Fiona McCade: Putting the horse before Descartes

THE well-known 17th century idiot René Descartes declared that “animals are destitute of reason” and argued that since they couldn’t hold serious conversations with humans, they really didn’t count for much.

I’d argue that holding conversations with many humans is a total waste of time, so I understand why animals don’t always bother. And if their inability to speak human makes them thick and unimportant, maybe arrogant old René should have said: “I can’t speak gorilla, ergo I’m thick.”

Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since Descartes dissected live animals and put their screams down to reflex reactions, but now a broad coalition of scientists, philosophers and conservationists called the Helsinki Group want to take things even further.

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In their “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans”, they state that “dolphins should be regarded as ‘non-human persons’. From an ethical perspective, the injury, deaths and captivity of dolphins are wrong… Dolphins are, like humans, self-aware, intelligent beings with emotions and personalities”.

I’m all for that and I’m happy to treat dolphins as equals. After all, some dolphins can already understand some of our speech, but we still can’t comprehend theirs. Dolphins, one; humans, nil. But if we say the dolphins are equal with us, where do we stop?

There are some very bright creatures out there who deserve just as much attention as the dolphins. There’s a chimp in Japan who can remember the location and order of a set of numbers on a screen in less time than it takes me to think: “Oh my God, I’m thicker than a chimp.”

And I am. When it comes to memory skills and number recognition, I am much thicker than that chimp. Equally, like René Descartes, I do not speak any ape, but a bonobo called Kanzi can understand English grammar, tenses, make jokes and has a vocabulary of 400 human words. The only thing stopping him from saying them out loud is the physiognomy of his face.

Crows can fashion tools and use water-displacement techniques (which took Archimedes ages to work out) to get themselves a drink. Elephants grieve; rats show empathy; monkey mothers get embarrassed when their kids have tantrums in public.

If you’ve ever had a pet, I probably don’t need to go on to convince you that animals have never, ever been dumb.

But are humans intelligent enough to treat other animals as equals? After millennia of exploiting them, are we up to the task?

Think about it. Those dolphins are clever. Probably cleverer than us. They won’t be satisfied with a few warm words and some extra tuna. They’re going to want real rights – like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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And what about the right to bear arms? Their brains are bigger than ours – are we opening the floodgates to Planet of the Dolphins?

The least they’re going to demand is representation, and where will that leave us, with our limited language skills? I can imagine what Fisheries Questions in the Scottish Parliament will be like:

MSP for Malin: “Eeeeee! Eeeeee!”

Minister: “Thank you. I …er…will reply to the Honourable Member’s question in due course. Is there an interpreter in the parliament today? A porpoise will do.”

I applaud the Helsinki Group’s intentions, but they are being speciesist. They only want the cetaceans, but that’s narrow-minded. We’re using human judgment to decide who we want to include as “persons”, and human judgment is flawed.

We regularly deprive species of rights because we don’t like the look of them, while adopting others for no good reason except that they look friendly. Pandas, for instance, are cute and cuddly, so we want to save them and adore them in zoos.

But pandas are thick. Conservationist Chris Packham says he would “eat the last panda” if the resources lavished on them could be given to “more sensible things”. So, if we’re going to accept the clever cetaceans, I reckon we should include the whole of animalkind as our family members. For different reasons, they all deserve our respect and kindness. Besides, there are many humans who don’t deserve to be called “persons”. I, for one, would happily put horses before Descartes.

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