On personhood, in the Ramayana and in court.

On personhood, in the Ramayana and in court.

Screen shot 2014-12-05 at 6.12.26 PMI’ve been working on a modern retelling of the Ramayana.  Mostly because the myth provided a framework for approaching a number of issues that I wanted to discuss, like free will: numerous commentators think the Ramayana is primarily a story about fate, and the structure of Valmiki’s telling, in which an episode of the gods wanting to stop Ravana is presented long before Rama’s wife is kidnapped and Rama journeys to battle him, does imply a belief in predestination.  Which is kind of cute – this concept that I wanted to discuss from a scientific perspective can also be approached from the mythological perspective.

But probably the biggest draw of the Ramayana, for me, was as a framework for discussing the idea of personhood.

Which is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about as I’ve learned a bit more U.S. history.  Obviously there is the issue of race – for many years, a “surfeit” of melanin indicated a deficit of personhood.  I don’t think I need to include any links for the historical examples, and feel pretty rotten linking to anything relevant to the contemporary fallout from hundreds of years of considering certain people to be not people, but property.

Or there’s the case of women – most revealing might be to consider the history of rape law, which treated rape as a property crime, not as violence against people: Susan Brownmiller’s “Against Our Will” offers a good historical perspective.  Because, right, if someone assaulting you is considered a property crime against your husband or father – do I need to spell out why that’s not good?

The Ramayana addresses the issue of rape law in a way that seems similar to me: Rama kills his wife’s captor, but not, he claims, to free her, but only to avenge an insult against his own character – how dare you take something that belongs to me.

Here’s a quote from (I believe – I’ll swing by the library to check and make sure I’ve cited the correct edition) Goldman & Goldman’s translation of Valmiki’s book 6, Yuddhakanda.  You can scroll down, I guess, if you get the gist after a bit?


As he gazed upon Maithili, who stood so meekly beside him, Rama began to speak, as rage simmered in his heart:

“So here you are, my good woman.  I have won you back after conquering my enemy in battle.  Whatever there was to be done through manly valor, I have now accomplished.

“I have wiped clean the affront, and so my wrath is appeased.  For I have eliminated both the insult and my enemy at the same time.

“Today, my manly valor has been witnessed.  Today my efforts have borne fruit.  Today, having fulfilled my vow here, I am once more master of myself.

“You were carried off by that wanton raksasa when you were left alone, but now, through manly action, I have expunged that affront brought about by fate.

“What human purpose can man serve if his spirit is so feeble that he will not wipe clean through his own blazing energy an insult he has received?

“The leaping of the ocean and the razing of Lanka–today those praiseworthy deeds of Hanuman have borne fruit.

“Today, through their valor in battle and their beneficial counsel to me, the efforts of Sugriva and his army have borne fruit as well.

“And the efforts of my devoted Vibhisana, who abandoned his evil brother and came to me of his own accord, have likewise borne fruit.”

As Rama was saying these words in that fashion, Sita, wide-eyed like a doe, was overcome with tears.

But as Rama gazed upon her, his anger flared up once more, like the raging flame of a blazing fire drenched with melted butter.

Knitting his brows on his forehead and glancing at her from the corner of his eye, he spoke harshly to Sita there in the midst of the monkeys and raksasas.

“In wiping away this affront, Sita, I have accomplished all that a man could do.  In my wrath, I have won you back from the hands of my enemy, just as, through his austerities, the contemplative sage Agastya won back the southern lands that had been inaccessible to all living beings.

“Bless you, but let it be understood that it was not on your account that I undertook the effort of this war, now brought to completion through the valor of my allies.

“Instead, I did all this in order to protect my reputation and in every way to wipe clean the insult and disgrace to my illustrious lineage.

“Since, however, your virtue is now in doubt, your presence has become as profoundly disagreeable to me as is a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye.

“Go, therefore, as you please, daughter of Janaka.  You have my permission.  Here are the ten directions.  I have no further use for you, my good woman.

“For what powerful man born in a respectable family–his heart tinged with affection–would take back a woman who had lived in the house of another man?

“How could I who boast of my noble lineage possibly take you back–just risen from Ravana’s lap and gazed upon by his lustful eye?

“I have recovered my reputation, and that is the purpose for which I won you back.  I do not love you anymore.  Go hence wherever you like.”


But, right, why am I writing about all this today?  Well, I just saw in the news that the case for chimpanzee personhood in the United States failed on appeal.  And, yes, there is an army of monkeys in the Ramayana, and passages explicitly addressing whether the monkeys are people (they are not – even though some commentators believe the monkeys are a stand-in for the shorter, darker Dravidians of south India) – here is a passage from book 4, Kiskindhakanda:

“So enough of this sorrow!  Your death was decided upon justly, tiger among monkeys: We were not being arbitrary.

“By snares, nooses, and various traps, men in hiding or out in the open catch all kinds of beasts who run away terrified or confidently stand still.

“Men seeking meat shoot animals that are attentive or inattentive or even facing the other way, and there is nothing wrong with this.

“Even royal seers who fully understand righteousness go hunting here.  And so, monkey, I struck you down with an arrow in battle regardless of whether you fought back or not.  After all, you are only a monkey.”

It’s concerns like these – who counts, who should be afforded rights and respect and dignity – that drew me to the Ramayana in the first place.  And, yeah, I picked it because it was relevant to a lot of issues I follow in the news, but it’s still sad to watch the contemporary situations unfold.  For instance, here is a quote from the legal decision on chimpanzees:

In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights – such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus – that have been afforded to human beings.

And, look, if we put together a guessing game where there were chimps in cages, and Homo sapiens in cages, and you were supposed to say which was which, you’d get every answer right.  I’m nearly sure of it, unless you have a very, um, “interesting” brain or worldview or whatever.

But that aside, I think they’re decision is quite low quality.  And not just because it seems crumby to say that banks are people but chimps are not.  It seems upsetting that they use a framework that obviously they should know isn’t met by all Homo sapiens to draw their conclusion.

It’s unlikely anyone would argue that chimpanzees should be held legally accountable for all their actions.  Obviously they aren’t competent to stand trial.  But we have a legal precedent for Homo sapiens failing competency, and there are plenty of children and mentally-handicapped people who aren’t capable of bearing legal responsibilities or societal duties.  I think those people are people too – and I’m not trying to say that the mentally handicapped are equivalent to chimpanzees, but that there is not a clear demarcation between the capabilities of one group and the other.

In fact, the whole idea of separating chimpanzees from humans is grey.  There are several problems with the concept of speciation – I can’t find great links for this in the approximately two minutes I have left to type this essay (someone is very upset that I’m not paying enough attention to her and is teething on my knee), but …

I am seriously running out of time here – the teething has progressed to flailing and some yells.

But, really, we do not have – and I believe can not have – a sharp-bordered definition of human.  There are problems with all the possible tests – whether or not two things interbreed and produce a fertile offspring can only be tested pairwise, and excludes the infertile – tests for mental acuity could exclude the handicapped – tests for appearance could exclude burn victims or amputees- tests for DNA content are inherently statistical and fuzzy-bordered.  So trying to use the species concept to designate legal rights seems crumby to me.

Which in a way is related to the idea of marriage being legal only between a man and a woman.  Gender is also scientifically grey – there are XY women, for instance, and some people’s genitalia at birth do not match their presumed physiological gender after puberty– so a legal designation using binary categories seems inherently flawed.


P.S.  I was able to sneak to the library and borrow Kenneally’s “The Invisible History of the Human Race.”  I’ve learned an interesting bit of trivia so far – if you’d asked me to guess when the involuntary display of humans in zoos had ended in the United States, I would have guessed 1865.  Reasonable guess, right?  Good old thirteenth amendment, exception for “punishment” (which would *never* be applied along racial lines) and all.

But I would’ve been wrong.  Ota Benga, an African man, was displayed in the Bronx Zoo as late as 1906.  There’s even a promotional photograph of him posing with a chimpanzee at the zoo.

Which, again, is not to imply that the issues are equivalent.  Better to deal with the bigger injustices first.  And, humans take up space, we’re heterotrophs, we need energy for our grand designs – it’s not possible to live without hurting others, even if the harm were as small as “you can’t be here while I’m here because of the Pauli exclusion principle.”  But I think it’s worth thinking about what harms are worth it.  Cause, yeah, chimps are cool.  Getting to see chimps is cool.  Most people can’t afford to travel somewhere to see chimps in their natural habitat.

Personally, I think the trade-off isn’t worth it for chimpanzees, given the facilities many zoos have available for them.  But there’s an argument to be made.

For this case, though, Tommy’s situation is worse.  It’s hard for me to see what benefit is being accrued that would justify his situation.

On chimpanzees and Nash equilibria.

Photo credit: Christopher Flynn Martin, study lead author.
Photo credit: Christopher Flynn Martin, study lead author.

This is a pretty cool study, I think.  Amongst other things, the authors compared the performance of pairs of chimpanzees in a zero-sum game to the performance of human pairs.  And they noticed that pairs of chimpanzees typically perform much closer to the Nash equilibria than do human pairs.

I do wish the authors had done slightly more, though.  With their set-up, they were testing pairs who could not communicate with one another, and after each game the winner received some reward in sight of the loser.  So it seems as though the set-up could be extended to testing human / chimpanzee pairs.  The same prizes, food pellets or whatever, could be given to each, with the understanding that the human can exchange their reward for money after the entire series of games.

Because the authors stress that chimpanzees performed better than humans – “better” here meaning “closer to Nash equilibrium.”  As in, the pair performed close to what you’d expect for perfect rational actors.

But there is another clear sense of “better,” for individuals.  If you were playing, and you noticed your partner deviating from Nash equilibrium, you ought to deviate even farther.  A Nash equilibrium is the probabilistic set of strategies that eliminates any incentive for your partner to change their plan, while maximizing your expected rewards.  But the Nash equilibrium only maximizes your rewards against a perfect opponent: if your opponent is making mistakes, then you could win more often by using a strategy other than the one you’d pick at Nash equilibrium.

As an example, you could consider the “symmetric matching” game from the paper.  Nash equilibrium is for both players to have P=0.5 for each choice.  But if one player, the matcher, say, is choosing “left” with 60% probability, and “right” with 40%, then the opponent has an incentive to deviate from P=0.5 as well.  In this case, the highest possible payoff would be to start choosing “right” all the time, but for a repeated game that might be counterproductive: the matcher would notice and compensate for his or her original error.  But by choosing “right” with any probability greater than 50%, the mismatcher is still  capitalizing on the opponent’s error and will win a greater than expected share of the prizes.

This can be visualized by modifying graphs like those shown in Figure 2 of the paper.  Specifically, horizontal and vertical lines passing through the Nash equilibrium could be added, dividing the graph into four quadrants.  Points on the lines would represent  cases where one player had deviated from Nash equilibrium but the other did not take advantage of that deviation.  In top right and bottom left quadrants, the deviations of each player aligns to benefit the “matcher,” and the other quadrants represent outcomes benefiting the “mismatcher.”

Which is a lot of pre-amble to get to my point.  Sorry about that.  But my question is, are chimpanzees actually better at these sorts of games?  As in, if you paired a human with a chimpanzee, given that humans routinely deviate from Nash equilibrium in the asymetric type of game, would the final outcome typically favor the chimpanzee?  That’s something that seems to be implied by the paper, but they didn’t test it.  And it seems like they could.