Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Chimp Is Not a Person

Matthew Hiasl Pan has three names like a human person, but is only a chimpanzee, according to the Austrian Supreme Court. The AP tells us

It's official: In Austria, a chimp is not a person
Animal rights group had sought personhood for soon-to-be-homeless chimp

Sanity has prevailed in the face of a ridiculous legal strategy by activists, however admirably aiming to aid the animal. The activists have yet to come to grips with the reality that chimps are not just hairy humans without pants, and have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

As far as the ECHR is concerned, all bets are off. In the rarefied air of EU institutions, there's likely to be much more faulty philosophizing based on Darwinian abstractions than actual observation of chimps (or humans—we don't want to pre-judge what species Eurocrats belong to).

But seriously, an older article explains,

The Association Against Animal Factories says it's not trying to get Pan declared a human, but rather a person, which would give some legal status. Otherwise, he is legally a thing. "The question is: Are chimps things without interests, or persons with interests?" Balluch said. (USA Today)

Plants and amoebae have interests too. In fact all life has interests.1 If we declared bacteria persons, we'd have to illegalize the human immune system.

The AP story reads: "Organizers said they may set up a foundation to collect donations for Matthew, whose life expectancy in captivity is about 60 years. But they argue that only personhood will ensure that he isn't sold outside Austria." What I can't understand is why they can't simply buy the chimp and entrust him to another shelter or zoo, or sell him to a good owner, as they would any other animal. Besides, what's so special about this particular chimp? Not to mention all the hundreds of chimps presumably in captivity in Europe. And let's not forget the "homeless" chimps of Africa.2

Of course the good of this chimp is not the point of this suit. As a commenter on the Reason blog correctly surmises, "this was a test case by some animal rights activists trying to get personhood for an animal."

This suit is the nose of the camel under the tent flap. Another Reason commenter posts a link to more insanity: the Declaration on Great Apes, which animal-rights activists associated with Peter Singer are campaigning to have the U.N. pass to "extend to non-human great apes the protection of three basic interests: the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture." Oh-boy.

A proponent of chimpanzee rights explains

In my mind, chimpanzees are beings. They are beings with needs, desires, and predictable patterns of play and food gathering. They have social contact and structure. All of this can be gathered up under the term "interest." On the basis of science, many, including myself, believe that they are morally and ethically relevant. If we accept all of the positive things that science and ethics suggest to us about chimpanzees, the next questions are, "What is their status within the legal arena? What ought it to be?" It is imperative to turn to the legal system, because there are clearly humans who have no ethical concern for chimpanzees, and the only way to overcome their ignorance and lack of concern is by adopting laws that acknowledge and protect chimpanzees from abusive humans.

Aren't lemurs morally and ethically relevant? And if not lemurs, why not squirrels? And if not squirrels, why not mice? And if not mice, why not lizards? You see where I'm going: there's no end to the number of creatures to which we can grant rights.3

The Underlying Fallacy

Die-hard Darwinist that he is, Richard Dawkins points out “our evolutionary continuity with chimpanzees and, more distantly, with every species on the planet.... there are no natural borderlines in evolution.”4 (The God Delusion, pp. 300-301)

He is right: Darwinian biology provides no real basis for the notion of "species." Of course Darwinism is the biological consummation of Newtonian mechanism, which describes the universe is the result of particle interactions. The laws are purely extrinsic to the natures of the things—in other words, things' motions do not grow from what they are, but are imposed from outside. Forces work on bodies from the outside. Organisms mutate because external mutagens and natural selection is the environment operating on individual organisms.

Newton and Descartes's mechanical philosophy was itself a triumph of philosophical nominalism. Nominalism was a school of thought that developed in the late Middle Ages, when Scholasticism became decadent. Nominalism, most simply described, is the denial that universals point to realities in the world. To a nominalist, "cat" is simply a useful label to group a bunch of particulars that have no real commonality, so that there is no way for the intellect to grasp the essences of things in order to form universals. Whether or not something is a "cat" is arbitrary (cf. Dawkins's claim that humanness is arbitrary).

So we come full circle: the nominalists tell us things have no knowable essences. Their mechanist successors explain the universe with motions that are not intrinsic to the natures of things. Darwin explains life using purely mechanical laws. Finally we find that because Darwin's vision of life is purely mechanical, there are no distinct species—in other words that living things have no knowable essences. Our elites teach us this science tells us how the world actually is. Every culture inevitably bases its common life and laws on its vision of nature. Without essences, we have nothing substantial on which to base them.

The current chimpanzee case is the first of many: how long can our legal institutions resist the inevitable moral consequences of nominalist "ontology"? In the Middle Ages as now, the whole knot is a disaster for discovering any path to happiness based in nature (i.e., a natural moral law), and we're seeing in slow motion the train wreck it's causing for our own moral and legal systems.

Next stop: Massachusetts residents "marrying" chimpanzees.5


1. In the common understanding of the term, which may have some specialized legal meaning in Austria. The problem with modern "rights talk" is that it is detached from any derivation in a preceding responsibility.

2. Perhaps Europe's tortured laws necessitate this legally extreme measure? Clearly the journalists involved are more interested in reporting an apparently sensational story than in probing beneath the ridiculous appearances.

3. One of the errors of nominalism and mechanism is that all living things lack intrinsic ends ("interests"). Non-human life truly has its own ends, but not in the additional, conscious sense that humans do.

4. Genetic similarity is one common basis for the the claim that chimpanzees are just like humans. Jonathan Marks of UC-Berkeley points out that we haven't been doing genetics long enough to understand what differences are significant:

But there is a bias of history here. We’ve been studying chimpanzees for 300 years, but DNA sequences for barely 20 years. We are far more familiar with apes than we are with DNA. Consequently, the appropriate way to compare these data is not to contrast the genetic and anatomical comparisons through modern eyes, but to compare the genetics today with the anatomical comparisons when those were as new and as exciting as DNA comparisons are today.

And what you find is that the leading scholars of the 1700s, the leading philosophes, were struck by the overwhelming physical similarity of ape and human. Rousseau and Monboddo were struck by the humanness of the ape, and declared it to be a variant human.  Linnaeus famously classified the apes as both Homo troglodytes or nocturnus – a different kind of human – and as Simia satyrus, a different kind of monkey.

5. Agreed: California could be first.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please check out this reference which gives a unique understanding of the non-human inhabitants of this mostly non-human world.


Plus in note #2 you mention sensationalist (non-depth) reporting.
Isnt such "reporting" the norm in the USA with a certain fox so called "news", leading the way in the dumbing down stakes.

Plus once again isnt capitalism a form of extreme social Darwinism which is in its most "advanced" form in the USA. And championed by people that otherwise (in their double-mindedness) criticise Darwinian evolution theories.

Having their cake and eating it too.