Thursday, September 20, 2007

Animal Rights

No, not the kind for which PETA advocates. I'm thinking about the rights of hypothetical animals with genetically enhanced intelligence, brought to mind by the TV adaptation (this summer on the anthology program MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION) of Robert Heinlein's story "Jerry Was a Man."

This theme goes back at least to the Darwinian nightmare of H. G. Wells' ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, in which the mad scientist operates on animals to make them quasi-human. Although the artificially evolved beasts have a culture based on the Law given to them by the doctor, with decrees along the lines of, "Not to walk on all fours; are we not men?" they inevitably devolve into parodies of their original subhuman natures, echoing the late nineteenth-century horror of "degeneration." Science fiction master Cordwainer Smith's story "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" focuses on the struggle for equal rights for the Underpeople, humanoid beings developed from animal stock. C'Mell, for example, is a cat woman.

The TV script of Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man" disappointed me because the adaptation made the enslaved laborers into androids rather than apes, as they are in the original story. I suppose this decision was made in order to minimize special effects costs and permit the "Jerry" of the program to become his wealthy advocate's lover at the end of the show. Aside from making the inclusion of other artificially designed animals (a miniature pegasus and a tiny elephant) irrelevant, the way the androids are used in this version is just silly. For the sake of pathos, the job Jerry has been retired from (with the prospect of being destroyed as no longer profitable) consists of shuffling in a grid across a minefield to trigger buried mines. A technologically advanced industry capable of building semi-intelligent, completely human-looking androids would waste them by blowing them up, when a simple robotic device could do the same task much more cheaply? Heinlein's Jerry is a genetically modified ape with near-human intelligence and the ability to speak, although on a rudimentary level. When the rich woman who has come to buy a designer pet discovers the "retired" apes are destined for euthanasia, she buys Jerry and hires a lawyer to establish human status for him. The TV show, in its most telling departure from Heinlein's original, has the lawyer prove the android's humanity by demonstrating that he is capable of lying and cheating to save his own life at the cost of the life of one of his android co-workers. In Heinlein's story, Jerry proves his humanity first by showing that he understands the concept of honesty and refusing to lie under oath, then by singing “Dixie” to illustrate his appreciation of music and his yearning for freedom. Given a choice between those two ideas of the essence of humanity, I must say I prefer Heinlein's.

If some species of animals were genetically enhanced in this way, for the express purpose of performing complex tasks and made just intelligent enough to enable them to perform their functions, would they then be so human that it would be immoral to force them to perform those functions? Would they be entitled to paychecks, fringe benefits, and voting rights? Sticking to robots would be ethically simpler! Real-world questions arise about our treatment of chimpanzees and gorillas when we consider that some of them have reportedly mastered the rudiments of language, traditionally assumed to be the ability that sets Homo sapiens apart from other animals. Many people believe dolphins have a language of sorts and a level of intelligence nearly equal to ours, although possibly different in kind. Notorious bioethicist Peter Singer would assign more rights to a healthy adult ape than to a human newborn with severe medical problems. If “humanity” resides in the mind and soul rather than the physical form, such questions are bound to arise at some point in our real-world future.

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