Daniel Bor is a cognitive neuroscientist whose work focuses on the science of consciousness. The following is quoted from Bor’s 2012 book, The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning.
If we were to talk about the system of rights, such as the right to life and to freedom from easily avoidable suffering, then any animal that has a broad potential for consciousness would also have a significant capacity to suffer, and should fall under the umbrella of such rights, preferably as enshrined in law. Personally, I would want to live in a society that would err on the side of caution in order to ensure that suffering in innocent creatures by our powerful hands was minimized.
One international movement, the Great Ape Project, has aims that mirror these, though with limited scope. Backed by renowned scientists such as Jane Goodall and Richard Dawkins, this movement is pushing for a United Nations declaration to ensure that all great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas) have a right to life and freedom from torture. I believe that based on the current scientific picture of animal consciousness, governments around the world should not only accept this view but also seriously consider extending its scope.
In the scientific thesis that I have defended here, consciousness is most closely aligned with innovation. Tool invention and use, which require innovative, flexible thoughts, are therefore strong indicators of an extensive consciousness. This would class not just our great ape cousins, but also, at the very least, monkeys, corvids, dolphins, and octopuses as creatures that deserve protection under our laws.
Experiments have additionally shown that various nonhuman species can master self-recognition in a mirror and demonstrate self-doubt. Given that we’d automatically take these skills as evidence of a rich form of consciousness in ourselves, we should cautiously accept the same conclusion for any other animals that use such abilities. The list of animals that use tools, recognize themselves in a mirror, or exhibit self-doubt would currently include not only the great apes, but also dolphins, monkeys, elephants, pigs, corvids, and octopuses – although the list will almost certainly grow as more tests are carefully carried out.
Barring all these animals from being subject to experiments that would cause suffering, removing them from our food industry, and making it a crime to harm or kill such animals would be a radical step, and not one that I can see any political leader advocating any time soon. Nevertheless, it would be a consistent and caring departure from the way we currently view animals, and would acknowledge the advances in our scientific understanding of the mental lives of these other species.
The Nonhuman Rights Project
What is the Nonhuman Rights Project?
It is the first and only organization petitioning courts to recognize that, based on existing scientific evidence, certain nonhuman animals – specifically great apes, dolphins, and elephants – are entitled to such basic legal rights as bodily liberty and integrity.
What exactly is the “scientific evidence” on which you base your claims?
Our legal claims are based on the best scientific findings on genetics, intelligence, emotions and social lives of these animals showing they are self-aware, autonomous beings. Our work is supported by an international group of the world’s most respected primatologists.
Specifically what rights are you seeking?
The right to bodily liberty – i.e. not to be imprisoned.
Your first plaintiffs are chimpanzees, and you are also talking about elephants, whales and dolphins. What’s next after that? Dogs and pigs?
Our plaintiffs will be animals for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy. Currently that evidence exists for elephants, dolphins and whales, and all four species of great apes. So, for the foreseeable future, our plaintiffs are likely to come from these three groups.
Why do you talk about “nonhuman animals”?
Humans are animals; people tend to forget that. Under current law, the only animals recognized as having legal rights are humans.
A few links to articles about the intelligence of various animals: