Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"Personhood" For Beginners

Originally posted on on May 30, 2012

Why doesn’t everyone get excited about transhumanism? Why aren’t all people fascinated by augmented and virtual reality, radical life-extension, brain-uploading, and The Singularity? This essay is the first in a series of articles, entitled “The Casual Transhuman” - it will examine H+ topics from the layman’s perspective and give suggestions on how transhumanists can spread their ideas without looking like crackpots to the world-at-large.
One of the most difficult and polarizing concepts for my non-transhumanist friends to discuss is non-human personhood.  For those who haven’t kept up on it or need a refresher, here are the basics:
There is a conceit amongst the majority of our population that we humans are the center of our universe. As we have become the technologically superior species on this planet, and as our dominion over the Earth has spread, we have assumed that we are the top dogs - that we are the only sentient beings here. All other animals are beneath us, and we are their masters. It has become so ingrained that the average person does not even question the truth of this kind of thinking.  
But this doesn’t hold up very well under any kind of scrutiny. 
Why do people in the Western world eat the flesh of cows, but not horses? Why do we dote upon dogs and cats, but never show affection for groundhogs and opossums? We can eat tuna and swordfish, but dolphins and sharks? It’s unthinkable. Why do we do this? People would say that it is because the horses, dogs, dolphins, etc. are intelligent and that the others are not. They would say that these animals show certain humanlike characteristics, or that they serve a purpose, and therefore are more evolved and should be protected.
Again, I speak in terms of the general feeling of people I know or speak to about this subject. This is by no means meant to be a blanket statement. Of course there are animal lovers and rights activists who believe the opposite, but they are unfortunately in the minority in the United States.
Well, the concept of non-human personhood grows from this. Some animals are quite intelligent. More highly evolved apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees share all but a miniscule amount of their DNA with homo sapiens and have been shown to make and use tools, to converse with people in sign language and to mourn the passing of a loved one.  Why are homo sapiens considered “people” but Koko the Gorilla is not? Why are we allowed to forcibly move them from their homes into either zoos or labs? Why are we allowed to experiment on them, put them into space, test drugs and other chemicals on them? Would we do these things to our own kind?
Again, I’m talking about the vast majority of humanity. Personhood is a right for humans, not a privilege. Shouldn’t higher apes be considered people, taking into account their mental, physical and emotional complexity? It comes from the fallacy that we are humans and anything not human is automatically lesser than we are. People who believe in the right of personhood for non-human beings disagree and advocate that these apes should be protected and allowed to live as freely as humans.
And what about non-simian species? Dolphins are often set as an example when discussing non-human personhood. They have a highly-developed society and are one of the few species widely understood to engage in sexual intercourse for fun as well as procreation. They also play games, some of which are quite involved and complex. Here is a video about one such game;

As we have studied animals, we have discovered that they are not very unlike us. So now we have beings that share this planet with us, that we know are intelligent, creative, emotional and complex. Now what? Many people just say “Fine, I accept that, but I’m still better than those animals. Now pass the A-1.” Others take this knowledge to heart and adopt a cruelty-free lifestyle - veganism, activism, etc. 
From a technoprogressive viewpoint, that is not good enough. What makes you a person? Your sense of self and awareness of the world and your place in it and in the society of others like yourself. Sentience. What we know of the way some of these more evolved animals think, it is safe to assume that dolphins, dogs, pigs and apes are sentient. Therefore, they could be qualified as people.
So how do we determine which animals deserve personhood? Obviously, a gorilla is closer to humans than ants. But ants have a highly developed social order and society. In fact, one could argue that ants are “more developed” than humans in a lot of ways. Disagree? then read this and report back to me. There is a human-centric bias that things that are more like us (or that are at least cute and cuddly) are more highly evolved. But ants have been around for over 80 MILLION YEARS! Think about that.
As always, I end my article by asking you to pick up the discussion. How do you determine which animals deserve personhood and the rights that go with it? How do we enforce their protection? Do you even think that ANY non-humans deserve to be protected as people?  

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