By: Edward Walsh  Date: 01/12/2012 Category: | Research Reports |

On March 22, KING TV’s Scott Miller interviewed celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall, lawyer and author Steven Wise, whose book Rattling the Cage promises to become the centerpiece of a political movement to expand the rights of non-human animals, and me, a neurobiologist from Nebraska.

Goodall and Wise were in town to promote a new judicial concept being developed by an organization known as the Chimpanzee Collaboratory, a diverse coalition of political activists that is supported in part by the Seattle-based Glaser Foundation. The chief goal of the Collaboratory is the development of a mechanism whereby chimpanzees and other great apes might be granted legal rights that are equivalent to those of humans. The concept is not a particularly new idea. Hard core proponents of the animal rights’ movement have promulgated this view in philosophical terms since Jeremy Bentham first formalized the movement near the close of the 18th Century. Wise and Goodall are now, however, taking the next step, and it is a giant one. They suggest, through implication, that the judicial basis of animal law should be translated from the principle of protection, a principle that obligates humankind to provide for the welfare of non-human animals by virtue of our understanding of morality and biology, to the principle of equality, a principle that would dissolve the concept of interspecies diversity and institutionalize the concept of biological unification. In their argument that non-human animals should be granted the same basic set of liberties as humans – thus establishing equality with humans – apes acquire the right to stand before the court and bring suit against “other” persons.

Interesting as this concept that would revolutionize the meaning of civil liberties may be, it is clearly important to consider the consequences that might befall the health and welfare of Americans if the legal protection of non-human animals were extended to include “standing,” a judicial status that allows an individual to, literally, stand before the bar of justice. Although the new boundaries of the amended version of this heretofore narrowly defined judicial principle would allow only a restricted set of great apes unprecedented access to the courts, its inevitable extension to include other non-human animals could have grave implications for society. One has to assume that animal rights activists are already standing in line, eagerly anticipating the day that they might bring action after action before the courts in behalf of their clients. One must also assume that the veritable flood of animal-based lawsuits that would surely follow would swamp the courts and rain judicial chaos on courtrooms nationwide. The impact on biomedical science would be destabilizing, ultimately undercutting the capacity of scientists to achieve the central goal of biomedical research – to stamp out the scourge of disease that continues to plague humankind as we inch our way into the 21st Century. The thought of scientists spending their days in courtrooms formulating legal defense plans instead of laboratories and classrooms formulating theories and challenging students is chilling indeed.

It is relatively easy to see how the question of legal standing promises to become the defining issue in the animal rights crusade. At stake is a determination as to whether non-human animals are our equals or whether humans have dominion over non-human animals by virtue of our biology or by virtue of our capacity to do so. Although this is refutably a legal matter, my position on this subject has almost nothing to do with matters of law. It has, on the other hand, everything to do with biology and ethics and morality. There is no question that we are obliged to establish and maintain a standard of treatment for non-human animals that is humane and respectful. Under some extreme conditions, as in endangerment, we have decided as a society to escalate the level of protection for some species to heretofore unheard of levels. And that is good, within limits.

However, problems arise when we recognize something of ourselves in the appearance or behavior of other animals, and it becomes difficult to stay calibrated. The slightest trace of humanity in a non-human beast and anthropomorphism overtakes us, and that can be dangerous. While it is, in my mind, undeniable that compassion, the human attribute that drives us to protect the planet and its creatures, is in many ways one of humankind’s richest and fullest celebrations of intellect, that is not what we are talking about here. That we respect and care about other animals is not the issue; it is the “a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” argument that lies at the heart of this debate. It is the philosophy that encourages us to think about granting legal standing to non-human animals that we are talking about and the question that I have posed previously as central to the discussion is, “Can a handful of philosophers, lawyers and political activists who promote the notion that ethical distinctions cannot be made among members of the animal kingdom ever truly hope to win this extreme argument that they wage?” There was a time that I couldn’t imagine such a possibility. Now, I am less certain. Nonetheless, if the movement to grant legal standing to non-human animals succeeds, an Alice in Wonderland atmosphere would consume us and fantasy would replace reason as the cornerstone of civilization.

Although Steven Wise is an unknown to me, Jane Goodall is a person that I admire and respect a great deal. In her long career she has almost single-handedly transformed the way we think about chimpanzees and the natural world. For that, we owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. She speaks from the heart and is passionate in her beliefs. Consequently, she has accomplished much good. On this question, however, she does not strain to stay within the boundaries of scientific objectivity – and this issue requires objectivity, perhaps more than any other bioethical question of the day. While Goodall’s unique perspective has truly enriched the human experience, it is not science, and it is science that we need as we grapple with the solution to this question.

In the final analysis, I am confident that our views are more similar than they are different. It is unambiguous that chimpanzees and other great apes are magnificent creatures with notable attributes. Nonetheless, where Jane Goodall and Steven Wise see the similarities among the apes and humans, I see the differences and I see them as truly significant. This is not an indictment of apes – it is simply a testament to planetary diversity, an homage to the complexity of our biology. The conception of rights is a uniquely human invention, uniquely intellectual and uniquely compassionate. The notion that non-human animals with selection advantages that lay outside the domains of intellect and compassion should be labeled as persons in any context flies in the face of all that we understand from the study of biology. While I genuinely hope that as a species we will continue to channel our emotional energy into effective and purposeful animal welfare and protection programs, I can only hope that the lawmakers among us will remember that humans, and humans alone, have the capacity to act responsibly by virtue of our genome; that it isn’t necessarily the 98 percent of our genes, plus or minus a percent or so, that we share with chimps that matters when it comes to civil liberties, that it may be the one-to-two percent that we don’t.

That mine is a rigid position is not lost on me. Furthermore, I cannot deny some discomfort in my generic opposition to this refutably progressive social movement – one that purports to advance the conceptual boundaries of biology and our system of jurisprudence. I prefer being on the side that stirs the engines of social progress; however, social progress at the expense of rational thinking is not progress – it is folly. And this is folly, pure and unadulterated.

In his wrap-up, Miller concluded that the panel of collaborators uniformly endorsed the view that the struggle to extend legal standing to non-human animals should start with chimpanzees. I am writing to assure those who may have been in the viewing audience that night that this is not a view that I share. Although always ready and willing to change my mind given a convincing, objective argument, I remain today fundamentally and decidedly opposed to the expansion of our current conception of rights, acquired or natural, to include legal standing for non-human animals, chimpanzees or otherwise. I am in favor instead of celebrating our diversity in respectful awe – a uniquely human capacity.

About The Author

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Edward Walsh - NAIA Advisory Board

“Ed Walsh is the director of the Developmental Auditory Lab at Boys Town National Research Hospital and a professor in the Biomedical Sciences Department of the Creighton University Medical School in Omaha, Nebraska. His research interests include two basic disciplines: developmental neurobiology and animal bioacoustics. The central themes of these interests are congenital…

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