by Phill Pappas

India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests recently declared that cetaceans (A.K.A. dolphins) “[s]hould be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights…” The newly granted entitlements of cetaceans exist mainly in their “right to be left alone.” The Declaration reads as follows:

  1. Every individual cetacean has the right to life.
  2. No cetacean should be held in captivity or servitude; be subject to cruel treatment; or be removed from their natural environment.
  3. All cetaceans have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment.
  4. No cetacean is the property of any State, corporation, human group or individual.
  5. Cetaceans have the right to protection of their natural environment.
  6. Cetaceans have the right not to be subject to the disruption of their cultures.
  7. The rights, freedoms, and norms set forth in the Declaration should be protected under international and domestic law.

With regards to how we treat animals, in captivity or otherwise, the declaration reads as a groundbreaking piece of legislation that can be celebrated by animal-lovers far and wide. Compared to global issues such as poverty, disease, hunger, or access to clean water, however, the declaration seems a bit more masturbatory in nature. That this declaration will have its intended effect worldwide appeals to the most altruistic side of humanity, 1 and since it fails to recognize other intelligent beings as near or equal to cetaceans (and therefore worthy of the same rights), it contradicts its own altruistic demand.

Scientists (and fans of the movie Flipper) have long known that cetaceans are intelligent beings. Dolphins call each other by name, exhibit complex social behaviors, use tools, play, and are self-reflexive. Self-reflexive behavior, which is apparently a mainstay in the scientific world when it comes to measuring an animal’s level of intelligence, is the ability to recognize one’s self in a mirror, a trait associated with humans, apes, pigs, elephants, and some dogs (but not all dogs). The argument being something along the lines of “Who’s that sexy dolphin in the mirror? Ergo sum.”

An animal’s ability to differentiate itself from it’s environment and other creatures is, essentially, the test for self-reflexive behavior, but does not necessarily measure the same constructs that define self-awareness (the capacity for introspection into one’s own knowledge, attitudes, and opinions; or, metacognition: awareness of one’s own ability to think).

Of course, without a common language, we truly have no way of knowing what a dolphin is thinking. Knowing whether or not the same psychological and philosophical questions that humans have asked also apply to animals is likely impossible and clearly anthropomorphic. 2 Although we can examine and study brain structure and the chemical and biological processes of an animal’s brain, until a dolphin has a full blown conversation with someone, we will never know if the biology of a dolphin’s brain results in what we humans know and perceive as “the mind.” 3

But for the sake of this article, let’s focus on something that seems to be more quantifiable than any of the theoretical and/or philosophical aspects to these questions, and that is, namely, the biological processes and observable data. 4

Based on what we know of how a mammalian brain works, it would be safe to say that dolphins, with their cortical folds, brain-to-body-ratio, and observable intelligence (i.e., social behavior, use of tools, name calling, etc) are smart –. the problem, of course, is that a dolphin’s brain is still different than that of a human.

As we understand it, high order cognitive/executive functioning (e.g., metacognition, organizing, problem solving, personality) in humans, stems from processes associated with the prefrontal cortex, and even with the comparable high measure for neural density, they still don’t have a fucking prefrontal cortex that resembles our prefrontal cortex. There’s nothing wrong with trying to uncover the secrets of the cetacean brain, or that these scientific discoveries aren’t important, but rather that comparative psychology still has some hurdles in validity to jump over.

The reason this is an issue, obviously, is because India’s doctrine has just exalted cetaceans to this new, protected status, and it must be noted that when it comes to this type of comparative psychology, we are assuming that we know what we’re looking for based on what we know about ourselves – it is an anthropomorphic dilemma.

So, getting past any biological comparisons, and attempting to adhere to “one set of rules,” as it were, for all animals to reach this newly coined non-human persons status, the scientific community seems okay with accepting the “mirror test” (alluded to earlier) as something that all animals in search of a species promotion should be able to pass.

Along with dolphins, elephants are also capable of self-reflexive behavior, 5 but India hasn’t reclassified their species or made any efforts to include the elephant in the newly formed doctrine. Elephants have been known to ferment their own fruits into alcohol, get drunk, and then terrorize the neighborhood in a blacked-out rampage, which may allow their species to bypass non-human person status completely, and, instead, be simply reclassified as my uncle. When it comes to apes, pigs, dogs, and elephants, the jury, my friends, is still out.

Regardless of their result on the mirror test, if an elephant paints a picture, or a gorilla learns sign language, or a hog shows above average scores on a memory test in which he uses his snout to pick playing cards off a screen (I repeat, snout) then shouldn’t they also be granted the right to be left alone (i.e., not be fucked with)? Yes, of course they should. If we actually don’t want animals to suffer and die, then we should expand the doctrine’s rights to all animals. 6

But the actual answer for the majority of global powers is likely, “No.” No, they shouldn’t be granted the right to be left alone, because people eat, ships sail, oil rigs spill, and “this is our land and we can do whatever we want with it, and who cares about the animals I’ve got a family to feed.” And in this country, especially, we the people see people less as part of the group and more as individuals. So, the statistical anomaly known as Koko the gorilla, or Hubert the hog, or Frederick the field mouse (who composed a concerto) is a rare outlier – they don’t represent their group, and they certainly aren’t the norm.

That India wants to protect dolphins, or that India has historically received below average marks when it comes to systems of classification, or that the actual point of their doctrine is to outline a peaceful and empathetic way to interact with the different species of this planet are not problems. That we, humans, love to classify everything is the problem. In our attempt to better understand the world, to understand societies, to help us think faster… we just have to classify everything, don’t we? 7

We divide ourselves into races, religions are split into factions, you are a Democrat, Republican, Baptist, Lutheran, Christian, capitalist, socialist, communist, abnormal, deficient, depressed, psychotic, poor, rich, middle-class, gay, straight, bi, transgender, mid-western, southern, north-eastern, first generation, second generation, immigrant, black, white, latino, arab, non-white, asian, non-asian, obese, socially maladapted member of this society, and we’ll be damned if you try to say that you’re anything else because we’ve got you pegged. We’ve gone through all of the questions, and you’ve selected all of your boxes, and it has become painfully obvious that you and I are not the same.

With the new doctrine in place, India has taken a large step toward the recognition and fair treatment of other non-human sentient beings that inhabit our planet – which is honorable. Whether or not anything positive will come of it outside India is an entirely different question. But considering we can’t even get a handle on the oldest axiom around when it comes to our own species (hint: not killing people), once they get a better look at the terms and conditions of what their new classification actually means, the dolphins might just decide to go it alone. And, really, who could blame them? After all, humans have been classifying each other for millennia, and we still treat our own species like shit.◥