Saturday, March 12, 2011

Baboons and Rights Discourse

After our conversation about who deserves rights, I kept wondering about could justify our belief that we (as humans) are categorically different than nonhuman animals. After doing a little bit of research, I found an interesting study from the University of Iowa that talked about the possibility that baboons have the capacity for abstract thought. The study says that, “Baboons in laboratory experiments showed hints of abstract thinking by picking out various images on a computer screen, a surprising finding that raises new questions about evolution and what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.” In the study, baboon subjects are taught to recognize sets of images on a computer screen. While human subjects learned the correct responses much faster than the baboons, both were able to recognize the patterns.

Does this mean that baboons are deserve the same kind of rights that we do? At first glance, one might argue that we should. If baboons have the same kinds of brain functions, it would be wrong to deny them rights. Originally only rich, white, landing-owning males had rights and slowly more and more people were included. Why shouldn’t we include nonhuman animals as well? If we once denied rights to people who deserved rights, it is very possible that we are currently denying rights to nonhuman animals rights that they deserve.

However, baboon cognitive functions are nowhere close to human cognitive functions. The study says that baboon subjects took 7,000 tries to reach an 80% accuracy, whereas human subjects only took 100 tries. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the baboons had to be ‘taught’ while humans ‘learn’ what to do. This suggests that the human subjects had the intention to think in this capacity, but the baboon subjects required instruction. Without any human intervention, the baboon would never go through such an experiment.

Ultimately, it is difficult to say exactly what rights to give nonhuman animals because they cannot defend their position. The only way to ascribe rights to animals is to make arguments on their behalf. Does the inability to communicate preclude you from the rights discussion? Practically it does, but fundamentally does one need abstract language (or at least the potential for abstract language) to be considered as a candidate for any kind of rights?

Here's the full article:


  1. Ben, interesting post! I think that this is a very difficult idea to find a solid answer to though. I think you present both sides of the debate very nicely and that makes it even more difficult to reason and justify one side over the other. I know that we have developed our rights starting from only a certain group having rights and developing those rights to something much bigger to entail a universal sense of those rights, but I'm not sure if those rights extend to animals. I think that if these animals cannot reason and learn then we should not feel obligated to grant rights when mental capacities are so different. Perhaps I'm too critical, but at this point in time I do not think that we are on the same level mentally as baboons so we do not need to concern ourselves with granting them the same universal rights.

  2. Additionally, if human rights were initially granted to only the landed white and often wealthy, then it shows that our society needs to agree that a group is worthy, before they can become rights holders. So in the United States as rights expanded they went first to now land owning white men, then onto men of all races, then religious minorities, then women. But who is it that we still exclude?
    Convicted felonies, people with psychological problems, some elderly, homeless people, child molesters or terrorist, or aesthetics or illegal immigrants and numerous other groups. I think we are far from accepting animals into the realm of universal human rights and if anything occurs, it will be more future conditions will be placed on rights. So no though I would love to see a baboon playing piano, I don't think he has the mental capacity or the worth of a human being.

  3. While a definite human category may be a bit tenuous, we may at least take comfort that the distinction is as clear at it is. Early Homo sapiens coexisted and occasionally mingled with the neanderthal, and they are classified as two different species. Yet, for whatever reason, life has unraveled such that in this day and age that apparently the only creatures capable of entering this social contract we try so hard to universalize belong to one and the same species.


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