Sometimes people discuss the case for or against God, hoping to prove or disprove His existence.
That’s not my goal. Deities – and magic of all kinds – are often defined as being beyond the realm of evidence or proof. You either believe or you don’t.
As far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in God. We’ve never encountered data that would require the presence of a deity to be explained.
But then again, as far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in free will. We’ve never encountered data that would suggest that the workings of our brains are caused by anything other than the predictable movement of salt atoms inside of us. And, personally? I’m totally willing to believe in free will, based solely on how my existence feels.
So I can’t fault anyone for believing in God. Or gods. Witchcraft, ghosts, or aliens – sure, I do think some of these beliefs are a bit more outlandish than my belief in free will, but it’s all a matter of degree.
Instead, I’d like to discuss the legal case against God.
That’s why I’m vegan – I don’t believe animals should be killed or caged just for me to have a tastier meal. As a heterotroph, I obviously have to hurt somebody every time I eat, but I’d rather hurt a carrot than a cow.
And it’s why I’m an environmentalist. Although climate change would open up a variety of new ecological niches, presumably benefiting many lifeforms (including some that don’t even exist yet!), many of our world’s current denizens would suffer. Many current species would go extinct.
And, because I’m pro-life, I’m also pro-choice. I believe that parents can do best when they’re allowed to choose when & with whom they’ll have children. I believe that fooling around with people is often fun, and can be deeply emotionally fulfilling, and that people should be able to partake in consensual pleasure without the fear of lifelong repercussions. I believe that human women are living creatures and should have autonomy over their bodies.
I vastly prefer contraception to abortion. It would be marvelous to live in a world where safe, effective contraception was freely available to everyone who wanted it!
When my spouse and I were hoping to have children, we declined genetic testing during each pregnancy. Given our immense privilege, we could afford to love and raise whomever arrived in our family. But not everyone believes that they can. Some people feel that they’ll be unable to care for children with dramatic healthcare needs. (Inevitably, when we allow people choice, some people will base their choices on rationales that I don’t agree with.)
Following the Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many states have criminalized abortion. In Washington state, legislation provides “to unborn children the equal protection of the laws of this state,” and in Iowa, legal personhood begins “from the moment of conception.” Under such laws, abortion constitutes murder.
And worse. As Madeleine Schwartz documents in her excellent 2020 essay “Criminalizing a Constitutional Right,” even before the Dobbs decision, many women were already being charged with murder or neglect if they happened to have a miscarriage or stillbirth.
In the vast majority of cases, though, a miscarriage is not the mother’s fault.
Most often, the culprit is God.
Under these laws, state prosecutors ought to bring their murder charges against God.
After conception, each embryo passes through several developmental checkpoints. A wide range of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities could cause a fetus or embryo to fail to pass these checkpoints. At that point, the pregnancy is terminated. The unborn child is aborted by – or, if you agree with the sort of legal language that the Dobbs decision unleashed, murdered by – God.
A miscarriage is often an emotionally wrenching experience for aspiring mothers. The emotional aftermath of miscarriage is typically much worse than that of abortion. The outcome is the same – the pregnancy is terminated – but when God aborts a pregnancy with miscarriage, a perhaps desperately wanted unborn child is lost.
Miscarriage is frequent, too.
It’s hard to know the exact frequencies, because in addition to the general culture of shame and disparagement with which the medical community has long regarded women’s bodies, miscarriage is particularly hidden. Miscarriage is so common that women are advised not to announce their pregnancies until their second or third trimesters, but this means that their support networks of friends, family, and colleagues might not even know why a person feels devastated.
But a good estimate is that about fifty percent of conceptions will fail to pass all the necessary genetic and chromosomal checkpoints.
Which means that – insofar as we believe that legal personhood begins at conception – about fifty percent of all people are murdered by God before they are born. God is a ruthless eugenicist, dispassionately evaluating the DNA of each unborn child and quelling the development of half.
From Schwartz’s essay, you’ll learn of numerous women who were imprisoned – and lost their jobs, their homes, their families – because they were suspected of harming their own unborn children. (And this was all before the Dobbs decision.)
For the cases that Schwartz chooses to discuss, most of the women were very poor. If we as a nation had chosen to spend money to give all women access to high-quality nutrition and prenatal medical care, some of these fetuses may have survived their pregnancies and had the opportunity to become living, breathing, impoverished babies. In which case I’d argue that the people who intentionally withhold free access to nutrition and prenatal care – the Republican governors and legislators – are accessories to murder.
But before we punish any of them, we should start with God.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn the standing decisions from Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The majority opinions in those cases guaranteed … um, actually, quite little?
Soon, those opinions might guarantee even less!
Justice Sonia Sotomayor is worried that the Supreme Court might lose its aura of legitimacy.
Justice Sotomayor said, “Will this institution survive the stench that [overturning Roe v. Wade would create] in the public perception that the Constitution and its readings are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.”
This is actually a major reason why Roe v. Wade wasn’t overturned previously. In a recent essay on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ACLU legal director David Cole writes that “As the three then-recently Republican-appointed justices … warned in 1992, overruling Roe would do ‘profound and unnecessary damage to the Court’s legitimacy and to the Nation’s commitment to the rule of law.’ That is only more true today.”
And, look: I’m pro-choice. I would prefer for anti-abortion laws like those recently enacted in Texas and Mississippi to be revoked.
But also: the idea that our Supreme Court might lose some of its power makes me quite pleased!
In our country, there are ostensibly three equal branches of government to balance each other.
Which sounds like a nifty design! Barstools often have three legs because any three points define a plane (unless they’re all on the same line), so three-legged stools are rarely tippy. Quite helpful when the sitter might be tipsy!
But something’s gone wrong with our government.
The recently-ritualized filibusterer system of our legislative branch that allows any proposal to be passively smothered, often by senators who represent fewer people than live in single neighborhoods of major cities. The post-9/11 domestic spying and drone strike assassinations from our executive branch. These are strange aberrations!
The worst offender, though, is probably our judiciary. Over many years, our Supreme Court justices have steadily commandeered more power, and the system is untenable.
Unfortunately, our Supreme Court justices are incompetent.
This isn’t really their fault!
And I happen to think that several of them are clever, kind-hearted people. I really liked when Justice Sotomayor’s minority opinion for Utah v. Strieff included a reading list to help people who hadn’t noticed the lingering ramifications of institutional racism in our country.
That was grand!
But for our Supreme Court justices to form meaningful opinions about the whole range of cases that come before them, they should understand computers, artificial intelligence, psychology, sociology, economics, biology, medicine … and, they don’t.
To be nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, a person instead needs to have specialized in our country’s adversarial system of law. Which means, due to time constraints, that they probably won’t have an adequate understanding of many vital subjects.
Worse, the one subject that they did specialize in – adversarial law – isn’t even helpful! Immersion in this style of thought probably makes people less suited to serve on the Supreme Court. As law professor Sarah A. Seo wrote in a recent essay on public defenders, “Adversarialism is not inherent to justice – it’s simply one way of administering it.”
Even if the adversarial arguments mattered – if, for instance, we lived in an alternate universe where the judges were such flexibly-minded people that they allowed themselves to be persuaded in court, that we couldn’t predict how they were going to vote well before any arguments had been presented – the idea of “justice” arising from competition instead of justice by collaboration is a foolish way to run a country.
Often, people refer to Roe v. Wade in shorthand, suggesting that the decision guarantees a right to privacy, perhaps, or more specifically a right to abortion.
Instead, the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade says that “Though the State cannot override [the right to privacy, including a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy], it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a ‘compelling’ point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.”
There are two conflicting rights, and the majority opinion is proposing a guideline for their balance. This is quite common. We balance people’s privacy against the state’s interest in preventing crime. We balance manufacturers’ desire to pollute with other people’s desire to breathe clean air or drink clean water.
In Roe v. Wade, the justices were balancing women’s bodily autonomy against the state’s interest in protecting the health of possible future citizens.
The justices concluded that: “For the stage subsequent to [fetal] viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
When conservative commentators describe Roe v. Wade as a terrible ruling, I’m inclined to agree with them.
Yes, the three new Supreme Court justices – the stolen seat, the attempted rapist, & the hypocritical election’s-eve appointment – would like to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they hardly even need to! The existing opinion already does so little to protect women’s rights!
A large section of the ruling for Roe v. Wade discusses ancient attitudes toward abortion.
This discussion is markedly incomplete. Supreme Court justices simply don’t know enough to make their rulings! And there’s not a great solution to this, since very few possible groupings of nine people would include enough expertise to handle all the cases on a year’s Supreme Court docket.
Abortion has long been a common practice – healers and midwives in many cultures knew which local plants were arbotifacients. And any discussion of ancient attitudes toward abortion should also discuss infanticide.
Infanticide was common during recorded history. Based on studies of surviving hunter-gatherer cultures, we also have reason to suspect that infanticide was even more common in our species’s prehistory. In relatively recent times, if a baby was carried to term and then given up for adoption – perhaps left upon the doorstep or a church or monastery – there was significant risk of death. Amid high childhood mortality, a baby separated from the mother would face especially grim odds.
Compared to other primates, human mothers form emotional bonds to a child relatively late in development. Among our evolutionary cousins, it’s rare for a mother to allow any individual (not the baby’s father, not her own mother, not her other children) to even touch her baby. A full year might pass before the mother could bear the sight of her baby in another caregiver’s arms.
There are huge benefits that human mothers are less protective – shared child-rearing cements trust between adults, allows for our babies to be born earlier in biological development (essential given the size of our brains!), and leads to more attentive lifetime care.
Plus, this evolutionary history has made human babies so cute! Our offspring wouldn’t giggle and coo – behaviors that delight a potential caregiver – if they relied only upon irrevocable maternal love in order to survive. Chimpanzees are born cute – in their first few moments, they need to delight their mothers – but their tendency to giggle or mirror facial expressions fades within the first week or so. Unlike human babies, they aren’t constantly prepared to woo a new adult.
But human delay in attachment also made abortion and infanticide more acceptable to our species. In many hunter-gatherer societies, any child who could not be cared for would be abandoned. Other great apes are actually far more likely to care for a developmentally-disabled child than are human hunter gatherers.
In many societies, personhood wasn’t attained until age five or six, at which time a naming ceremony would be held. It was considered bad luck to name a child sooner, or to feel too attached before that date.
Of course, most families probably still did feel attached. There can be a stark difference between private affection and public nonchalance, a play act to ward off bad luck.
In terms of the rights at stake in Roe v. Wade, though, all these historical considerations are mostly irrelevant. Yes, that’s the science – findings from nature. But nature isn’t good or bad. Nature isn’t ethical. The natural world simply is, whereas ethics demands that we think about how the world should be. Reading the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade, it seems like these topics were introduced only to make the conclusion seem scientific or better reasoned.
In the end, the majority opinion is based solely on medical technology: the State can ban abortion at the age when a baby could survive outside a woman’s body.
Not would. And certainly not will.
“For the stage subsequent to viability the State … may proscribe abortion … “
In an age when being a good parent means being as attentive as possible even before birth, we want better access to the babies growing inside pregnant women, better ways of measuring them and putting them under surveillance, so we can do the best for them even before they enter the world. Women’s bodies are almost getting in the way.
Ultrasound images show how much female bodies are already seen as vestigial in reproductive medicine.
“I’ve been arguing for years, don’t show pictures of fucking developing fetuses unless you show the entire woman’s body,” [says Soraya Chemaly.]
“I understand people getting pregnant and being excited, but I’m the terrible feminist killjoy; I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, why don’t we just make it bigger?’ Ultrasound was very deliberately developed to show the fetus as though it were a planet in a void, in a vacuum, in a container, in a jar. A wallpaper of blackness around it. It completely erases the woman whose body is generative.”
For a human baby to be born, a parent must make an enormous gift. Feeding and protecting and creating the gestating fetus over many months.
Currently, there’s no other way.
Currently, it’s impossible to combine a sperm cell and an egg cell in the laboratory, create an embryo, then provide the necessary nutrients and environment for that embryo to develop into a fetus, a baby, a child.
This would be a challenging project!
But not impossible.
Researchers will eventually be able to create a viable human child this way.
An act that would, per Roe v. Wade, instantly erase women’s rights.
Maybe this experiment would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So what? For Supreme Court rulings, cost is irrelevant. They’ve made this clear in their decisions for many recent cases.
Our Supreme Court decided that anonymously-chartered corporations have as much right to free speech as individuals – as though they weren’t already privileged with more speech, since wealth can be used to purchase expensive advertisements, think tanks, unscrupulous academics.
Our Supreme Court decided that the police can legitimately spy on you with any technologies that are publicly available, even if these technologies – like infrared cameras to visualize your body through the walls of your home, or telescoping lenses to peer into your windows from a distance, or a steady helicopter to linger overhead and watch you from unexpected angles – are far outside the budgets (and therefore expectations) of most private citizens.
It’s quite convenient that the justices so often fail to notice people’s wealth! (Or lack thereof.) Abortion laws were never really intended to target wealthy people, anyway. Wealthy people could either travel out of state or pay off a doctor to certify that an abortion met “appropriate medical judgment for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
If researchers spent hundreds of millions of dollars to nurture one embryo into a viable human baby – in a laboratory anywhere around the world – then the principle of fetal viability cited in Roe v. Wade would allow states to outlaw all abortion. Even though the material facts of women’s lives would be unchanged.
This is, after all, the problem with trying to slap scientific justifications onto a philosophical argument. Whether or not women should have bodily autonomy is a philosophical question. I think that they should. Our steadily increasing technological prowess shouldn’t change that.
Peering with the unwavering focus of a watchful overlord.
A cat could seem to be many different things, and Brendan Wenzel’s recent picture book They All Saw a Cat conveys these vagrancies of perception beautifully. Though we share the world, we all see and hear and taste it differently. Each creature’s mind filters a torrential influx of information into manageable experience; we all filter the world differently.
They All Saw a Cat ends with a composite image. We see the various components that were focused on by each of the other animals, amalgamated into something approaching “cat-ness.” A human child noticed the cat’s soft fur, a mouse noticed its sharp claws, a fox noticed its swift speed, a bird noticed that it can’t fly.
All these properties are essential descriptors, but so much is blurred away by our minds. When I look at a domesticated cat, I tend to forget about the sharp claws and teeth. I certainly don’t remark on its lack of flight – being landbound myself, this seems perfectly ordinary to me. To be ensnared by gravity only seems strange from the perspective of a bird.
There is another way of developing the concept of “cat-ness,” though. Instead of compiling many creatures’ perceptions of a single cat, we could consider a single perceptive entity’s response to many specimens. How, for instance, do our brains learn to recognize cats?
My friend looked at me with a mix of puzzlement and pity and said, “No.” Then added, as regards Philosophical Investigations, “You read it too fast.”
One of Wittgenstein’s aims is to show how humans can learn to use language… which is complicated by the fact that, in my friend’s words, “Any group of objects will share more than one commonality.” He posits that no matter how many red objects you point to, they’ll always share properties other than red-ness in common.
Or cats… when you’re teaching a child how to speak and point out many cats, will they have properties other than cat-ness in common?
In some ways, I agree. After all, I think the boundaries between species are porous. I don’t think there is a set of rules that could be used to determine whether a creature qualifies for personhood, so it’d be a bit silly if I also claimed that cat-ness could be clearly defined.
But when I point and say “That’s a cat!”, chances are that you’ll think so too. Even if no one had ever taught us what cats are, most people in the United States have seen enough of them to think “All those furry, four-legged, swivel-tailed, pointy-eared, pouncing things were probably the same type of creature!”
Even a computer can pick out these commonalities. When we learn about the world, we have a huge quantity of sensory data to draw upon – cats make those noises, they look like that when they find a sunny patch of grass to lie in, they look like that when they don’t want me to pet them – but a computer can learn to identify cat-ness using nothing more than grainy stills from Youtube.
Quoc Le et al. fed a few million images from Youtube videos to a computer algorithm that was searching for commonalities between the pictures. Even though the algorithm was given no hints as to the nature of the videos, it learned that many shared an emphasis on oblong shapes with triangles on top… cat faces. Indeed, when Le et al. made a visualization of the patterns that were causing their algorithm to cluster these particular videos together, we can recognize a cat in that blur of pixels.
The computer learns in a way vaguely analogous to the formation of social cliques in a middle school cafeteria. Each kid is a beautiful and unique snowflake, sure, but there are certain properties that cause them to cluster together: the sporty ones, the bookish ones, the D&D kids. For a neural network, each individual is only distinguished by voting “yes” or “no,” but you can cluster the individuals who tend to vote “yes” at the same time. For a small grid of black and white pixels, some individuals will be assigned to the pixels and vote “yes” only when their pixels are white… but others will watch the votes of those first responders and vote “yes” if they see a long line of “yes” votes in the top quadrants, perhaps… and others could watch those votes, allowing for layers upon layers of complexity in analysis.
And I should mention that I feel indebted to Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem for thinking to humanize a computer algorithm this way. Liu includes a lovely description of a human motherboard, with triads of trained soldiers hoisting red or green flags forming each logic gate.
In the end, the algorithm developed by Le et al. clustered only 75% of the frames from Youtube cat videos together – it could recognize many of these as being somehow similar, but it was worse at identifying cat-ness than the average human child. But it’s pretty easy to realize why: after all, Le et al. titled their paper “Building high-level features using large scale unsupervised learning.”
When Wittgenstein writes about someone watching builders – one person calls out “Slab!”, the other brings a large flat rock – he is also considering unsupervised learning. And so it is easy for Wittgenstein to imagine that the watcher, even after exclaiming “Now I’ve got it!”, could be stymied by a situation that went beyond the training.
Unsupervised learning may be sufficient to prepare children for life in an agrarian village. Unsupervised learning is sufficient for chimpanzees learning how to crack nuts. And unsupervised learning is sufficient to for a computer to develop an idea about what cats are.
But the best human learning employs the scientific method – purposefully seeking out “no.”
I assume most children reflexively follow the scientific method – my daughter started shortly after her first birthday. I was teaching her about animals, and we started with dogs. At first, she pointed primarily to creatures that looked like her Uncle Max. Big, brown, four-legged, slobbery.
Eventually she started pointing to creatures that looked slightly different: white dogs, black dogs, small dogs, quiet dogs. And then the scientific method kicked in.
She’d point to a non-dog, emphatically claiming it to be a dog as well. And then I’d explain why her choice wasn’t a dog. What features cause an object to be excluded from the set of correct answers?
Eventually she caught on.
Seems toddler & I will just have to agree to disagree whether certain animals are Canis lupus (“Daa!”) or Sus scrofa (“Naw, that’s a pig!”).
Many adults, sadly, are worse at this style of thinking than children. As we grow, it becomes more pressing to seem competent. We adults want our guesses to be right – we want to hear yes all the time – which makes it harder to learn.
The New York Times recently presented a clever demonstration of this. They showed a series of numbers that follow a rule, let readers type in new numbers to see if their guesses also followed the rule, and asked for readers to describe what the rule was.
A scientist would approach this type of puzzle by guessing a rule and then plugging in numbers that don’t follow it – nothing is ever really proven in science, but we validate theories by designing experiments that should tell us “no” if our theory is wrong. Only theories that all “falsifiable” fall under the purvey of science. And the best fields of science devote considerable resources to seeking out opportunities to prove ourselves wrong.
But many adults, wanting to seem smart all the time, fear mistakes. When that New York Times puzzle was made public, 80% of readers proposed a rule without ever hearing that a set of numbers didn’t follow it.
Wittgenstein’s watcher can’t really learn what “Slab!” means until perversely hauling over some other type of rock and being told, “no.”
We adults can’t fix the world until we learn from children that it’s okay to look ignorant sometimes. It’s okay to be wrong – just say “sorry” and “I’ll try to do better next time.”
I’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 …
And a component of speciation is a preference-based barrier to mating (at least according to the Advanced Placement Biology curriculum, which K. teaches – I have a number of disagreements with biological concepts as lain out in that curriculum, though), which could be used to argue that white and black people in apartheid Africa were separate species, for instance.
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.
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.