First it was the argument that the human foetus should be considered a person. The state of Colorado in the US wanted in 2008 to establish a law stating that the unborn human foetus is a “person” and thus be given the same constitutional rights that a human being enjoys. The state of Mississippi went a step further to say that the term ‘person’ should apply to every human being from the moment of fertilization, and hence anyone who aborts such a life should be termed illegal and punished. The motive behind these was to overturn the US Supreme Court’s 1973 decision of the right to abortion. Both the Colorado and Mississippi moves were rejected in their legislatures, but the story is not over. The “Personhood Bill”, introduced last month in the state of Georgia, wishes to declare the “one-cell human embryo” (even before implantation) to be a person and should be given the right to life.

Now, the matter has gone beyond us humans. The journal Science reports in its December 6, 2013 issue that the Boston lawyer Steven Wise, who has founded the “Non-human Rights Project” (NhRP), has filed lawsuits that want the New York courts to declare that chimpanzees and other great apes are persons, and therefore all such apes in captivity — be they in research labs, zoos or personal farms — be freed. He claims that not only chimpanzees but even dolphins have cognition. Using the discovery that great apes and dolphins possess a sense of “self awareness” as the basis, Wise argues that keeping these animals in captivity is tantamount to slavery and hence illegal. He wants that these animals in current captivity be released and transferred to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Florida.

Working with animals is vital for knowledge. The reaction of the scientific community has been strong and shocked. Some of them have argued that they care very much about animal welfare and offer them all possible forms of help and comfort, treat them ethically and protect them. But going beyond animal welfare and assigning them rights akin to what humans have would harm research. Anatomist Susan Larson of Stony Brook, NY is quoted as saying: “Everything I do with these animals I have done on myself. I understand that animal rights activists don’t want these animals mistreated, but they are hampering our ability to study them before they become extinct”. Dr. Stephen Ross of the Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, of the Chicago zoo says: “I think these animals should have some rights to be comfortable and live in an engaging environment, but you don’t need personhood to do that. We want to make things better for chimps. We just disagree on how to get there”.

Defining personhood

We shall wait to see what courts have to say on this and on the definition of cognition and “personhood”. Wikipedia defines cognition to imply learning, memory, reasoning, problem solving and decision making. Philosophers and logicians have long thought about what defines a person and, in my opinion, the one that captures the idea best is the one proposed by the contemporary philosopher Professor Thomas White. He wants the following attributes as necessary for personhood: to be alive, be aware, feel positive and negative sensations, have emotions, have a sense of self, have control own behaviour, recognize other persons, and have cognitive abilities (see my earlier column of 24-11-2011).

Given the above attributes to cognition and personhood, chimpanzees come close and so do dolphins to some extent. As it turns out, The New York courts have dismissed the Wise petitions on chimps, but he will appeal. But the larger question still looms; as science progresses and we discover and understand more and more animals with some (if not all) of these attributes of personhood, we may face the accusation of practising slavery. Dr Alexandra Horwitz of Barnard College, Columbia University NY runs a dog cognition lab and has recently shown that the domestic dog has some limits to understand and to oppose inequity. But a dog treated unfairly but yet offered greater rewards chooses the latter! And cows have cognitive ability even if it is just domain- specific (meaning familiarity with the neighbourhood).

Science way well declare that even a pea-sized brain may be sufficient for some aspects of cognition — we may then move from “ self awareness” as the criterion of personhood to cognition (even feeling of pain /happiness) as the basis for animal rights and argue that keeping pets is slavery! It may not come to that yet, since in our minds, as Orwell said, some animals are more equal than others.

Where then do we draw a line on “personhood”? Will we relax the White criteria one after another? In that event, is it not better to turn vegetarian, and stick the plants for food.

All I hope is that nobody revives J.C. Bose’s romantic notion that plants too have cognitive abilities; then we are all done for — humans, apes, dogs, cats, big fish or small fish!


The article has been edited to incorporate the following correction:

A sentence in “Is keeping animals in captivity slavery?” (S&T page, Speaking of Science column) read: “The state of Colorado in the U.S. wanted in 2008 to establish a law … be given the some constitutional rights that a human being enjoys.” It should have been same constitutional rights.

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