani, a primate behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, "but they are nonetheless chimpanzees, not humans, and are obviously different as well."


Yeah, I sympathize with this perspective but, unfortunately, get very nervous when people invoke that "obviously" line. There was a time when it was "obvious" that Africans were not the equals of white folk. There was a time when it was "obvious" that women couldn't be trusted in positions of power and authority. All too often "obvious" in a context like this is really just a code phrase for "this goes against my culturally determined beliefs." Perhaps fortunately for us all, however, our cultures are not the final arbiters of what is or is not true. Women and those of African-descent are the equals of whites and men and a large number of us would now claim that as being "obvious."

So on what basis can we make a decision here? Chimpanzees are, without question, a different species but in trying to decide if they're "human" we're not actually meaning human in a biological sense. Rather, we're asking if they should be treated as independent members of our society. Must one be human in order to earn such a privilege? Probably not. If a team of aliens from another star visited tomorrow we would likely treat them as equals- as though they were odd looking humans- rather than as animals. As such, biological similarity is not necessary to be treated as human. Thus, from here on in, I would say we should rephrase the question to "Should chimpanzees be classed as humankind?"

Once we get our terms straight, we need to come up with a basis for discrimination. We've already eliminated genetics through our alien example, so we need something else. Perhaps we can discriminate humankind from non-humankind based on intelligence? Well, maybe, but that's a tough position to take: there are a number of individuals who were born from human parents but whose intelligence is substantially below the norm. If chimps are non-humankind because they're not as smart, what does that mean for those persons? Hard to say- comparing human and non-human intelligence is notoriously difficult- but it's probably not good. Besides, is intelligence the best determinant of whether something is worthy of mercy and compassion? In the event that the technological singularity is possible, I sure as hell hope not.

The path I ventured down in an effort to resolve this question is suggested by something I brought up above: should chimps be given the privilege of membership in our society? The thing is, in my ethical worldview, privilege always comes paired with responsibility and vice versa. It is, to me, a sort of social or ethical law on par with the thermodynamic laws of physics. Thus, if you have the privilege of acting independently in a society, then you must also assume responsibility for the consequences of that freedom. Obligation, as a responsibility that attaches without an associated privilege, simply doesn't exist. There is always, always a pairing. So, in this case, I was forced to ask: can chimpanzees, if granted the privilege of membership in our civilization, also manage to shoulder the responsibilities that come with it? Indeed, I suspect they cannot and I'm not alone:

If Matthew the chimp were declared a person, scientists foresee it would open a messy can of worms.

"In general, I don't think that it's a good idea to grant chimpanzees legal human rights," Mitani said. "Chimpanzees are well-known to kill each other. What would we do to perpetrators of those 'crimes?'"


Indeed, this is a real problem although more for us than for the chimps. Based on this logic, it appears that we should not extend membership to chimps because they cannot execute all of the necessary responsibilities. Yet, again, there are problems here. Many impaired individuals are unable to take full responsibility for their own actions and yet, nevertheless, remain humankind. Perhaps the argument can be made that those persons are impaired whereas chimps, at their best, are still unable to accept responsibility, but that's also not really helpful. Children are, as a group, assumed to be incapable of accepting adult responsibility and are still humankind. Perhaps chimps could be integrated in a similar way?

Ultimately, I have no answer to this question. It will require a great deal of thought and effort and perhaps even research by the Animals and Society Section.* The thing is, however, that we had better start working on this question soon. The issue of what makes one humankind is not going to be limited to just chimps and primates for all that much longer. Leaving aside issues like artificial intelligence, which we touched on earlier this week, there's also the impending possibility of fashioning new forms of human existence. Take, for example, the recent and very overblown news, that it may soon be possible to fashion a child who has three parents. Okay, wait, that's not totally accurate- it's possible now, we just aren't allowed to do it:

A child with three genetic parents could be born within the next three years, scientists have predicted.

A team of scientists from Newcastle University have successfully created embryos containing DNA from one man and two women.

Under the current law, these embryos must be destroyed after fourteen days. However, new measures in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill mean these embryos could soon be allowed to develop into children.

The technique aims to prevent certain hereditary diseases being passed from mother to child.


I said that this case was overblown and it is. In fact, what is being done is that the nucleus from a fertilized egg is removed and then inserted into another egg cell that does not have a nucleus.** Thus, the DNA that produces the human child derives from only two parents (i.e. the ones that contributed to the nucleus) and the third parent contributes her mitochondria. Mitochondria are funny little critters that help produce cellular energy, but contain their own DNA and act as independent, albeit subsidiary, organisms. Indeed, one hypothesis is that they used to be separate critters that eventually developed a symbiotic relationship with us. In any case, scientists are not engaging in full-on DNA tinkering here.

Yet, at the same time, this shows that we are moving closer to being able to engineer people. We could eliminate many forms of genetic disease and perhaps even build enhancements into our genome. What then? Are the results of such efforts humankind or are they artifice? We're going to need answers, and we're going to need them soon.

I really don't know how we're going to solve these sorts of issues but I'm not too worried. We're a smart species and as often as we make mistakes, we're also capable of stunning compassion. I'm proud of my species and, indeed, of all humankind.

Whatever the hell exactly it turns out that is.


* Is it just me, or does that logo make it look like that dude ate a cat?

** That egg's nucleus was also removed earlier.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Mister Troll said...

Drek -

I'm afraid I think you're off here.

Although I'm not an expert in Austrian law, it seems to me that any definition of human that isn't equivalent to the biological (Homo sapiens) would require major justification.

That chimpanzees may be worthy of being members in our society -- well, I won't touch that issue, as it's complicated (and you discussed it well, anyways).

Humans = Homo sapiens. Chimps = Pan troglodytes (or whatever species this particular chimpanzee is). QED.

Any other reading would, IMO, have to require justification from Austrian law. Is there any?

Friday, June 13, 2008 4:29:00 AM  
Blogger Anomie said...

Seems like it'd be easier to change guardianship laws to include chimpanzees than it would be to declare chimps people. Although, if they can successfully make the case that being a person does not necessarily translate to being a human (say, that human fell under the umbrella of person), then perhaps it could fly.

I like the idea that personhood is defined by obtaining a sense of self (a la Cooley, Mead, etc.). But then, that kinda leaves infants out of the equation as persons.

Re: the engineered people - you've seen Gattaca, right? If not, you should.

Friday, June 13, 2008 7:58:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Mister Troll: Be careful about simple proofs like that. I agree that chimpanzees are obviously not homo sapiens sapiens but, that said, it doesn't mean that they can't be "human" in a legal sense. Corporations are, legally speaking, "people" which are able to enter into contracts and commit criminal actions independently of any particular owner or employee. Thus we have already legally broadened the definition of "human" beyond our own species.

That said, however, you're absolutely right that this is going to depend a lot on Austrian law. If the suit is being brought, one hopes that there's at least a modicum of legal justification, but I'm far from an expert on Austrian law. In any case, my interest has less to do with the intricacies of EU jurisprudence and more with the general issue, which I do believe will become more important over time.

Anomie: Seen it? I own it. I think that depiction is rather extreme compared to what is likely to actually happen. Nonetheless, it's certainly something to be wary of.

Friday, June 13, 2008 9:13:00 AM  

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