Persons, Dolphins, and Margaret Somerville


Can dolphins be persons?

Margaret Somerville, a bioethicist at McGill University, is still pushing her Christian-based views as if they were science.  Recently, she’s taken on the emerging controversy about the rights that dolphins may deserve. The short version is this: dolphins’ brains appear to be functionally more like our brains than are the brains of primates. So some experts are suggesting that we should grant dolphins the status of “non-human persons.”  Somerville disagrees because she thinks humans are “special” and that personhood should be reserved exclusively for us.

I got turned on to this while listening to CBC Radio One’s The Current (19 January 2010 – the audio clips of the story are at the CBC website).  Shortly thereafter, on the 25th of January, an article by Somerville appeared in the Ottawa Citizen and soon thereafter spread to other places on the web.  The article was more lucid than her interview for CBC, but still suffers several problems.

The article begins with a laser blast of vitriol against those who abuse animals.  In a single paragraph, we get “immensely distressing,” “horrible slaughter,” “brutal and cruel treatment,” “hell,” and “cruelties.”  I cannot see how such a tirade does anything to advance a rational argument.  It does, however, get one’s blood simmering if not boiling.  And in the heat of such emotions, one’s capacity to think rationally can become blunted.  Measured discourse helps keep all participants calm and rational.  Somerville should know this.  Instead, she uses the kind of sensationalism that can foment emotional responses in one’s readers. This is not a good thing.  Unless, of course, one is trying to sway them with emotional sensationalism instead of rational discourse and lucid thinking….

Somerville then provides us with her summary of some recently published non-academic works that argue for the notion that dolphins should be persons.  Not having read those works myself, and being wary of Somerville penchant for presenting information skewed by a Christian-based world view, I will not comment on those works here.  If Somerville’s characterizations are accurate, then I would have reservations about those works too; but I withhold judgment on that here, and instead focus on the first-hand information that Somerville provides about her own views.

Somerville explains that she is against “personhood for animals” because humans are special, and that they deserve a particular respect beyond whatever is afforded to animals.  She admits that this is a controversial idea, but does nothing to explain it or compare it in any sensible way to the alternatives, except to argue circularly that we must treat humans as special because we are special.

She writes: “Currently, we use the word ‘person’ as a synonym for human and to indicate, communicate and implement the concept that humans are different from other animals and ‘special.'” As far as I can tell, this is plain wrong.

I cannot find a dictionary – and I checked several, including the highly reputable OED – that captures what Somerville proposes. I would invite you all to do the same, just to be sure.  While the specifics vary from one dictionary to another, “human” generally has two senses: (1) a person, and (2) a hominid. Hominids include us and our extinct predecessors – any individual of genus Homo.  The second sense is clearly scientific, and very crisply distinguishes “us” from other animals – but has no implication of specialness.  “Person,” on the other hand, can mean “human,” but can also refer to one’s physical body, or to one’s self (in the psychological sense) or, in the legal sense, to an entity with certain rights and duties (including “artificial persons” such as corporations) – again, no implication of specialness. So while the terms do overlap partially, there are differences; in some cases, the two terms are interchangeable, but it others they are not.

Rather than relying on the well-defined meanings of these terms that are quite consistent across multiple English dictionaries, Somerville seems to invent her own, and suggests that it is a common one, thus leading the reader to believe that the special nature of humans is one of its generally accepted features.  I say this is misleading; if human specialness were a commonly accepted feature of either of the terms, then we would find evidence of it in most, if not all, dictionaries.

Furthermore, since this whole matter is an ethical one, and since ethics is fundamental to notions of rights and therefore of laws, then it makes particular sense to use, in this case, the legal sense of “person.”  Similarly, and again in the interests of keeping the discussion as balanced and relevant as possible, it makes sense to use the scientific sense of “human.”  This gives us two quite crisp terms without any of the mushy grey area that naturally creeps into everyday language, yet remaining entirely within the bounds of accepted usage.

By conflating “human” and “person,” Somerville is again stacking the deck in her favour by ignoring the possible distinctions between the two terms; she has chosen language that supports her view rather than arguing from and about the facts as we know them.

After all, the question at hand is whether dolphins should “non-human persons,” a phrase that plainly begs the question of whether “human” and “person” do, or should, mean the same thing.

Somerville then writes, with respect to bestowing personhood upon animals: “The line between humans and other animals is blurred and the idea that humans are ‘special’ and deserve ‘special respect’ is eliminated.”  Again, she does nothing to support the notion of special respect, but rather takes it as axiomatic. This does nothing to support her position, but only restates it as if it were self-evident.

And then: “That means that what we do or don’t do to ‘animal persons’ should be the same as we do or don’t do to ‘human persons.’ So, for instance, if we have euthanasia for animals, we should, likewise, have it for humans. If we don’t eat humans, we shouldn’t eat animals.”

In the first case, of euthanasia, yes certainly this is a viable notion to consider.  I have already written about euthanasia, and would argue strongly that one should have as much control over one’s death as one would have over one’s life.  The second statement is, however, highly problematic.  First of all, humans are animals; Somerville is trying to slip into the discussion the notion that somehow we are not animals – again assuming the “special” nature of humans that she should instead be trying to demonstrate.  It is also a logical flaw: since all humans are animals but not all animals are humans, one cannot imply the characteristics of humans pertain to the larger class of animals.  Carnivores and omnivores eat meat; humans are omnivores.  Animals will, however, rarely eat members of their own species, unless absolutely driven to it for their own survival – a behaviour exhibited equally by humans and other animals.  There’s nothing wrong with humans eating meat (although there may very well be many things wrong with how we come by that meat – as Somerville rants about in her opening paragraph), just like there’s nothing wrong with other omnivores eating meat.

At this point, Somerville does something rather sly: she stops writing about dolphins and starts writing about “animals” generally; and, at one point, she turns left at Albuquerque and even starts writing about the Great Apes.  In doing so, she distracts the reader from the fundamental issue raised by the authors about whom she complains, as well as the subject of the CBC interview she gave some 10 days before the Ottawa Citizen article was published.  She plants in the reader’s mind the notion that ants, sea slugs, and rottweilers could all become non-human persons.  This too is just plain wrong.

The facts, as far as I can tell, are these.  There’s a substantial body of scientific research – the existence of which Somerville doesn’t even mention in her article, but that was at the heart of the CBC story – that supports the notion that dolphins are the second most intelligent species on Earth.  The Sunday Times (UK) printed a nice summary of the research on 3 January 2010.  The CBC spot that I heard also has some good information in it.  Furthermore, dolphins exhibit behavioural characteristics that very few other species, besides humans, exhibit – such as being able to recognize themselves in mirrors (instead of thinking they’re seeing another dolphin).  If you want to see some of the actual published research yourself, try this Google Scholar search.

The question, then, is whether dolphins should be non-human persons, not whether animals should be non-human persons.  And the difference is based on very specific science that Somerville ignores completely.  Instead she mounts a nearly vacuous argument (with respect to the current science) against all animals being made persons.

Somerville’s second argument centres on the way she sees personhood defined by its advocates for dolphins.  She says, and I agree generally on this one point, that their approach is to define personhood with respect to attributes.  These attributes are grounded in behaviours and functions that one might expect of a typical person.  A person is as a person does.  At this point, my agreement with Somerville stops.  She says that this leads to a kind of stratification of humans, which she implies is a bad thing (even though it’s perfectly natural).

She argues that “babies” (notice her use of the cute term rather than “child,” “infant,” or “immature human” – again playing to the emotional gut rather than the rational mind) are not persons.  Of course they aren’t!  That’s why they have so few rights, and no duties or responsibilities to speak of at all.  They are, however, human offspring.  And it is an evolutionary imperative to protect offspring; to do otherwise would have made humanity extinct long ago.  The ethics of protecting our young with certain minimal rights is just a rationalization of a natural instinct.  Somerville’s notion that parents could euthanize a disabled baby is also a non-issue: it doesn’t matter if the human in question is a baby or an adult with terminal cancer.  The notion of euthanasia is about prevention of suffering of the afflicted individual by offering such individuals (or their care-givers) a choice.  It is interesting to note that something akin to euthanasia is commonly practised in non-human animals; the weak and disabled are rarely protected by the rest of the clan/herd/family.  Nature seems fine with euthanasia – it’s us humans who have decided it’s wrong.  Why would that be?  (Answering this is left as an exercise to the reader.)

The point is: euthanasia is just a distraction.

In opposition to an attribute-based definition of personhood, Somerville argues for a “status-based” approach: that persons are humans, by definition, and vice versa.  Again, she completely ignores the question of what persons really are, except that they can only be humans.  She insists that humans have an “intrinsic dignity” that must be protected, and that personhood is the logical way to do that.  Her approach is based on what we are, rather than what we do.  But that only begs the question of what that intrinsic dignity is.

Even worse, if we accept her argument that all humans are persons and the only persons are human, then the two terms are completely identical – we don’t need them both. But this goes against the dictionary definitions of “human” and “person” which most definitely overlap but only partially.

I cannot think of a single thing that we identify by means other than its physical or behavioural characteristics.  We can, for instance, derive a definition of an apple based entirely on its constituent parts and how it reacts to certain inputs such that we can with 100% certainty distinguish an apple from a non-apple.  Somerville would have us define apples as things that have appleness.  But what in the heck is appleness if it is not the sum of all the constituent characteristics and behaviours of an apple?  If we exclude from consideration all of the physical characteristics of apples, of all their genetic composition, of their reactions with air and saliva and other substances, of how they grow and how they decay – if we exclude all this, then what, pray tell, could an apple possibly be?  (I honestly have no idea.)

Of course, Somerville doesn’t mind if we use characteristics and behaviours to define apples.  She will let us do the same for bricks, computers, stars, and any living organism – except, of course, humans, because we are “special” and must therefore have a completely different set of rules.  But again: why are we special? No answer is forthcoming.

She steers carefully away from the obvious religious implications: “We used to regard humans as special on the basis that they had a soul, a Divine spark, and animals did not. Far from everyone accepts that today. But most people at least act as though we humans have a ‘human spirit,’ a metaphysical, although not necessarily supernatural, element as part of the essence of our humanness.”

So: people act as if there were a “human spirit.”  This is behaviour.  Her position asserts that there is a human spirit because we act as if we do.  She bases her argument by measuring what we do.  Yet she argues that we cannot use “what we do” as the basis of personhood.  That’s called a paradox, and is a sign of flawed thinking.  (She also tries again, with that phrase “and animals do not” to slip in the notion that humans are not animals.)

Secondly, there’s a rather titanic leap of faith required to go from people acting as if a proposition were true, to the proposition actually being true.  Just because we might act as if there were “human spirit” doesn’t mean it actually exists.  One might consider this a reasonable hypothesis, but any reasonable hypothesis must be testable.  And there is no known way to test for the existence of human spirit.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that there is no human spirit; I’m just saying there is no way to know if it exists, given our current understanding.  Maybe someday we will know.  But for now, the matter is essentially nothing more than a philosophical curiosity, because there is no way to be sure.

And what’s more, there is a pretty reasonable explanation for humans thinking that they are special, that does not require jumping across vast tracts of metaphysical lands: evolution.  That is, I think we can safely explain that humans will naturally feel they are special compared to other organisms because of natural selection.  Consider:

  • Natural selection favoured individuals that properly recognized genetically compatible individuals with which to mate.  Other individuals would have been unable to reproduce successfully, and would have quickly become extinct, thus removing from circulation those genes that expressed a reproductive preference for genetically incompatible individuals.  As speciation occurred, it became more and more difficult to identify genetically compatible individuals due to a growing number of species.  Natural selection would therefore favour individuals with the strongest tendencies to prefer individuals of the same species.  This is most easily implemented as a simple binary switch that lets an individual classify other organisms into two groups: the same species, and everything else.  Right there, we have the foundation of individuals of one species seeing other members of the same species as “special” with respect to individuals of other species.
  • Natural selection would have also favoured individuals who protected their young till they were mature.  The offspring of disinterested parents would tend not to survive long enough to reproduce.  The genes that result in disinterested parents become extinct.  This is the foundation of bonds between generations.  Again, the offspring are naturally considered as “special” compared to every other organism.  By extension (or transference, another evolutionarily beneficial phenomenon), all offspring of a given species would be treated as special compared to offspring of other species.
  • Natural selection also favours various social structures in most kinds of organisms (depending on the environment).  Whether it’s a colony of ants, a pride of lions, a herd of gazelles, a pack of wolves, a family unit of gorillas, or a human tribe/clan/nation/culture, the genes that got passed on most successfully were those belonging to individuals who could distinguish between “us” and “them.”

So I see at least three substantive evolutionary forces acting on organisms since the very beginning of life on Earth, and I see them all contributing to a natural tendency to group all individuals into two groups: those-like-me, and those-not-like-me.  And the those-like-me individuals are those to which we form important bonds of security and survival, while the those-not-like-me individuals basically constitute threats.

What’s particularly important here is that not only humans believe themselves to be special.  If you step back for a moment and realize that the same forces are at work on every species, then every species must believe (insofar as other non-human species can believe, or instinctively act as though) they are special with respect to all other species.  So while it is perfectly natural that humans should feel that we are special, we obviously aren’t – because the same genetic imperative exists in every other species too.

In other words, feeling special is really nothing special at all.

And away falls another of Somerville’s arguments.

There is another aspect of Somerville’s doing-versus-being argument that I want to consider: that basing a definition of personhood on attributes (or what I prefer to think of as function – what we can do and how we can do it) will lead to stratification of people, and that some humans may end up not being persons whereas some dolphins may end up as persons.

This could very well happen, at least in certain circumstances.  Take, for example, humans in a persistent vegetative state, such as Terri Schiavo.

Terri Schiavo's brain (left) ravaged by years of being in a persistent vegetative state.

There were many tests performed on Schiavo – none of which showed brain activity anywhere near that of a healthy human.  Her brain stem was still working, and this was why she could still breathe, and move occasionally, and sometimes even make strange noises.  The rest of her brain was essentially mush, and without a functioning brain she could not possibly be considered a person.  Some of those arguing for prolonging her life said they could often hear words, like “love,” among her essentially random noises. Sure, and I can hear satanic messages when I play Stairway To Heaven backwards. So what? Hearing what you want to hear, or what believe you should hear, is a well-documented psychological effect, and is in no way indicative of actual utterances. That is, hearing an occasional sound that may be interpreted as a word does not in any way imply that a person uttered it intentionally.

Was Schiavo still human when she died?  Most definitely, yes.  Was she still a person when she died?  There is the crux of the matter.  I say she was not, because she had lost the very thing that defined her: her mind.

There is an excellent correlation between what science tells us about how the brain and mind function, and all the known indicators of what we consider a person.  There is no other explanation of personhood that is more accurate and more predictive. So the argument comes down to this: some people are simply unwilling to accept that science is a necessary component of any definition of personhood.  It may not always be sufficient – there will be borderline cases where we simply lack the scientific knowledge to make a clear and reliable decision.  But science simply cannot be ignored, in whole or in part.

Somerville’s argument, that personhood should be based on what we are rather than what we do, invites one to define a-priori what a person is, regardless of what science tells us.  This is unacceptable.  Science cannot (yet) give us all the answers, but what answers it has given us are the best of all possible alternatives.

That is the heart of the matter.  That is the heart of the debate: do we ignore science, or do we accept it.

I, for one, side with science.  It’s success in describing and explaining the universe is unparalleled in human history, and until someone comes up with something better will play the odds and endorse science all the way.

I don’t know (yet) if this means dolphins really should be persons or not.  What I do know is that we really shouldn’t pay any attention to what Margaret Somerville has to say about it.


4 thoughts on “Persons, Dolphins, and Margaret Somerville

  1. Good post. I also listened to this episode of The Current. For the life of me, I can’t understand why the producers keep giving her air time. I remember her on another episode of The Current that I blogged on (hereand she said the most ridiculous things. As a friend of mine on the philosophy faculty at the U of Calgary told me, Somerville is an embarrassement to the profession. I don’t pay any attention to ANYTHING Margaret Somerville has to say. Ever.

    • Thanks for the note, and the link. I think the main reason Somerville keeps getting airtime is her position in academia, and that she can improve ratings by getting everyone fired up. But that may just be me.

  2. I am always surprised to know the thoughts of neurologists about the consciousness. No scan still gives 100% clear view about consciousness and that shows only some sort of movement. I feel that they are not ready to accept their mistake about their stance on persistent vegetative state or minimally consciousness state since decades. Now the scans are telling what we are trying to tell since years due to our personal experiences. When the discussion is about human brain, It should be according to the dignity of the God’s best creation.

    • Sorry, but I honestly can’t understand what you’re writing here. I would suggest, however, a few key points:

      1. No other model has been proposed that is as accurate, precise, and predictive than the (current) scientific model of the brain and mind.

      2. Personal experience is EASILY shown to be inaccurate in most domains except those for which our senses were evolved to deal with. Trivial example: the Earth is still flat for all practical concerns on a daily basis – that’s our experience – even though it’s wrong. By comparison, science is far better than personal experience.

      3. “Dignity” is a relative term. And God is not a necessary prerequisite to treat anyone with “dignity.”

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