The Case for Animal Personhood

“There is nothing more alone in the universe than man. When we were children we wanted to talk to animals and struggled to understand why this was impossible. Slowly we gave up the attempt as we grew into the solitary world of human adulthood.”

– Loren Eiseley, “The Long Loneliness,” 1960

Because Whales are People Too:

In 2009, I spent two weeks sailing on the Sea of Cortez with the Dalhousie University behavioral ecologist, Hal Whitehead, and his crew of hard-working grad students: Armando Manolo Álvarez Torres and Fabiola Guerrero de la Rosa from Mexico, and Catalina Gómez from Colombia. We were following sperm whales – Whitehead’s specialty – which meant taking photographs and filling out data logs as the immense animals breached and rested and rolled their broad flukes into the air.

One of the first things you learn is how social these animals are. Perhaps once a day, the water around the boat would churn as the sperm whales rolled and echolocated and pressed into one another. At these times they were especially curious; some of the whales would “spy hop,” rise up vertically out of the water like huge periscopes, so they could survey our boat and its equally curious inhabitants.  Some of the interactions were spellbinding – the sensuality of the movements, the deliberate way each whale would roll and pivot and push. It’s one thing to read about this; it’s entirely another to witness it, to experience it, even if only from the sidelines. The impression of sensitivity and intelligence – a presence behind the gaze – is irrefutable.  It forces you to acknowledge their awareness, and to begin to imagine what their experience of the world might be.

Whitehead calls this socializing the “bonding glue” for sperm-whale society. His most famous proposition – co-written with his colleague Luke Rendall and published in a 2001 issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences – is that sperm whales have distinct cultures. Each clan, Whitehead and Rendall argued, is unique in almost every way: feeding, migration patterns, child-care preferences, rates of reproduction. The clans also have different dialects. In addition to their echolocation clicks, sperm whales produce unique sequences of clicks called “codas,” which change from clan to clan and are an expression of group identity—think of the variations, say, between Sicilian and Venetian Italian.

“These aren’t genetic differences,” says Whitehead. “They’re learned.” What distinguishes whales—along with chimps, elephants and perhaps some birds—is the fact that the things they learn persist through time. They seem to be passed down from generation to generation until they form part of the distinct identity of the clan.

Whitehead’s evidence adds a new dimension to the way we think about protecting whales. It tells us that if humans break up a group of sperm whales or killer whales or dolphins, we are destroying not just individual lives or a population of animals; we are also destroying a unique dialect, a hunting strategy, a social tradition—an ancient, living culture. “You have to understand,” Whitehead says, “until a few hundred thousand years ago most of the culture on Earth was in the ocean. Certainly the most sophisticated cultures on Earth were whales and dolphins, until the strange bipedal hominid evolved.”

So how do we extend our shy relationship to these nonhuman creatures? Through empathy. Through our creaky human imagination:

Imagine you are a whale.

Start by picturing the ocean. Picture yourself slipping into the water, naked. Hold your breath. Sink down. Imagine your body expanding with a comforting layer of fat. Imagine it lengthening, feel each vertebra click as your spine draws up and back, a little shiver as you shimmy out of your pelvic girdle, legs and hips set adrift. In their place you sprout a broad triangular fluke, which you force down now in a long, muscular undulation that drives you forward through the water. Your neck thickens. Your face moves out to meet the sea; it separates in the stream. The eyes slide left and right, the mouth moves down, the nose up. The coursing water flattens your nostrils along the top of your head, just in time to take a breath as you breach the surface and fill your lungs with air. You roll forward, snapping your tail, a luxurious full-body whip that propels you down, towards the sea floor. As you descend the pressure begins to seal the outline of your body, so that you feel swaddled – but also sleek – sleekly efficient and contained and directed. The feeling is exhilarating – your grin is huge, it extends back all the way to your arms, which have retracted into your barrel chest, leaving four long fingers stiffened with webbing, which you use to steer the energy of your surging body. They guide you down, into the dark, the light from above fading quickly. But new lights gutter in your head. Soon the hunt will start, and the lights will turn to sound, and the sound will light the dark, and these are some of the things you feel, some of the things you know. The waters close around you.

That was a sperm whale you imagined yourself into, a member of the largest of the toothed whales or odontocetis.

It’s weird that we live our lives surrounded by all these teeming, mysterious subjectivities. Nature looks back at us. It has an inner life. Once we start to think about this, to feel into and attempt to understand these other perspectives – then what are our obligations? Because where human empathy and imagination go, the law eventually follows. That’s one of the positive things human history tells us: new rights to new perspectives, to women, to different cultures, to the transgendered, to people with mental illness. Art and, when it comes to animals, increasingly science, prepare the ground.  They make a case.

In February 2012, at the Vancouver annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world’s largest gathering of scientists — one group presented a paradigm-challenging proposal to a packed room: “The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans.”

“We affirm,” reads the declaration, “that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and well-being.” They have the right, the declaration continues, not to be slaughtered, or to be held in captivity, not to be owned or exploited or removed from their environment.

The event sparked national and international coverage, most of it positive, some critical, and some plain quizzical. “The important thing,” says one of the authors, Atlanta-based Emory University neurobiologist Lori Marino, “is that people are taking it seriously.”

The real test will be whether the group can get the project endorsed legally. They hope to bring the declaration before the UN.  Marino and some of the signatories are also working with an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project to break through the legal wall that currently separates humans from nonhumans. “We want to argue for whale common-law status—to actually work on behalf of a dolphin or whale as a plaintiff,” says Marino. “We think we can find a jurisdiction where a judge would be open to hearing this. The science is on our side.”

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds; in December, 2013, the group filed the first-ever lawsuit on behalf of a chimpanzee. A chimp, the lawyers argue, has a cognitive complexity similar in kind, if not in degree, to humans. Thus they have the right to bodily liberty – freedom from captivity and the right to live his or her life as close to nature as possible.

The key claim is that chimps and whales and elephants should be entitled to legal personhood. “Humans are considered persons because they have a certain set of characteristics,” says Marino. “They are self-aware, intelligent, complex, autonomous, cultured, and so on. If we accept that definition—and versions of this are used around the world in constitutions and other legislation—then the latest science is telling us that cetaceans also qualify. They are, therefore, nonhuman persons.”

You are a breaching whale.

The feeding trance lasts an hour before you begin to rise. The dream recedes as the pressure eases. At first there is only the darkness, but soon a faint radiance enters the water. It catches each suspended particle, and gently traces the outlines of your family, who move steadily upward, silent except for the sound of their beating hearts, which drum into your skin and form a rhythmic counterpoint to the muffled swish of your tail. As you approach the surface you feel lighter, faster. More expressive. Your sinuses clear, chambers in your chest crack and pop, your ribs curve back and out, all in anticipation of that other, longed-for medium. An explosion of mist announces your release. For a moment there is no resistance as your long body twists in the nighttime sky. You breathe the air; you are in the thing you breathe. You see everything: the first stars bright on the sea, the dark outline of the distant shore. And then gravity – that novel force, so like a judgment – pulls you down. You re-enter the water with a head-clearing slap and the ocean reclaims you.

The scientific attitude to animal minds has changed radically in the past thirty years. Think of it as a step in our own evolution. Despite not being able to locate the seat of consciousness in the animal brain—something true for humans as well—the majority of scientists no longer ask whether animals have inner experience. Some degree of sentience is considered self-evident. For neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, one of the world’s leading experts on the neural origins of mind and emotion, “the denial of consciousness in animals is as improbable as the pre-scientific anthrocentric view that the sun revolves around the Earth.”

But what do we mean by “consciousness”? At its most basic, consciousness can simply mean being aware of your surroundings. By this definition, of course, nearly every animal would have some form of self-awareness. Many different species perform a whole range of social actions, including cooperative behaviors and maternal care. Bees show complex activities. Does that mean they’re conscious? Quite possibly, yes. The question now is no longer whether animals have minds, but what kind of minds.

Scientists now understand the mind as a phenomenon with multiple species expressions. Humans and animals are not separated by a yawning chasm—the fact that we share basic brain structures suggests we might also share similar cognitive structures. Cetaceans have been a big part of this story, in part because of Whitehead’s findings, but also because of the experiments of dedicated researchers such as the University of Hawaii’s Lou Herman, who has proved that dolphins are capable of complex problem-solving, demonstrating prodigious feats of learning, memory and creativity.

But the most game-changing research may be the reappraisal of the whale brain currently underway. Lori Marino has spent 20 years studying the cetacean brain’s structure and evolution, and found that it is not only large (second only to a human’s in its brain-to-body ratio) but also contains many braided cell structures and areas of dense connectivity. Whale brains are also highly “convoluted”—the cortex folds in on itself to increase its surface area inside the skull thus giving the brain its ridged appearance (the brains of less intelligent animals are much smoother). What’s more, the history of the whale brain has been very different from those of primates and other mammals. It represents what Marino calls “an alternative evolutionary route to complex intelligence.”

The most intriguing part of the whale brain for Marino is the limbic system, which, in mammals, handles the processing of emotions. In some respects, she found this part of the whale brain is actually more convoluted than our own. In fact it is so large it erupts into the cortex in the form of an extra “paralimbic” lobe. The location of the paralimbic lobe suggests it is involved in a unique integration between emotional and cognitive thinking, perhaps some combination of social communication and self-awareness that we do not currently understand (we’re not smart enough – not in that way).

“Whales are arguably the most socially connected, communicative and coordinated mammals on the planet, including humans,” says Marino. “Killer whales, for instance, do not kill or even seriously harm each other in the wild, despite the fact that there is competition for prey and mates and there are disagreements. Their social rules prohibit real violence, and they seem to have worked out a way to peacefully manage the partitioning of resources among different groups. That is something we humans haven’t done yet.”

There are more speculative ideas as well. Whitehead, Marino and a few other whale scientists believe that echolocation—which Whitehead calls the “world’s most powerful imaging device”—could play a central role in whales’ social sophistication. It is possible that toothed whales (dolphins, killer whales and sperm whales) use their echolocation like an ultrasound to see inside actual bodies. “The sonar system may see, in great detail, the internal organs of all the other members of the group,” says Whitehead. “So there’s no hiding what one has eaten, whether one’s sexually receptive, whether one’s pregnant, whether one’s sick. Presumably, this changes social life a lot.”

It doesn’t stop there. An enormous amount of information is contained in the body: accelerated beating of the heart, tightness in the diaphragm, tension in the muscles—all of these registers of information may well be processed by the whale’s huge associative cortexes at lightning-fast speed. And not in isolation—for most astounding of all is the possibility that all of this may be shared. There is evidence to suggest that dolphins and sperm whales can “eavesdrop” on another’s returning echoes, an ability that may be akin to seeing through another’s eyes. Thus a group of widely dispersed whales may in some sense be part of a single sensory loop, sensitive to every twitch and shudder in the wide phenomenal world.

You are a tired whale.

Your spine swings down and away from the surface, so that only the top of your head protrudes. You and your family now hang vertically, several feet apart, like a forest of huge cylindrical kelp. The breath you draw in through your exposed blowhole is close and damp. You body rocks with the waves, they massage your temples and tilt your body along its axis, back and forth, the rhythm of the sea now inside. You drift into a somnolence at once murky and vigilant. For you, breathing is voluntary; there is no automatic mechanism to do the work. So the brain sleeps one hemisphere at a time, one part of you always aware of the need to connect to the surface. Air fills your dreams. Water encases them. And through it all move the members of your family. They pass among the shapes of the underwater world, the shadows on the surface, the roar of currents, the grinding of tectonic plates. The whales – your family, other members of your clan, strangers – they tell you things, which in the half-dream you struggle to understand. And then you take another breath, the waves tilt you gently back and forth, and you slip between worlds.

All this suggests a mind very different from our own. Where so many human resources are directed towards manipulating objects and ideas, whales’ emotional and cognitive resources seem to be directed socially, at one another. They have no hands to manipulate the world. But they have brains to feel it, in a way we do not and cannot fully understand.

And yet, for all this exotic otherness, it’s equally true that there are elements that we can know and understand. As any pet owner will attest, we can often tell when an animal is angry or loving or even calculating, because we share those qualities. In the Sea of Cortez, I could relate to the sperm whales’ need for physical intimacy to their loyalty to one another and their curiosity. And these are just the visible behaviours. The science suggests other shared qualities: a capacity for culture and communication and creative problem-solving. What you begin to realize about animal minds is that, when we compare ours to theirs, there is always something distinct and something shared; this ratio simply shifts in relation to the species in question.

So the common core we share with a bacterium is far narrower than that we share with a whale, which in turn is perhaps narrower that that we share with our close cousin the chimp. The human-to-animal mind question may simply be an exaggerated version of the human-to-human mind question; we can never entirely know another person’s experience—all the more so if that person was raised in a different culture—but there are vast areas of overlap that can, with science and empathy and imagination, be expanded.

You are the matriarch.

It’s early morning – the light is just coming up over the water. You rest in the ocean cradle, breathing with your family, and sometimes, it seems, with the tides. These days you are more conscious of the force of water against your skin. It cups your torso with pressure. You have no fingers to seek out objects, niches, but you need none; there is texture in the space itself. One sinal click can electrify cloud-like swirls of temperature and salinity and pressure. You wash your voice over your sleeping children, reassuring yourself that everyone is healthy. You remember their bodies.  You remember all the waters, the paths and patterns through which you have guided them. You are tired now, always tired; you’ve been swimming for a long time. The sea, too, erodes.

The movement to cede rights to animals, of course, has its critics. In response to the cetacean Declaration, the Toronto National Post columnist and policy analyst Tasha Kheiriddin pointed out the obvious: in order for an animal to have rights, then he or she must be part of a social contract, something impossible between animals and humans. “An animal,” she writes, “owns no property. It cannot be taxed. It bears no responsibility, legal or otherwise for its actions: You cannot sue a dolphin if it bites you or wrecks your boat.” (Note the “it”).

What’s more, there is the enormously complex issue of how the rights of different parties would overlap. Humans haven’t even done an adequate job of protecting the rights of our own underprivileged. What happens when, as is inevitable, human and nonhuman animal freedoms clash? These are questions we are only beginning to think seriously about.

But Marino and others are not asking for equality; the idea is to stick with fundamentals: “We are not saying that dolphins should vote or go to school—obviously this is preposterous. We are saying the rights of a species should be based on their critical needs. This needn’t involve a social contract – we give babies full rights as persons, and yet we don’t expect them to be involved in these kinds of agreements. In the case of whales, they should have the right not to be killed and tortured and confined, the right to live free in their natural environment. This is very basic stuff.”

"Children Eating Their Parents" by Viktor Sofankina

What is a person? A being, certainly, but personhood is also a quality that emerges from how we relate to one another. It’s a recognition that another point of view is present, one with its own internal coherence and integrity. Whatever happens on the legal front in the years to come, the question of animal personhood is also a personal one. It will be answered differently by each of us. This is the true promise of a Cetacean Nation. As an idea it may be romantic. As an experience – the experience of interacting and relating to another being, another sensitivity – it’s life changing. Suddenly we recognize we are surrounded by other stories, other perspectives. We want to relate. We want to make the rounds of the community. We want to come home.

You are a young whale.

You hear it coming, you feel its shape before you see it. You’ve encountered this animal before – it roars and idles and appears mysteriously by your side, as if summoned by your presence. A small figure looks down at you from above – you recognize the seeing, the knowing. What does he want? Something obscure wells up in your chest, a sense both of foreboding and excitement. You sink down and away.

As the upper world loses resolution a new world flickers before you: a world illuminated by your voice, which you send out in the form of pulses. Each pulse is like a line, it parts the space, and carries you through a three-dimensional matrix of form and movement and texture. You can follow the lines in any direction: out, to the surface, with its strange inviting shapes; or down, to schools of fish, to squid undulating in the depths, to the plunging contours of the ocean floor. But mostly you follow them back, to the six warm lit bodies of your family. They turn to meet you, to receive your signal, which curves through each soft interior. On your skin you feel your matriarch’s movements, a reassuring transmission of pressure that connects your whole family through the water column. It draws you in, you “heave-to,” and slide roughly past each familiar form. You click and purr and repeat the name of your clan. And then, as one, you dive, saluting the air with your chiseled flukes.

These are some of the things you experience, some of the things you know. The waters close around you.

About Jeff Warren 17 Articles
Jeff Warren is an award-winning writer, and non-award- winning meditation instructor. He is the author of The Head Trip - a travel guide to sleeping, dreaming and meditation – and has written for The New York Times, The New Scientist, Discover, and The Globe and Mail and others. In 2011, Jeff founded The Consciousness Explorers Club, a meditation think tank and community hub in downtown Toronto that supports personal growth through carefully curated courses, retreats, events, and guided practices. He writes of the CEC: “We take insights and practices from culture and science and integrate them in playful and experimental ways with insights and practices from the world’s contemplative traditions, in particular Buddhism and mindfulness. We do this as a community, and try to empower everyone in the community to develop their own understanding and service missions – and to share their various neurotic life strategies, so we can laugh uproariously at them, together, in a spirit of dumfounded incredulity.”
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