What non-human rights are really about

Paul Raven @ 22-03-2011

The issue of basic rights for the higher animals pops up with a certain regularity, especially in transhumanist circles; here’s George Dvorsky responding to some of the more usual objections:

The rights I’m talking about have to do with protections. Nonhuman animals, like humans, should be immune from undue confinement, abuse, experimentation, illicit trafficking, and the threat of unnatural death. And I’m inclined to leave it at that for now.

While these animals may not be as intelligent or knowledgeable as humans, their cognitive and emotional capacities are sophisticated enough to warrant special consideration. These are self-aware and self-reflexive animals. They are cognizant of other minds, exhibit deep emotional responses, and have profound social attachments. That’s not to be taken lightly.

At the same time I acknowledge that there there has to be a realism applied to this issue. Nonhuman animals who qualify as persons cannot participate in society to the same degree that humans can. Thus, they should be considered and treated in the same manner that we do children and the developmentally disabled—which is that they still have rights! We would never experiment upon a 3-year old human child, nor would we force a mentally disabled person to perform in a circus. We believe this because we recognize that these individuals are endowed with (or have the potential for) the sufficient capacities required for personhood. Consequently, we protect them with laws.

For what it’s worth, I’m in agreement with Dvorsky on most of his points here, though I think the biggest roadblock to non-human rights is our incomplete provision of human rights. Until we live in a world where we genuinely treat all human beings – regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, attractiveness, intelligence or lack of privilege – as our equals (biological, economic and political), how can we ever hope to extend that parity to creatures whose existence we definitively can’t empathise with on the basis of experience? (Indeed, some of the more extreme animal rights advocates seem far more able to empathise with the suffering of animals than the emotions of their fellow humans, and as such have done their cause far more harm than good.)

I totally agree that we should be looking to protect non-human sentients from exploitation, but attempting to do so before we’ve flattened the human playing field is to put the cart before the horse and then wonder that the cart doesn’t respond to the whip. Look to the plank in one’s own eye, and all that.

Citizen status for dolphins?

Paul Raven @ 07-01-2010

Well, maybe not… but researchers who work with dolphins have long proclaimed their high level of intelligence, suggesting that they’re the second smartest critter on Earth (after ourselves, natch). Now some are saying that they should be granted a suite of basic rights as befits “non-human persons”. [via @fabiofernandes; image by Just Taken Pics]

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve been paying attention – a little over a year ago we mentioned the Great Ape Project, a pressure group pushing for human rights for our primate cousins, and there was a court case in Austria a while back in which campaigners attempted to get a court to rule that a chimpanzee called Hiasl should have parity of rights with human beings.

Given the number of other more pressing issues on our collective plate at the moment, I can’t see human-level rights for higher animals becoming a hot-button issue any time soon. But the activities of the more radical (and, for my money, seriously misguided and hypocritical) animal rights groups have begun to nudge into the realms of terrorism; as the centralised political power of nation-states continues to fragment under the pressure of networked special-interest groups, we can probably expect to see more drastic demonstrations of discontent from those who would see some other species join humanity at the top of the ladder. Enumerating the deep ironies implicit in that (and in all other types of terrorism, state-sanctioned or otherwise) is left as an exercise for the reader.

Smarter than the new Apple mouse

Paul Raven @ 21-10-2009

ratSteve Jobs and company may have radically re-engineered the mouse, but a team of researchers from the States and China have been busy re-engineering the rat, culminating in the quaintly-named Hobbie-J, a rodent who owes her preternatural smarts to the over-expression of a particular gene associated with brain-cell communication speed. [image by stark23x]

Scientists found that Hobbie-J consistently outperformed the normal Long Evans rat even in more complex situations that require association, such as working their way through a water maze after most of the designated directional cues and the landing point were removed. “It’s like taking Michael Jordan and making him a super Michael Jordan,” Deheng Wang, MCG graduate student and the paper’s first author, says of the large black and white rats already recognized for their superior intellect.

That’s one of the best quotes I’ve read in a science article in ages; it’s like something Don King would say. And if you’re now worrying about hordes of intellectual rodents escaping their cages and taking over the world, relax – Hobbie-J isn’t going to be inventing a death-ray any time soon.

… even a super rat has its limits. For example with one test, the rats had to learn to alternate between right and left paths to get a chocolate reward. Both did well when they only had to wait a minute to repeat the task, after three minutes only Hobbie-J could remember and after five minutes, they both forgot. “We can never turn it into a mathematician. They are rats, after all,” Dr. Tsien says, noting that when it comes to truly complex thinking and memory, the size of the brain really does matter.

More interestingly, though, this sort of meddling is a proof-of-concept. What might similar tweaking achieve in animals whose cognitive ability already approaches that of our own? Perhaps a radical group of animal rights activists might boost the brain-power of some primate tribes in order to justify parity in their treatment under law. In other words, maybe animal uplift isn’t as ridiculous an idea as it might initially appear…

David Brin guestblogging at Sentient Developments this week

Paul Raven @ 24-03-2009

David BrinThis week, transhumanist blogger George Dvorsky’s site Sentient Developments plays host to no less a science fiction luminary than David Brin as guest blogger. Says Dvorsky:

David will be writing about biological uplift, the Singularity, Active SETI (messages to extraterrestrial intelligences), and how a transparent society might work to help us mitigate catastrophic risks.

Topics that should be of some interest to Futurismic regulars, then; I file David Brin among the group of authors and thinkers with whom I don’t always agree, but who never fail to challenge my thinking.

Dvorsky has taken the time to provide a reading list around Brin’s first topic, namely biological uplift, and that first post is ready to read as I type. Here’s a snippet:

1. Can we replicate – in other creatures or in AI – the stunning way that Homo sapiens outstripped the needs of mere hunter-gathering, to reach levels of mentation that can take us to other planets and invent symphonies and possibly destroy the world? That was one hell of a leap! In Earth I speculated about half a dozen quirky things that might explain that vast overshoot in ability. In my next novel Existence I speculate on a dozen more.

In truth, we just don’t know. I frankly think it may be harder than it looks.

Go read. [Brin portrait from Wikimedia Commons]