"Should not beings of this sort have the same kind of legal rights as those we grant to human infants or the mentally disabled, who also cannot speak for themselves?" -- Jane Goodall, Foreword, page xMy wife laughed when she saw me begin to read this book. "Legal rights for animals? You've got to be kidding." And she very much enjoyed, and got the point of, Next of Kin too. I must admit that I wondered the same thing as my wife a bit after getting this book but before reading it. Not that Wise's rationale is totally convincing or water tight--far from it--but the fact still remains that I came away with a different frame of mind than I previously had.
Wise begins by looking at the origins and evolution of legal rights (and the lack thereof for some groups). Some reviewers have mistaken this historical look as a jab at their religious faith. (See especially the December 7, 2000 and August 11, 2000 reviews. I don't believe either reviewer made it past the first 40 pages of the book.) What Wise really says can best be summed up from a quote on page 4
Ancient philosophers claimed that all nonhuman animals had been designed and placed on this earth just for human beings. Ancient jurists declared that law had been created just for human beings. Although philosophy and science have long since recanted, the law has not.He discusses how other races and women were not always given legal rights and how, over time, rights have been extended to all humans (in some countries at least). The next logical step is to extend limited rights to other species who currently enjoy none and who are suffering because of it. Along the way, Wise naturally explains that we view other species as we do personal property and as we used to view slaves. They are something to be owned, controlled, bought, and sold. With the exception of some cruelty laws in some states we can legally do just about anything we want to even the most intelligent of other species. He relates an amusing anecdote along these lines on page 43-4.
[Lord Erskine, chancellor of England,] was a famous animal lover... It was said that once he protested to a carter who was beating his horse. When the man responded, "Can't I do what I like with my own?" Erskine then struck him with his stick and replied, "And so can I--this stick is my own."The book is loaded with such smile inducers and is generally well written from a readability standpoint. Unfortunately, there are several typos throughout the text. Some of which are more than annoying--they alter the meaning. Perhaps future editions will have corrected this problem.
After discussing the history of animal rights, Wise turns, more importantly, to what has to happen in order for the current legal mindset to change. He writes a beautiful paragraph that fits right in with this site's mission statement and can be applied to far more than just his topic. I will quote it in its entirety.
We stubbornly fight to preserve our core beliefs, consciously and unconsciously, fair and foul, any way we can. We may ignore anomalous data or flat-out reject or exclude them from consideration. We may decide to hold them in abeyance, intending to deal with them "later." We may reinterpret and refashion them so that they no longer contradict our beliefs. We may use what knowledge we have of arguments that oppose the threat to construct a barrier to arguments that threaten our beliefs. If none of these mental tricks works and contradiction begins to penetrate our defenses, we may consent to shave just the periphery of a belief, thereby allowing its core to survive. In the unlikely instance in which we find ourselves forced to alter a core, we may depend upon its resilience and ability slowly to resume its original shape. In short, beliefs survive unless we are strongly motivated to examine contradictory data with as unbiased a mind as we can muster and are both able and willing to think deeply about it. (p. 69)
Chapter 6 on "Liberty and Equality" is puzzling to me. I think Wise shoots himself in the foot here. He speaks of rights almost as if they are God given and not human given, contrary to what history and common sense tell us. Wise argues for "inalienable rights", "inherent dignity", and the "natural right to liberty". However, these "God given" rights are clearly not God given, inherent, or eternal (a term also referenced by Wise). Clearly all humans have not been treated with dignity or had what we would now consider to be their rights honored. Thomas Jefferson may have said that it is self-evident that all men were endowed by their Creator with liberty, but at the same time he was a slave owner. In other words, he didn't even believe it. It seems to me that Wise should be presenting an opposite line of reasoning. He should acknowledge, rather than criticize, his adversary, Frederick King of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center which treats other primates as things rather than creatures that deserve legal personhood of some sort, and say King is absolutely correct when King states that
I don't believe that rights fall like manna from heaven. Rights are not magical or absolute. I know our Constitution talks about inalienable rights. But I haven't seen any evidence of these. Rights are given by one group to another. (p. 87)Although I, like Wise, disagree with King's view of how other primates should be treated, he is absolutely right in this instance! And it would help Wise's case to applaud this. Heaven isn't going to give chimps and bonobos rights. Nor are these animals going to be able to write a declaration of independence to pretend a Creator has. The only way they are going to achieve some liberty is for humans to begin giving some to them. This is what Wise should be recognizing and arguing for.
Beginning in Chapter 8, and lasting for well over a hundred pages, is the essential portion of his case as it relates specifically to chimpanzees and bonobos. While this section is fascinating--especially for those who aren't all that familiar with the similarities between our species and theirs--it doesn't establish exactly where legal lines should be drawn or what exactly should entitle another species to "personhood" and hence (limited) legal rights. For instance, Wise seems to say that consciousness is needed for rights. But no one can decide or agree on exactly what consciousness is, how it can conclusively be tested for, etc. In addition, non-conscious, and non-"full blown" conscious humans are given rights. So consciousness probably isn't a very good yardstick, even if we could quantify it, in my opinion.
Wise summarizes a great deal of the literature with regard to the theory of mind and the communicative abilities of our closest non-human relatives. He agrees, as do I, with those in the field who believe that enculturating is the key. On page 170 he states
The very process of enculturators treating children and apes as if they have a self-concept, as if they can engage in joint attention, as if they can intentionally communicate, as if they have desires or beliefs, as if they have a theory of mind, and as if they can use language actually causes these abilities to blossom into a [more conscious] mind. When enculturators of children or apes consistently assume that what the child or ape is saying or doing makes sense and treat them as if they were making sense, eventually they do make sense.Like Fouts and unlike Pinker (who is crucified beginning on page 217), he critiques the methodology of Herbert Terrace. Regarding the importance of environment on the mental states of individuals Wise creates some chilling remarks.
The mental developments and abilities of Jerom [a chimpanzee who was tortured and killed at Yerkes] and the other AIDS-experimental chimpanzees at Yerkes were of little or no consequence to their captors. Consequently, their minds were almost certainly terribly stunted, just as the minds of their captors' children would have been stunted had they been treated so brutally. [Jerom languished in a cell from the time he was 2 until he died just before his 14th birthday.] (p. 171)And in many ways, the crux of Wise's comparisons are that we give children limited rights so why shouldn't we also give those rights to chimpanzees and bonobos. If we look at them like we should look at our children and instead of as something for which we have dominion over or just as some thing then the scales of injustice will begin to right themselves. As stated on page 229, "there can be no doubt that if these [encultured, language using] apes were children, no one would dare claim that they didn't comprehend language." An ability shouldn't be unfairly diminished simply because one of "our kind" isn't the one achieving it.
It isn't until the epilogue that Wise mentions that we may want to consider legal rights for any species other than humans, chimps, and bonobos. I'm of the opinion that we cast the net wider rather than closer to us. Not only will such behavior benefit those with minds which aren't human, the diversity of life on earth, and our own sense of fairness, but it will also further ensure the freedoms which we hold dear. Wise quotes from Abraham Lincoln (p. 252) who said that "[i]n giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free." In some ways an encultured chimpanzee is more intelligent than a human child several years old. A wild chimpanzee that is left alone is far more intelligent in chimpanzeeness than we can ever be. When we give them no rights what does this say about the rights we give to those humans who aren't autonomous? "If judges recognize the liberties of these humans but reject the liberties of apes with greater autonomy, they act perversely, and their decisions cannot be explained except as acts of naked prejudice." (p. 255)
Rattling the Cage is a good book, a thought-provoking book. The reasoning and parameters given for legal rights to only certain animals are not rock solid or immune from criticism. But the door has been inched open, and it is time, for assorted reasons, that animals other than ourselves be given some basic rights, by us, for us, and most importantly for them.
"Imagine that a hardy band of Neandertals tomorrow descends from the mountains of Spanish Andalusia or a tribe of Homo erectus emerges from the mists of Java, where they have lived isolated for three thousand generations. May we without hesitation capture and exhibit them, breed and eat them, and force them into biomedical research? If their minds make us hesitate and in that moment, if we open our minds to the possibility that they might be eligible for dignity-rights, shouldn't the minds of chimpanzees and bonobos make us hesitate as well?" (p. 243)
"The entitlement of chimpanzees and bonobos to fundamental legal rights will mark a huge step toward stopping our unfettered abuse of them, just as human rights marked a milepost in stopping our abuse of each other." (p. 237)
from the publisher:
While the popular animal rights movement gains ever-increasing momentum, in the courts the dark ages prevail. The evolution of law that has brought fundamental rights to the most defenseless humans has yet to begin for other species. A human lost in a permanent vegetative state enjoys a large array of legal rights. But a chimpanzee—a creature who can communicate with language, count, understand the minds of others, feel a variety of emotions, live in a complex culture, and make and use tools-has no rights at all.
Steven Wise, who has worked and communicated with the world's most prominent primatologists, demonstrates that, based on the latest scientific findings, the cognitive, emotional, and social capacities of at least chimps and bonobos entitle them to freedom from imprisonment and abuse. His path-breaking, witty, and impeccably researched book has everything needed to convince judges, scientists, lawyers, and the millions of others who simply care about animals of the injustice of denying them basic legal rights.
"An important, exciting book...The animals' Magna Carta." —Jane GoodallSteven M. Wise, J.D., teaches Animal Rights Law at the Harvard, Vermont, and John Marshall Law Schools, and in the words of Roger Fouts, author of Next of Kin, "is the perfect person to write this book."