Rene Descartes, 17th Century philosopher, is a notorious figure in animal rights history. In brief, he asserted that animals, being mindless, could not truly experience pain and suffering (as we understand the words). In practice, this theory informed our treatment of animals (especially in the laboratory) for centuries. The animals’ plight improved only slightly through Immanuel Kant’s influence (though irrational animals are means and not ends, we should still treat them well in order to cultivate good behavior towards each other). It wasn’t until 1966′s Animal Welfare Act that our government acknowledged animal pain; that is, they are not just robots and need some protection (weak as it is) from scalpels and electric currents. But ever-changing knowledge (in this case, of animal intelligence) demands a reconsideration of the human-animal relationship.
Science (ethological and cognitive studies), irrepressible by nature, will continue to raze barriers (between us and them) by gleaning new insights into the animal mind. Capacities and depth heretofore thought exclusive to homo sapiens are being unearthed across the species spectrum. And only the willfully ignorant, entrenched in the dark past, choose to ignore.
Two recent studies of the chimpanzee offer prime examples of this movable bar. First, researchers from St. Andrews have identified 66 different communicative gestures for wild chimps, doubling the previous findings. In addition, they also believe that these communications are species-wide (and not simply learned customs within a group). In the second study (Kyoto University), researchers discovered that chimpanzees have a definitive sense of self (beyond the mirror test). Using a computer game, the scientists tested the chimps’ ability to determine which of two cursors they could control, and then identifying them later. They could, and did. The study concludes that “chimpanzees and humans share fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent.”
The chimpanzee, as man’s first cousin, is an easy object for sympathy. We care about their pain because the similarities are uncomfortable. But in the words of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “What is it that should trace the insuperable line?” Is it underestimated intelligence (pigs), self-awareness (elephants, dolphins), intricate social orders and family relationships (chickens, turkeys), undeniable mother-child bonds (goats), or distinct personalities with broad emotional range (our pets)? No, none of these. Bentham simply asked, “Can they suffer?” In suffering, all sentient animals are our cousins. And, as cousins, they deserve a new place in our world. Not as tools, but rather as ends unto themselves.