Saturday, June 28, 2008

40 Day Fast

I will be participating in the "40 Day Fast", basically just a bunch of people sharing about various charities and ways to help make this world a better place to live. I think I'm up July 5, but here is a list of others, if anybody wants to follow along.

It would be better to have this list in the sidebar, but alas, I do not have access to that. So, don't forget to comment on Steviepinheads post on human rights for the great apes.


The 40DF Bloggers

6/23 Brant
6/24 AmyApril
6/25 BrianRick
6/26 AnnieP.D.
6/27 AutumnKelly
6/28 ScottGene
6/29 LorijoFay
6/30 LiciaChris
7/1 JasonAmbre
7/2 LauraBeth
7/3 StevenSarah
7/4 TimLeslie
7/5 Mama'sAndira
7/6 ShawnStephanie
7/7 ShaunPolly
7/8 PrairieCharley
7/9 MarkKat
7/10 CrystalDavida
7/11 truvyneValerie
7/12 PeteBrent
7/13 JonathanJeanine
7/14 BrodyLori
7/15 NatalieKjaere
7/16 AdamJacquelynne
7/17 EuphronyDan
7/18 ToddRodney
7/19 MandyRandel
7/20 BradShawn
7/21 StephenBlake
7/22 BrandyMichael
7/23 AnnieJoel
7/24 RyanMaryann
7/25 Kristin Alex
7/26 MelissaClint
7/27 EmilyErin
7/28 BartDoug
7/29 LizMike
7/30 NancyKristi
7/31 JessieJane
8/1 TressaToby
*Click for full List
Learn more...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Human Rights for Great Apes?

I suspect most of you have heard the news that Spanish legislators are considering conferring certain rights on great apes (which, in common parlance, would include the two species of chimpanzees (common and bonobo), the various species or subspecies of gorilla, and the orangutans; whether the "lesser" great apes (gibbons and siamangs) are included, I don't know).

I'm also beginning to see various hoots and cries and expressions of amusement, astonishment, and incredulity about this Spanish venture, and I'm interested in the reaction of you folks.

One of the (more reasoned) criticisms that I've heard involves the supporters' argument that apes should be accorded rights, at least in part, because their DNA makes them "99.4% human." This figure, if it is the one being used (and it was the one used, IIRC, by the particular supporter I mention below), does sound overstated. Depending on which aspects of the genomes are being compared, for example, we may share with chimpanzees somewhere between 94% (taking into account gene duplications), 96% (the "official" 2005 Human Genome Project figure, which takes into account what are called "indels," insertions and deletions in otherwise-corresponding gene sequences), or 99% (an earlier figure, calculated prior to having the full transcripts of both the human and chimp genomes available) of our DNA with chimpanzees -- and less, presumably, by at least a little, with the other great apes.

I heard a BBC interview with one of the supporters of the Spanish legislation on NPR last night. While she did rely on (what sounded like the inaccurate, or at least outdated) percentage of genetic similarity between the other great apes and ourselves mentioned above -- and I would agree that establishing some sort of a percentage test or cut-off for the extension of "human" rights has various moral, practical, and philosophical problems -- she did make a different point, and the one that I mainly wish to discuss here: the legislation does not, she claims, confer legal "humanity" on great apes.

Instead, said she, it confers a limited sort of legal "person"-hood. Lest you now shake your head -- or expectorate, or however your cultural subset of apes expresses dubiety -- and cluck about "those darn lawyers," please first consider that there is some support for making the "human being"/"legal person" distinction: corporations, for example, are legal "persons" (they can sue and be sued; own, sell, and lease, etc., real and personal property...), but are clearly not human beings.

The nice lady gave an example of the kind of conundrum in which apes currently find themselves without "person"-hood protections. An aging chimp (let's say -- I forget the actual species) has been humanely cared for by an organization in Austria for many years. Now the organization has gone bankrupt and its assets -- including the chimp -- are being sold off, with at least the possibility that the chimp will wind up in the hands of less-than-ethical medical researchers (let's sidestep, for the moment, the question of whether it's ever justifiable to utilize great apes in medical testing by positing that there are such things as humane and ethical and well-regulated/ inspected medical research facilities...) or will simply fall out of adequate care altogether and wind up being a victim of (what we all might agree would be) abuse, neglect, or ...

Apparently there are donors willing to provide for the further care of this ape. But they can't just give the money to his current owner -- the bankrupt facility -- because that money would then fall into the hands of the creditors. And they can't give the money to the ape itself, in part because the ape isn't a legal person -- not even a "person" with tightly-delimited rights (such as a mentally-challenged or senile or comatose person, who might well be the ward in a guardianship situation, lacking his or her own right to manage money, vote, own -- ahem! -- handguns, drive, etc. ...).

Now, one can of course imagine ingenious ways around the Austrian situation (though one doesn't know enough about Austrian bankruptcy and non-profit law to know if they would actually work...): perhaps the donors' funds could go to organize a non-profit with the purpose of purchasing and caring for the poor critter. This might have the advantage of not leaving the (otherwise-innocent, so far as we know) creditors of the old facility out in the cold -- the new facility would simply purchase the ape from the creditors of the old. But the lady's point -- to the extent that this pinhead grasped it -- is that there are always going to be situations without convenient legal workarounds, where the most direct and effective way to protect arguably-sentient (if still non-"human") creatures like these is to allow for them a limited sort of legal personhood, but not fully "human" legal status...

Below all this lies the moral argument, of course. Even though we all might agree that the other great apes are not, in all respects, entitled to the full panoply of rights that us "human" great apes may be entitled to, may they not they share enough of key "human" qualities -- empathy, self-consciousness, family feeling, awareness of pain and loss, intelligence, capacity to communicate, etc. -- to be deserving of some more limited form of rights and protections?

Needless to say, we quickly come to the 'slippery slope' concern: where's it all gonna end? To my mind, that's a better argument for a situation where there's an indivisible slope or spectrum -- one where there's no point on the gradient which can, in any sort of principled fashion, be distinguished from any other. We might face such a situation if all of our pre-hominid brethren (or at least a representative and overlapping sampling), going right back to our most recent common ancestor with chimps, were still alive and kicking... But they're not. (And I recognize that some of you may not be persuaded there even IS any such ancestral kinship, but note that that doesn't necessarily resolve the other questions raised by our increasing grasp of the intellectual and emotional sophistication of some of our fellow travelers on the planet, even if they're not our very close kin.)

So we've got humans. And we've got some definable set of characteristics upon which to base a separate category of animals to whom we might accord a limited quasi-personhood. And then we've got other animals who lack one or more of whatever that definable set of characteristics might turn out to be -- who we continue to assign to the traditional "feral" or "property" categories, about whom we might erect various overarching protections -- hunting laws; protections from certain kinds of abuse; ecological protections; import/export and trafficking laws; and so forth and so on.

Of course, once we start listing the characteristics for this intermediate status of not-human, but not mere-property kind of animal, we do risk a limited "slippery slope" problem: who else gets in to this charmed circle? Some of the cetaceans? The lesser apes? Some of the "higher" non-ape primates? Elephants? Those raucous and annoying, but oh-so-clever corvids (ravens, crows, jays, magpies), about whom I reading right now? ("In the Company of Crows and Ravens" by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell

Are we actually "evolved" enough to start concerning ourselves morally with "every crow that falls"?

And, as with every extension of "rights," how meaningful is it if it simply becomes another "unfunded mandate"? A "right" that goes, all too often, unremedied? Why create a new set of rights, when we can't even meaningfully enforce or guarantee over wide swaths of the planet the rights we've already extended to our (arguably) even more-deserving fellow humans? The old, why-should-we-spend-money-on-a-space-program-when ... problem, dressed up in King Kong habiliments.

There's certainly no reason not to have some fun with this notion, but I don't find it an entirely silly one.

Friday, June 20, 2008

What Would My Grandfather Think?

I’m not sure what I would do if my kid decided to sue me, and won… but whatever I would do I’m sure the Canadian senate wouldn’t approve.

If this doesn’t make the SNL top ten list, I don’t know what you need to do to make it…

HT: SDG/Jimmy Akin

I wish my grandfather were alive to talk to about this. He had a wonderful sense of humor and used to tell great stories about growing up in Alberta, CA and Montana. His father used to wake up the boys by slapping the headboard of the bed while saying, "Come a runnin'!" If the boys weren't up in rather short order, the entire bed got flipped and they were dumped on the floor. Friggin' child abuser! If only my grandfather had the option in the 1920's/30's of suing his parents, imagine how much better he would have turned out.