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: http://www.psychology.uiowa.edu/faculty/wasserman/PDF/abstractThought.pdf