Saturday, September 27, 2008

The line between humans and other animals

The line we draw between ourselves and other animals has always seemed a little bit artificial and arbitrary to me, kind of like the lines we used to draw between the various races and ethnic groups we now recognize to be part of the common race of Humanity.

I was listening to the BBC's Culture Shock radio program recently, and they were talking about the Great Ape Project. I hadn't heard of it, but what it aims to do is to push people to think about that line between humans and animals, and to recognize how close our kinship really is to the other great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas). They are pushing for something similar to the declaration of human rights to apply to all great apes (humans are also classified as great apes), or what they call "the community of equals". Their declaration seeks to guarantee the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture for all great apes.

The Great Ape Project claims that:

The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.


I had heard before that great apes could teach each other language. They can learn American Sign Language, and then use it to communicate with humans, and once they have learned it they have been observed teaching it to their children. And I had heard that they grieve in the same way as we do when a member of their community is killed. I read about a center where people are providing post-traumatic counelling to great apes rescued from poachers, who have often been mistreated. There have been cases where, if a young great ape's parents are killed in front of it, it will go into what for all appearances is shock, stop eating, and die. (Can't find a link to it, unfortunately)

Christianity holds that we as human beings have a special place above all other life. But what careful investigation is showing more and more is that some forms of life at least are much more similar to us than we used to think, and it might be wrong to treat them as "others". The worst atrocities in our history involved treating other human beings as inhuman, unlike "us", not sharing our special status. But if great apes are thinking creatures, shouldn't they be treated with an equal level of respect?

I wonder, if in response to this, anyone who is religious is going to think "But we have souls, animals don't", or something similar. If anyone reading this is thinking that, I would like to ask you two questions:

1. What evidence do you have that human beings have souls?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for (1), what evidence do you have that no other form of life whatsoever has a soul? If God gave us souls, why must we be the only ones?

[UPDATE: This post was written almost two weeks ago, just scheduled to publish now because I knew I wouldn't be blogging for a couple of weeks but still wanted some content out there. After it was written, I had a conversation with Paul, where his response was "Of course everything has a soul, that's what makes it alive. It's just that humans have immortal souls.

So, revised questions for those who believe everything has a soul, but humans are the only ones that have immortal ones:

1. What evidence do you have that everything has a soul?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for this, what evidence do you have that the human soul is immortal?
3. If you have sufficient evidence for 1 and 2, what evidence do you have that we're the only ones?

Truthfully, the whole idea of the soul seems very tenuous to me, and I'm wondering why people believe it, aside from that it would be nice if it was true...].

In order to dehumanize great apes on the basis of the idea of the soul, you would have to prove both 1 and 2 [UPDATE: or 1, 2, and 3] conclusively. If you think your line of reasoning is probable, but you can't prove it conclusively, I have another question:

Do you want to risk shrugging off the killing of something that might have a soul[/immortal soul]?

On the basis of scientific evidence, the Spanish parliament has now endorsed the Great Ape Project's declaration, and the great ape project is continuing to push for it to be more widely adopted.

Questions to think about (and answer in the comments if you like):

1. How much of a distinction should we draw between humans and other animals?
2. What do you base your answer on?
3. What are the moral implications of your position?

4 comments:

kevin said...

Just so you know, there are a number of Christians who subscribe to "nonreductive physicalism" which denies the existence of a soul. For instance, here is one book that details such a view.

paladin said...

Hi, Myron!

I'm alive, honest! :) The past month has been frantic (I have a much heavier teaching load, this year), and I have another RCIA presentation to prepare, for Tuesday. I'll try to contribute a bit, when I next come up for air!

Take care, and God bless!

In Christ,
Brian

paladin said...

Hi, Myron! I'm back, charging in where the more cautious fear to tread! :)

You wrote:

--- quote ---
The line we draw between ourselves and other animals has always seemed a little bit artificial and arbitrary to me, kind of like the lines we used to draw between the various races and ethnic groups we now recognize to be part of the common race of Humanity.
--- end quote ---

Given a fundamentally non-theistic and "modern theory of evolution" worldview, I could see how someone might think so. If we're all merely collections of random, ultimately purposeless cosmic flotsam (some of which might contain more chemicals and/or complexity than others), then there's little point in making "cosmic" (I'd say "ontological", if I thought I could get away with it... :) ) distinctions.

--- quote ---
[The "Great Ape Project" supporters are pushing for something similar to the declaration of human rights to apply to all great apes (humans are also classified as great apes), or what they call "the community of equals". Their declaration seeks to guarantee the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture for all great apes.
--- end quote ---

I'd give them "A" for intensity of sentiment, but a substantially lower grade for clear thinking, I'm afraid. More on that below, but I should note that the humane treatment of lower animals (primates or not) can be achieved without any recourse to "blurring" the line separating humans from lower forms of life.

Quoting the "Great Ape Project" [GAP]:

--- quote ---
The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts.
--- end quote ---

Again: full points for enthusiasm, but when the writer mixes scientific commentary with rhetorical hyperbole, his/her credibility begins to wane. If one wishes to make a logical point, sentiment and personal bias should be excluded to the extent possible.

--- quote ---
They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness.
--- end quote ---

I hope the opinion-charged phrase, "rich emotional and cultural existence" is obvious as a deviation from pure reason...

As to emotion: all sentient (i.e. "feeling-capable") animals experience primitive emotions; dogs, cats, gerbils, horses, cows, and even chickens experience those... and yet, I think the "DNA correlation" arguments of the "Great Ape Project" would find it a bit more difficult to accommodate these, as well. Mind you, if I'm mistaken, and the same people wish to start the "Great Chicken Project", I'll happily modify my argument accordingly. :)

--- quote ---
They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages.
--- end quote ---

The author is playing a bit fast-and-loose with terms, here. Cats and dogs can be taught how to use tools, of sorts (e.g. pulling a rope to open a door, etc.), and even rats can be trained to press one switch over another, if trained properly; but again, I think the "GAP" people would be more reluctant to suggest that rats have a "rich emotional and cultural experience".

As for other language(s!): aside from being able to mimic ASL, I've heard of no other languages, so I wonder at their use of the plural. Also, they haven't come close to offering any sort of proof (extrinsic or otherwise) that apes understand the *meaning* of those symbols, any more than a singing parrot understands the phrase, "I left my heart in San Francisco", or any more than a piano-playing dog or cat has any understanding of music.

To make that point quite clear, consider the following case: given two creatures--one who uses ASL for actual communication, and another which has learned to mimic it without any understanding (but is instead acting out a conditioned reflex)--however would you tell the difference, given only that you see ASL symbols being given? To suggest, "Ah! There must be communication happening!" is a statement that wants further proof, above and beyond mere speculation, or wishful thinking.

--- quote ---
They remember their past and plan for their future.
--- end quote ---

Aside from the bias-laden choices of words (especially the word "plan", which definitely implies self-awareness), I'm not sure what they mean, here. Do they also believe that ants and bees "plan for their futures" by laying food aside for later? (I do wonder what the DNA correlation between humans and these insects would be...) And our cats certainly remember the past, at least to the extent that they remember where we used to hide their kitty treats, even after we move them and clean/deodorize the area! I do wonder what the GAP parameters are, for this willingness to "anthropomorphize" various members of the animal kingdom.

--- quote ---
It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.
--- end quote ---

"Morally significant?"

Could someone offer a guess as to what that could possibly mean, in this context? At this point, they're sounding rather confused. "Morality" is the framework by which actions are judged to be culpable for wrongdoing, and praiseworthy for performing meritorious acts; are they suggesting that the apes be held to a moral standard themselves? It would be necessary, if they were persons with "human-equivalent" intellect, free will, and the like. Perhaps a tribunal could be set up to punish, imprison, fine, etc., those apes (or chickens, or ants) who transgress the moral law? Or is the moral law only to apply to humans? (If so, why?)

--- quote ---
Christianity holds that we as human beings have a special place above all other life.
--- end quote ---

True... but I'd add that Christianity is far from being alone, in that regard.

--- quote ---
But what careful investigation is showing more and more is that some forms of life at least are much more similar to us than we used to think, and it might be wrong to treat them as "others".
--- end quote ---

I'd caution you against an equivocal use of the word "similar"; of course, we've discovered similarities that were heretofore unknown! But there are similarities and similarities; the chemical content of my body, for example, is not far removed from that of a deep sea fish, or even certain types of bacteria--but I doubt that you'd claim that the fish or bacterium should enjoy a moral parity with man, merely on that basis!

I'd also add that, without more precise definitions, the phrase "it might be wrong to treat them as 'others'" is an appeal to the gallery, with no logical weight. This seems to appeal to the sympathy of the audience, in that the audience members probably wouldn't like to be dismissed or dehumanized (a telling term!) on the basis of being labeled "other" (i.e. "outsider", "alien", "enemy", "excommunicant"), either. Regardless of whether such a "yank" on the audience's heartstrings is effective or not, it simply won't do as a logical argument.

--- quote ---
The worst atrocities in our history involved treating other human beings as inhuman,
--- end quote ---

:) There's that word, again...

--- quote ---
unlike "us", not sharing our special status.
--- end quote ---

In a limited sense, this is true. But similar massacres happen every day, when millions of microorganisms are killed through the (hopefully) regular sanitizing of a household bathroom, every week. Why are the bacteria denied this "special status" which is to be granted to apes? Merely because they have features which *resemble* those of humans? That seems rather provincial, and akin to "liking someone just because they're of the same race", etc.

--- quote ---
But if great apes are thinking creatures, shouldn't they be treated with an equal level of respect?
--- end quote ---

If they were truly capable of self-aware thought (and a corresponding free will), then certainly, they should be treated with all the dignity of persons--because that's what they would be. I assert that even the cleverest apes, dolphins, dogs, etc., lack a self-aware intellect, and they lack a radically free will. I think you, yourself, would need to admit this, were you to believe that only humans should be punished for their wrongdoing. (Do you?) Only those who are aware of wrongdoing (i.e. with a self-aware intellect), and who can freely choose to do wrong (i.e. with a radically free will), deserve punishment, after all.

--- quote ---
So, revised questions for those who believe everything has a soul, but humans are the only ones that have immortal ones:

1. What evidence do you have that everything has a soul?
--- end quote ---

A soul, if you'd like a colloquial definition, is the difference between a living thing and a corpse. The soul, by definition, is the life-principle of a living thing.

--- quote ---
2. If you have sufficient evidence for this, what evidence do you have that the human soul is immortal?
--- end quote ---

First: the human soul is not made of parts (i.e. it's "simple" in the classical sense), so it cannot decompose, decay, or otherwise break down into any constituent "parts"; aside from annihilation (which would require an external cause), an already-existing soul would necessarily continue in existence.

Second: only humans have exhibited demonstrable proof of self-awareness and free will--the "moral sense", if you will. Without self-awareness, even a hypothetical "immortal animal soul" would be void of content, since emotions (as such) are part of the animal nature (i.e. the material order, or the body) and not of the spiritual order (in which only intellect, will and memory reside). In short, a suggestion that an animal might have an immortal soul would be akin to saying that a set of numbers exists, but which contains no numbers. It might be true for mathematical purposes (e.g. the null set), but it does nothing for those who wish to assign any *meaning* to that "immortality". In short: intellect, will and memory are all required for any "immortality" which you have in mind (or which would have any meaning whatsoever).

Third: given that a supremely perfect God (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, eternal, etc) exists (a separate issue), and given that He has accurately revealed what He wants us to know about Himself through Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (another separate argument), we can know that animals are of a very different order than humans--since God said so explicitly: in saying that humans are created "in the Image and Likeness of God" (cf. Genesis 1:26,27), in Adam "naming" the rest of the animals (cf. Genesis 1:19-20; to the Hebrews, to name something was to express dominion over it), in demonstrating that man found "no helpmate like himself" among the animals (cf. Genesis 1:20), and in giving man dominion over the whole rest of creation (cf. Genesis 1:26).

The third issue begs several separate questions, to be sure; the explanations are quite long (and I may have to wait until next time, to tackle them), but I'll try my best to satisfy.

(Pardon the formatting change, here...)

> 3. If you have sufficient evidence for 1 and 2, what evidence do
> you have that we're the only ones?

Strictly speaking, I have direct proof that man is *not* the only one with an immortal soul; the angels most certainly have immortal souls (or, rather, *are* immortal souls--without material bodies), as well. I do, however, have evidence that no immortal souls are to be found among the animals (other than man)--see above.

> Truthfully, the whole idea of the soul seems very tenuous to
> me, and I'm wondering why people believe it, aside from that
> it would be nice if it was true...].

I believe in the existence of the soul because it would be logically untenable for me *not* to believe in it. Do remember the definition of a soul: "the life-principle of a living thing". If you believe in life, you necessarily admit the existence of a soul, thereby.

> In order to dehumanize great apes on the basis of the
> idea of the soul,

All kidding aside, I really must ask you to clarify what you mean, here. Apes are not human, so they cannot possibly be "dehumanized"--any more than a human can be "de-ape-ified", or an ape can be "de-weasel-ified". I get the vague idea that you mean "deny apes the personal rights proper to man"... but even that gets into strange waters, since you seem to be giving apes importance on the basis that they're sufficiently related to man--that apes are "riding in on man's coattails", so to speak. Could you clarify?

> Do you want to risk shrugging off the killing of something
> that might have a soul[/immortal soul]?

It's curious that you, who currently see no reason to prohibit abortion by force of law, would use such an argument! Are you not presenting a case in which the "rights" of apes (including the right to life, the right not to suffer torture, etc.) would be protected by law? If them, then why not the human unborn child?

> On the basis of scientific evidence, the Spanish parliament
> has now endorsed the Great Ape Project's declaration, and the
> great ape project is continuing to push for it to be more
> widely adopted.

With the exception of the phrase, "On the basis of scientific evidence", your statement is quite true. But I'd add that it is both sentiment and personal opinion (manifesting in political opinion) that drives this effort, not "scientific evidence". The "personhood" of an ape is an issue far beyond the purview of the empirical sciences (which I assume you mean, when you say "science"), in any case.

> 1. How much of a distinction should we draw between
> humans and other animals?

Humans are created in the Image and Likeness of God (and have immortal souls thereby), and the lower animals do not; humans have God-given dominion over the lower animals (and a solemn charge to use them responsibly and gently), and the lower animals have no such claims on humanity; humans have rights with regard to each other, while animals have no rights (as such) with regard to humans. In short: humans are persons, and lower animals are not.

> 2. What do you base your answer on?

Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the teachings of the Catholic Church (founded by Christ, Who is God, Who cannot deceive nor be deceived), and right reason (using sound logical principles, rather than sentiment).

> 3. What are the moral implications of your position?

They are manifold; but the implication most immediate to your case is the fact that "The Great Ape" project is a misguided attempt to bestow "rights" where none belong--partially due to a near-complete loss of understanding of the human person (and our duties to other men). Fr. Leslie Rumble (of Australia) dealt with this issue, even back in the 1920's:

=== quote ===
There is a great danger of excess in this matter. As Christian ideals fade, human beings forget their own dignity, reduce themselves to the animal level, and grow hard toward one another. And by a strange kind of distortion, the human sympathies which they cannot suppress entirely tend to go out to the animal world. Many women marry, refuse to have children, and lavish their instincts upon pet animals as a substitute. So we have beauty parlors for pet dogs, where ladies can take their little Pomeranians to have them "bathed, shampooed, groomed and manicured" at a price which would provide a week's food to a starving child. [...] It is essential that we have a correct knowledge of the order of things established by God, that we obtain a genuine notion of religion and of its duties, and that we fulfill those duties. Sentiment cannot be exalted to the dominant element in religion.
-from "Radio Replies, Vol.3", Fr. Leslie Rumble & Fr. Charles Carty (TAN Publishing)
=== end quote ===

More later; sorry for taking up so much bandwidth!

In Christ,
Brian

Myron said...

wow Brian! That's a lot of thoughtful comment, and exactly the sort of thing I was looking for when I started this blog. I'm in London typing this on an iPod, but just wanted to publish your comments and say thanks, and I'll respond in more detail when I get home and settled (probably Wednesday or Thursday.