Writing a book is like a journey. My SMARTS expedition started many years ago when the western world still worshiped scientists – the Men in White. I thought then that all the Big Questions belonged to them. Is there a God? We would soon know (after they peered back in time to the Big Bang to see if it was The Wizard’s work or not). And what about intelligence and what it’s made of? What about Mind? I thought the philosophers who had pondered these questions for millennia were well past their best befores. I remember asking : who needs to read David Hume, anyway? He’s a pre-science Waste of Time, he trades in speculation. We need neurological facts and testable theories.
One of the great joys of researching SMARTS was re-reading Hume. Yes he speculated, but so well, and with such grace. He pointed out a fruitful path for future inquiry too, arguing that intelligence is the product of sensing bodies interacting with the world, and that there is no immaterial Soul that reasons. As SMARTS makes clear, his proto- dynamic systems approach to understanding the nature of intelligence now drives leading edge work in robotics and artificial intelligence. And Hume was so brave! He made sure his brilliant takedown of religion was published after his death, though his best friends warned him not to. His best friend of all, the economist Adam Smith, was too afraid to do it even if Hume directed that he must in his will. Silicon Valley billionaires should be forced to re-read Hume if only to be reminded that computer scientists and engineers are anything but the be-all when it comes to intelligence, and to find out what moral courage looks like.
Even back then, when I was young, I was of two minds about the morality of scientists.
On the one hand, through their work they healed the sick and the lame, and opened living bodies to helpful inspection and intervention. My classmates and I had rolled our sleeves up for the Salk vaccine and so had been spared from polio, or at least the worst of it. My first summer job was in my father’s medical office where I was an assistant to his lab technician. I loved seating big men in the lab chair because some of them turned white and fainted, slipping to the floor like dead fish as I squeezed a tiny drop of blood from their fingers onto a slide.
On the other hand, there was the specter of The Bomb. It was the product of deep Science, way down among the irreducible particles where physicists do their work. The Bomb was always in the back of our minds, always threatening, because another world war was almost a certainty. We had a siren in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan—where I grew up--that was supposed to warn us to duck and cover. It didn't work. My father was in charge of the civil defense plans for his hospital. I saw the building plans laid out on his desk, and serious people came to discuss them in his den.
So it was quite clear that Science as an enterprise was/is embroiled in contradiction, caught between Godlike powers to heal and understand, and the monstrous stupidity embodied in weapons of mass destruction. This added up to a need to escape.
I had an escape route planned for the day the Big Ones fall. First: I would run down the street and across the bridge over the South Saskatchewan River. Then would come a long, long walk along the highway going north. When I finally got to Prince Albert, I would cross its bridge to the road that led to Lake Waskesiu where wild strawberries and rose hips could be found. This would keep me scurvy free, while the few miserable survivors down south battled it out—toothless-- in the rubble. I got these ideas from Science Fiction, my daily escape reading (although I liked historical fiction too). No surprise that cars with giant tail fins were the fashion of the day. Everybody secretly wanted those cars to fly us to another planet--and get us the hell out of this mess.
I was too young to know the details of the experiments being done to find out how brains work and what intelligence is made of. They were mainly performed on dogs and cats, on mice and rats, but also on chimpanzees, the closest relatives to the human species. Let’s just say they were painful and invasive. I was also too young to know about Jane Goodall’s work, though she changed everyone’s views on chimpanzees during my last year in elementary school. Her report on the groups living near Gombe described the way they made and used tools, their structured societies, their murders, their loves, their adoption of the motherless, their wars with their neighbors. These were supposed to be capacities only humans could boast of. Goodalls’ findings were confirmed and developed further by many other scientists over the next fifty years, especially by Frans B.M. de Waal. As SMARTS recounts, while observing a chimp society formed in a large enclosure in a zoo at Arnhem, de Waal found that the chimpanzees made political alliances and knew how to calculate just how far a subordinate or a leader could be pushed, using reconciliation as a political tool. He also found, later, that they are utterly human in their social relationships, in their moral behavior, in their sense of justice, and that they even mourn the dead.
And yet: this work did not change the way science or the law deals with chimpanzees. It did not raise them in the eyes of the law from trade-able things to persons. When dragged into the orbit of laboratory science, they were still kept in small cages and used in biomedical experiments equivalent to torture and leading to death-- on science’s behalf. The lucky ones were those captured and sold to zoos or circuses where they were merely bored insensible, or made to perform whatever whacky antics their trainers dreamed up to amuse us and our children. Of course, in both cases, they were also bred. Their children also became trade-able property.
Which brings me to the Nonhuman Rights Project. This non profit, based in the US, has taken as its task the deliverance of intelligent nonhumans from their vile situation as slaves for science and human entertainment. Led by lawyer Steven M. Wise, (Jane Goodall is also on the board), the Project developed a clever strategy. Wise figured that the best hope to free these slaves lay in the common law doctrine of habeas corpus, which means the court can be petitioned to order someone to show why they have a right to hold a person. In other words, the Nonhuman Rights Project set out to show that chimpanzees are legal persons with rights, not trade-able things whose protection from harm lies only in animal cruelty statutes.
At the end of 2013, the Project launched three habeas corpus cases in the names of four chimpanzees imprisoned either in labs or in less than ideal ‘sanctuaries.’ They took their petitions before three lower courts of New York State because in New York there is an automatic right of appeal. Wise thought they might win on appeal. To support their arguments, they produced a raft of affidavit evidence from senior research scientists who attested to the person-like intelligence of chimpanzees and to their social and cultural complexity. As usual, contradictions abounded: one of the scientists giving such testimony actually owned bonobos (cousins of chimps) held in a research facility with a license to display them to the public. Others claimed in their papers that the apes they study-- kept under lock and key--participate voluntarily.
The Project lost all three cases, including one regarding two chimps, Leo and Hercules, used as study subjects at Stony Brook University. The Project appealed. But recently, they tried one more time on behalf of Leo and Hercules in Manhattan Supreme Court, before Justice Barbara Jaffe.
This week, on April 20, the Nonhuman Rights Project issued this press release:
“For the first time in history a judge has granted an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus on behalf of two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, who are being used for biomedical experimentation at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.
Under the law of New York State, only a ’legal person’ may have an order to show cause and writ of habeas corpus issued in his or her behalf. The Court has therefore implicitly determined that Hercules and Leo are ‘persons.’”
The next day, the judge struck out the words "writ of habeas corpus" from her order. According to the Nonhuman Rights Project's amendment to their press release, this means that the matter of the writ of habeas corpus is still to be decided-- after the show cause hearing in May. But by ordering the University to show cause, the court has taken one very long step down the road to recognizing chimpanzees as legal persons.
Under our common law, persons have rights, and one of those rights is liberty. The Project is arguing that Leo and Hercules deserve a restrained kind of liberty, one that would allow them to be re-located to a sanctuary in Florida. Leo’s and Hercules’ case will be heard in May.
What does this court order mean for all the other chimpanzees held in research labs?
And what does it mean for other species of intelligent, cultured apes, and for dolphins and whales held in labs and zoos and marine parks? What about intelligent machines?
One clever group of engineers, computer scientists and philosophers at University of Waterloo have already created an artificial intelligence smart enough to do human IQ tests on a par with college students. As this intelligence, called Spaun, is scaled up, and used to direct robots, what will it be capable of? Evolutionary robotocists have already shown that very rudimentary robots with evolved neural networks can teach themselves to cooperate to solve problems that they could not deal with well as individuals. This is the root of culture.
If future machines are clever enough to pass human IQ tests and to develop cultures, what rights should accrue to them?