BBC News published an article on dolphins recently, explaining the point of view that some scientists have come to conclude that dolphins and whales are “people” and should be given rights as individuals. See the article here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-17116882
Reading this article provoked conflicting emotions within me – both happiness that finally some people are starting to catch on, and anger at the continuing human arrogance and ignorance that is our perpetual state of being for the majority of humankind.
The exceeding arrogance, that we as human animals, determine whether an animal is “sufficiently intelligent” just rocks me to my very core. As an animist, I see and hear, I acknowledge, with respect, the soul song, the physical manifestation of every living thing in as much as I can with total awareness – I’m not perfect, but I usually catch myself out when I find I am lacking. That this outmoded and outdated worldview still exists today, coming from philosophies and religions that place humankind at the top of some existential hierarchy makes me want to scream my outrage at the complete and utter stupidity of it all.
“It is based on years of research that has shown dolphins and whales have large, complex brains and a human-like level of self-awareness. This has led the experts to conclude that although non-human, dolphins and whales are “people” in a philosophical sense, which has far-reaching implications.” What I want to know is why we are always comparing other animals to our own selves, our own brains and ideas about self-awareness, especially using really really old philosophy that maybe, just maybe, needs to be rethought? How limiting is that – to compare all animals to our own humanity? Sounds primitive, totally ridiculous – reminds me of the saying “Dogs think they’re human, cats think they’re Gods”. If we are so damned self-aware, why can we not recognise that this ability may be in other animals as well – we just don’t see it, we can’t find the “place in the brain” or the trigger cues, such as the mirror test mentioned in the article, because we are lacking in sufficient knowledge to see or find it.
My point is made clear in Dr Marino’s statement in the article – “We went from seeing the dolphin/whale brain as being a giant amorphous blob that doesn’t carry a lot of intelligence and complexity to not only being an enormous brain but an enormous brain with an enormous amount of complexity, and a complexity that rivals our own.” We failed to recognise something, and so we discounted it – what we don’t understand, we throw away, ignore, or worse – we demean it. And the icing on the cake? Believing that we are special, that we have enormously complex brains that make us different. How about we just have different brains? We can’t say for 100% that other animals don’t have complex brains – they may just use them differently. We cannot compare apples to oranges. And that also raises the question – what of all the livings things that don’t have brains?
It is interesting to hear Ethics Professor, Tom White, discussing at what point we needs to step in to defend what we see as equal to our own self. He defined dolphins as “non-human persons”, stating that “a person needs to be an individual. If individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being”.
Does a person have to be an individual to count? What are the criteria? Is it universal? Why?
In an interesting related article, five Killer Whales are sueing Seaworld on slavery charges – full article here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16920866. Interestingly, one of the whales in on the plaintiff’s side is also a murderer – he killed his trainer in a show, and has been linked to two other deaths http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12920267 . Clearly, he is not a happy bunny, so to speak – that or he is demonstrating his natural song, to kill things seal-size (note he did not eat them, however, as he would have a seal – could we taste that bad, or is this demonstrative behaviour against slavery?) If we see him as a person, could we then charge him with murder? The icing on the cake, is the trainer’s opinion on the matter to put him back in the shows still (with the trainers safely behind steel bars where they can’t be harmed – yet). “ Participating in shows is just a portion of Tilikum’s day, but we feel it is an important component of his physical, social and mental enrichment,” he said in a statement. Once again, human arrogance and ignorance rears its ugly, ugly head. That, and the whale makes a killing financially for Seaworld (pun intended, with all due respect to the family of the dead trainer and two others victims).
When are we going to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee? When are we going to admit that we are not smarter, cleverer, or the dominant species in a world that is so rich and vast with other living beings? When are we going to admit to ourselves that we don’t know everything, that we can’t really even know anything? This has really got me thinking – it is even okay to ride horses? In my love of horse riding, have I been ignorant too? I have never ridden a horse that, from what I can tell, doesn’t want to be ridden – I learned my lesson from a temperamental Arab mare who threw me off whenever she just wanted to be left alone. But what of the others who were not so overt in their opinions? Does that cat really want to be picked up an cuddled? Do those dogs really enjoy pulling that sled?
How much longer can we all be complicit in our arrogance and ignorance?
I think a big part of the “intelligence/highly evolved” problem is that we have written the “script” for the theory from our own viewpoint. We’re at the top of the evolutionary tree in the same way that the sun goes round the earth and the solar system is at the centre of the universe – we’re looking at everything from a fixed point; ours. We use a sort of circular logic. We’re the culmination of the evolutionary process so the characteristics which set us apart, such as intelligence and opposable thumbs, must be the most highly evolved ones. Why are we the culmination of the evolutionary process? – Because we have the most highly evolved characteristic, like intelligence and opposable thumbs!
If we were dinosaurs 65 million years ago we might have been saying “Being big is the culmination of evolution”; if we were a spider we might be looking down on humans saying “They can’t spin silk and they can’t even walk on the ceiling, they’re not very highly evolved.” In the same way that we eventually accepted that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe perhaps one day we’ll appreciate that our characteristics are only special to us, they’re not better (or worse) than any others. (But i won’t hold my breath)
I’ve always thought “intelligence”, especially in the forms that are often praised most, is overrated anyway; no disrespect to dolphins intended.
Wise words! We can only opine on something from our own perspective, which is in itself lmiting and circular. How very true! I think it’s the fact that we have the capacity to break out of that box though, and consider other perspectives, as you did with the spider, that should cause more people to reconsider the whole “intelligence” debate.
Agree with everything said here. I just don’t understand why it is that some of us can ‘make the connection’ as it were, given that most are unable to do so. What’s missing in ‘their’ perspective that’s present in mine? Even when the information is presented to them. I just don’t know.
It seems to be yet another example of how being ‘intelligent’ is of little value given that there are some very intelligent people out there (some of them far more cognitively intelligent than me I’m sure) and yet they still can’t just see basic realities staring them in the face.
Maybe it’s a ‘selfish gene’ thing. Generally humans are programmed to think or themselves first, then outwards from there (human family, then non-human ‘family’, then human friends, then non-human friends etc) and most can’t see beyond their ‘programming’.
Humans seem to me to be a bit like the school bully who stamps noisily around the playground shouting “I’m the nicest, most ethically advanced, most morally evolved’ individual here and I’ll beat up on, or even kill anyone who doesn’t keep telling me so, daily”
Frued called humans’ self-appointed lordship over the other inhabitants of the earth “human megalomania”. I just wish he’d been able to explain why it persists for most of them despite their self-proclaimed intelligence.
It’s almost as though with each new ‘great discovery’ humans make, it seems to matter less what the discovery itself should teach us about our relationship with our world and more about the increased arrogance that goes with having discovered it in the first place.
Thanks for writing your article.
Best wishes to you, and please don’t ever change the way you think, for anyone or anything. The world needs more people who think like you 🙂
Hi Neal – many thanks for your kind words! I can’t promise that I won’t change the way I think – but I made a pact with myself, the gods and the ancestors to walk as ethical a path as I can. Compassion and empathy I think will always be at the forefront of my thinking, and respect for all beings. It just makes sense, really, when we’re all in this crazy thing called life together 🙂 Big love to you, and thank you for sharing your words here – there’s a woman standing at her computer desk right now pumping her fist in the air and shouting YES! x