Are some animals intelligent enough to be granted legal standing as persons before the law? Can they think? Can we talk to them? All these questions have acquired more urgency today, now that the very notion of humanity is contested. To shed some light on the debate, MercatorNet interviewed Marie I. George, of St John’s University, New York, a scholar with a particular interest in the intersection of science and philosophy.

MercatorNet: Only persons have transcendent value, but how does one know what a person is?

Marie George: In general we know about things because we observe them using our senses, and in addition once having done that, we can go on to think about these things. When it comes to knowing what a person is, we have an advantage in that we are persons, and know what it is to be a person from the inside—we don’t have the same inside view of what it is like to be a bat.

What is it that we know about ourselves that tells us we are persons?

Well, we are asking this question for one thing. Apes ask for bananas and to be tickled, but they don’t ask what it means to be a person. We seek knowledge for its own sake, and not just to get something.

Let us think for a moment what it means to think. First, think of a dog. Is the dog you thought of big, little, medium-sized? Say it was small. Is a Great Dane a dog? "Of course," you say. But when I asked you to think of a dog the dog you thought of was small. What does this show? When I asked you to think of a dog you actually did two things: you formed a picture of a dog, and at the same time you called to mind the idea or concept "dog" — the two are not identical. The dog you imagined was a specific individual occupying a certain amount of space in your imagination; your idea of dog, however, is not of some specific individual, but applies to every individual dog (in other words, ideas have the property of being universal).

Apes have a life cycle, they don’t have a life project, and so there is no reason to accord them rights so that they can pursue their life projects unimpeded. 

Although individual dogs, both in reality, and in your imagination have a size, the idea "dog" has no size. Even ideas of size have no size. One dog can be bigger than another by one foot, both in reality and in one’s imagination; but the idea "three feet long" is not a bigger idea than the idea "two feet long."

If ideas had sizes they would be no different than sense perceptions. The fact that ideas or thoughts have no size indicates that they are not material entities, as all material entities have some quantitative aspect. If thoughts are not material entities, then that part of ourselves that forms and considers thoughts cannot be a material thing. Thus, part of us transcends matter. How did we come to this conclusion? It was not by going to the lab and doing an experiment. Rather, we first thought about something, and then thought about what we were doing when we thought about that something.

MercatorNet: Are dolphins persons? Why not?

Marie George: I haven’t kept up with the most recent research that has been done on dolphins and intelligence. I have read that trainers that teach dolphins tricks find them about as smart as dogs.

One well-known dolphin researcher, Louis M. Herman, taught his dolphins to respond to a wide variety of commands (with some subjects gestures were used, with others underwater whistle-like sounds), and his studies provide evidence that dolphins recognise word order, for example, that of subject-verb-direct object. The dolphins’ total overall scores on tests in which they were asked things such as to put a ring on a ball (or a ball on a ring) was around 66 per cent.

This, however, in nowise proves that the dolphins are capable of abstract thought, as such feats can simply be the result of association. A person can know that when he sees "water" on a science test he should circle H20 rather than CaCo3. But he need not know that the H stands for hydrogen, much less atomic theory which would explain why two Hs go with the O.

In other words, we know the difference between memorising an answer and understanding what it means. Animals can memorise sequences. To paraphrase ape researcher H.S. Terrace, one could teach a pigeon to type coloured squares according to a certain sequence–say blue, green, red, yellow—in order to receive a food reward. Now say that on those four coloured squares one put the words: "give nice pigeon corn." No one would think that the pigeon knew language when it went on to type that sequence. Similarly we must avoid jumping to conclusions in the case of dolphins learning sequences.

MercatorNet: Chimpanzees are said to use tools, paint, and have a simple language. The latest report says they can show altruism towards humans. Can't they be regarded as persons?

Marie George: Chimps use tools, but tool usage does not always require abstract thought, but sometimes merely the use of the senses, including the internal senses, imagination and memory — all of which chimps most certainly have.

Consider the classic case of the tool that chimps make to get termites out of termite hills. The chimp sees and feels that its finger does not fit in hole of the termite hill. It looks around and sees twigs lying on the ground. It keeps in mind that it has a problem, and it picks up a twig that it imagines will fit in the hole, the size of which it remembers. It tries to poke the twig in the hole, but it gets stuck because of the leaves on it. The chimp tears off a leaf or two; tries again. It sees and feels the twig is stuck, and so it then removes the rest of the leaves. Now the twig goes in the hole. This feat does not require abstract thought, but rather the use of the senses of touch and sight, as well as of the internal senses of imagination and memory, accompanied by trial and error.

It is worth noting that many tools that we use and problems that we solve do not involve abstract thought. For example, it is useful to be able to tie one’s shoes. However, one learns how to tie shoes not by studying knot theory, but by imitating a pattern—usually some trial and error is involved until the requisite hand-eye coordination is acquired; similarly, for learning to ride a bike.

In regard to chimps who paint, so far as I know they do not paint in a representational manner, but produce "abstract art". I am far from convinced that abstract art reveals any intelligence on the part of the human artist (aside from possible cunning in fooling a gullible audience). In the case of representational art, it is one thing to consider the thing represented, and another to consider the work of art as a representation; to recognise the difference between these two ways of considering a representation requires abstract thought. (This lion looks ferocious versus the perspective used in portraying the lion is off.)

It is interesting that some animals do manifest a preference for geometric figures formed in a symmetrical manner from smooth curves and straight lines to figures which are formed from lines more jagged and less regularly positioned. Does this mean that they appreciate beauty like we do? Or is their behaviour rather simply a function of facts like the things they eat have regular shapes rather than the chaotic ones? In the absence of any evidence that animals appreciate beauty, it is more reasonable to think that they do not.

Sometimes people point to bower birds who decorate their bowers with objects (flowers, tin foil, etc.) as proof that some non-human animals appreciate beauty. But if the bower birds really appreciated beauty, why do they only show signs of appreciating the appearance of their bowers? Why do they not appreciate the beauty of some other things as well? The decoration of bowers most likely has to do with attracting and selecting an appropriate mate.

To say that chimps have a simple language presupposes a criterion for language. If by language one means any form of communication, certainly many other animals in addition to chimps make sounds which trigger certain reactions in their fellows. If the criterion for language is an ability to express abstract thought by way of symbols, the evidence is against the chimps. Those chimps that have been taught to use various means of symbolic communication, such as special key boards, typically use them to obtain things from the people who work with them. They do not use the key board to converse in the sense of engaging in an interchange where they are sharing knowledge with someone else and are seeking to gain new knowledge from that other.

Now it is true that some severely retarded humans and people in vegetative states do not do this either; but their root capacity for language remains. No ape carries on a conversation. Unlike the person in a vegetative state, apes do not have the ability to think abstractly and so they do not seek to acquire new thoughts. Again they might seek to acquire new knowledge, eg, where the peanuts are hidden, but this is not abstract knowledge.

As for altruism, chimps certainly have emotions and are social animals. They like some of the people who work with them and dislike others. They have certain instincts when it comes to cooperation, and a certain curiosity. I do not see anything particularly amazing about the fact that a chimp on occasion would pick up and hand to a child the pencil the child had dropped. Dogs fetch things.

Genuine altruism is not simply an emotional response or the engaging in a type of game. Genuine altruism requires some reflection that to benefit another requires that one sacrifice something (time, money, etc.) and then the choice to do so without any eye to the favour being reciprocated.

We understand what it means to do something "from the goodness of our heart". Animals, because they lack reason, are not selves and thus lack the self-awareness needed to understand what is entailed in altruistic acts ("self-sacrifice"), and consequently are unable to freely choose to engage in such acts. They do have emotions which, despite being unguided by reason, can nonetheless motivate them in some cases to perform the same sort of acts that are performed by rational beings who are acting from altruistic motives.

MercatorNet: How significant is it that chimp DNA is 99 per cent similar to human DNA? Can you be 99 per cent human?

Marie George: Either a being is human or it is not, although how healthy a human being is plainly admits of more or less, and the latter depends on genetic factors (Trisomy 21 and cystic fibrosis are well-known examples of diseases caused by genes). To be human a being must have an immaterial capacity allowing it to form thoughts starting from sense experience (senses are material entities).

An important point here is something that Aristotle pointed out long ago, and that is that although thinking thoughts is one activity and imagining and remembering specific things is another activity, thinking depends on imagining. Recall how when I asked you to think of a dog, you both called to mind the idea "dog" and you imagined a specific dog. Now, when one activity depends on another, if the second one is lacking, the first cannot be performed.

For example, taking a bath depends on drawing water. If one is unable to draw water, one cannot at that moment take a bath; but obviously that doesn’t mean that one has lost one’s ability to bathe oneself. Similarly, people with brain damage often cannot imagine things, and so they are unable to think about them; but that does not mean they have lost their ability to think thoughts. Excess alcohol consumption temporarily affects one’s imagination, but does not affect the immaterial part of a person which considers thoughts. Once the effects on the brain of the alcohol wear off, and the person can imagine things properly, he will be able to actually think again.

In a similar way self-consciousness, which is a property belonging to rational being, that of being able to reflect upon oneself, presupposes consciousness, and consciousness requires an intact normal brain. Thus, if a person suffers some form of brain damage, be it temporary or permanent (which includes certain genetic diseases), then one’s consciousness may be affected, and consequently one’s ability to engage in self-reflection is affected. However, the ability proper to a rational being to engage in self-reflection does not disappear for so much.

This point is generally overlooked by those who write off people who maintain that humans have an immaterial component as "Cartesian". Humans are not two separate substances, but have two parts, and an ability of one part is that of forming ideas starting from what we sense, imagine, and remember; all of the latter though are functions which involve the brain. Our immaterial intelligence is thus meant to work in conjunction with our body; it is not meant to exist as an independent entity. The immaterial part of us will continue on after we die, but it is not a complete human person.

Getting back to the significance of chimps having a lot of the same DNA people do, first, to talk about DNA is to talk about something material. However, as I argue above, those who think that this proves there is no real differences between the two species are working on the faulty assumption that humans, like apes, are purely material beings. Secondly, the relatively small differences in the DNA can be sources of significant physical differences, as we in fact see in the case of chimps and ourselves. Researchers are currently trying to understand how the relatively small difference in genes can result in important differences in the bodies of chimps and humans.

MercatorNet: What happens when we land on one of Alpha Centauri's planets and discover ET — how will we know this is intelligent life?

Marie George: You say "when" we discover intelligent ETs. I do not think that this is going to happen — both scientific and theological reasons weigh against it. For instance, the physicist Enrico Fermi calculated the likelihood of a meeting with ET, and concluded that if ETs were out there, by now they would have come into contact with us; the fact that ETs haven’t done so, indicates that they are not out there.

However unlikely I think the existence of intelligent ET life exist elsewhere in the universe to be, I do not think, however, that the possibility that they exist can be ruled out on either scientific or theological grounds. If they do in fact exist, we would readily recognise them as intelligent by their technology (technology is based on the abstract principles, eg, the laws of physics), and also by their ability to communicate with us.

In principle they would be able to learn our language and vice versa, granted there might be certain difficulties if their senses were really different than ours — say they only heard the pitches that we don’t hear in dog whistle; but, even then, they and we should eventually find a way around this. Just as experimenters look for signs of true language usage when they try to determine whether apes possess intelligence, similarly we would try to detect whether extraterrestrials beings had the ability to communicate abstract thought.

MercatorNet: The movement to give rights to primates is gathering momentum. New Zealand granted them rights as "non-human hominids" in 1999; at present there is a case before the court in Austria seeking human rights for a chimpanzee named Hiasl. — What are your views on this?

Marie George: Books are written on what a right is, and who has what rights and why. Without attempting to address those questions, it is safe to say that humans should not harm animals without due reason. Sometimes it is hard to draw the line as to what is due and undue, as we see in questions concerning experimentation on animals in view of finding cures for human diseases.

Other times what is reasonable and moral is not hard to identify, as in the case where cattle are humanely raised and slaughtered to feed humans. So I am not sure what non-human hominid rights would be (if for the sake of the argument we accept the use of the word "right" here) beyond the sort of treatment we reasonably show to any higher animal. Apes have a life cycle, they don’t have a life projects, and so there is no reason to accord them rights so that they can pursue their life projects unimpeded.

As for the specific case of the chimp Hiasl, if Hiasl converses every day, meaning shares knowledge and seeks to acquire an understanding of the world with its conversation partner, it would be not essentially different from us, and should be granted human rights. I rather doubt that it has the ability to do so when so many other chimps who have been raised in language rich environments have failed to show conversational abilities.

Again, language for apes is a way of getting things, and of making their trainers happy. It is useful to contrast Helen Keller with the apes that people have tried to teach language. Helen Keller had ideas, but lacked a means of communicating them. Once it clicked with her that the signs Annie Sullivan was making were a means of expressing ideas, she was eager to learn new words and she began carrying conversations which were simple at first, but which gradually increased in complexity.

It was because Helen Keller had ideas that language for her served as a key which unlocked the expression of these ideas, and also allowed her to acquire new ideas. The apes people have tried to teach language to fail to manifest this same progression. The cause underlying this failure is plainly the apes’ lack of abstract thought.

Marie I. George is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University, New York. An Aristotelian-Thomist, she holds a PhD from Laval University, and a MA in biology from Queens College, NY. She has received a number of awards from the Templeton Foundation for her work in science and religion.