Dolphins, such as this individual caught and
used by the US Navy, could be granted
personhood rights that protect them from
Image: United Press InternationalIn Douglas Adams’ series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it turned out that dolphins were super intelligent beings from another world who felt protective of the hairless ape creatures that were dithering about feeling self important:
On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much–the wheel, New York, wars and so on–while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man–for precisely the same reasons.
It has long been understood that dolphins are one of the most intelligent species on the planet, however new research suggests that they are second only to humans in the size and complexity of their neural architecture. This raises important ethical issues about the capture and killing of dolphins in the wild. Last year the heart-wrenching documentary The Cove (a likely nominee in the Academy Award for Best Documentary) revealed that thousands of dolphins are regularly slaughtered by Japanese fisherman and fed to school children as “whale meat.” Futhermore, a 2005 report by the World Wildlife Foundation found that hundreds of thousands of cetaceans are killed each year through commercial fishing around the world.
Now, scientists are speaking up about this slaughter and pointing out that the extraordinary intelligence of dolphins demands that the legal designation of “nonhuman person” be put in place to protect them in the same way that European countries have for Great Apes.
The Great Beyond is reporting this morning that a special session on the ethical and policy implications of dolphin intelligence will be part of the annual conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in San Diego on February 18, 2010. Lori Marino of Emory University will be leading the session and in her abstract writes that:
In this presentation I will discuss the neuroanatomical basis of complex intelligence in dolphins, how the neuroanatomy provides evidence for psychological continuity between humans and dolphins, and the profound implications for the ethics of human-dolphin interactions.
However, Marino suggests we go even further than simply protecting dolphins from harm. Even such amusements as marine park shows or “swim with dolphins” programs are psychologically damaging to these highly intelligent species and should be reconsidered.
These arguments were highlighted in The Sunday Times of London yesterday where they interviewed Marino about her research:
What Marino and her colleagues found was that the cerebral cortex and neocortex of bottlenose dolphins were so large that “the anatomical ratios that assess cognitive capacity place it second only to the human brain”. They also found that the brain cortex of dolphins such as the bottlenose had the same convoluted folds that are strongly linked with human intelligence.
Such folds increase the volume of the cortex and the ability of brain cells to interconnect with each other. “Despite evolving along a different neuroanatomical trajectory to humans, cetacean brains have several features that are correlated with complex intelligence,” Marino said.
Loyola Marymount University professor Thomas White, who will also be speaking at the conference, suggests that the legal classification of “non-human persons” would be the best way of limiting such impacts. This is not as radical an idea as it may sound. The law is fully capable of making and unmaking “persons” in the strictly legal sense. One Supreme Court case in the 1890s decided that it was up to the states to decide if women were to be counted as legal “persons” as far as the right of practicing law was concerned:
The Court argued that it was indeed up to the State’s Supreme Court “to determine whether the word ‘person’ as used (in the Statute) is confined to males, and whether women are admitted to practise law in that Commonwealth.”
As atrocious as this ruling sounds, such a precedent continued well into the twentieth century and a Massachusetts judge ruled that women could be denied eligibility to jury status because the word “person” was a term that could be interpreted by the court.
Such a flexible interpretation of personhood was demonstrated most dramatically in 1886 when the Supreme Court granted personhood status to the first nonhuman. In this case it was a corporation and Southern Pacific Railroad (part of robber baron Leland Stanford’s empire) snuck in through a legal loophole to gain full personhood rights under the 14th Amendment. Such rights have now been extended to all corporations. Prior to 1886, dating back to the 1600s, corporations were viewed as “artificial persons,” a legal turn of phrase that offered certain rights to the companies but without the full rights of citizens. By using the wording of the 14th Amendment (intended to protect former slaves from a state government seeking to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”) it was ruled that corporations should enjoy the same status.
The Spanish Parliament came to a similar conclusion for Great Apes in 2008 that would grant some limited personhood rights to nonhuman animals for the first time. As reported by The Guardian newspaper:
The environmental committee in the Spanish parliament has approved resolutions urging the country to comply with the Great Apes Project, founded in 1993, which argues that “non-human hominids” should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured.
This ruling came after Austrian animal rights advocates had attempted, and failed, to adopt the chimpanzee Hiasl so that he couldn’t be sold to a zoo or laboratory. The judge in that case decided that chimpanzees were property and therefore couldn’t be adopted (something that the law allows only for “persons”). However, as the history of this term suggests, there is nothing inherent to modern legal frameworks that would prevent a different judge from coming to another conclusion.
While it is extremely anthropocentric to grant personhood protections to nonhuman animals only because they resemble some aspect of us, it would seem that we have to start somewhere. We once found it acceptable to purchase and sell other human beings as property and to deny personhood to our mothers, wives and daughters based on the capricious decisions of patriarchal judges. Permitting highly intelligent beings with rich emotional lives to be bought, experimented on, or trained to satisfy our own amusement (or used as tools in military programs) is an archaic practice that should be abolished. If granting personhood status is a way to offer that protection, than I’m all for welcoming Flipper into the family. Afterall, as Douglas Adams has suggested, dolphins may be a great deal more than we now realize. Rather than simply vanishing and leaving a note reading, “So long, and thanks for all the fish,” wouldn’t it be satisfying to read in the postscript, “And, hey, much love for respecting our right to exist, it’s more than we gave you credit for.”