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Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (review)
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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.3 (2003) 469-472

Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. By Steven M.Wise. New York: Perseus Publishing, 2002. Pp. 322. $26.00.

The issue of animal rights is very much with us today, and as Steven Wise's Drawing the Line indicates, it will not disappear from the scene very quickly. Wise's new book takes up where his previous book, Rattling the Cage, left off. There the focus ofWise's writing was on the close connections, both biological and moral, between human beings and their close genetic relative the chimpanzee. Here the chimpanzee is not forgotten, but he is joined by a large cast of other candidates for dignitary legal rights. These include Wise's young son Christopher, the honeybee, Alex the parrot, Marbury the dog, Phoenix and Ake the dolphins, Echo the elephant, Chantek the orangutan, and Koko the signing gorilla.

Wise's in-depth study of these various human and nonhuman animals, as he calls them, is designed to establish a single point: a wide range of animals possess the range of intellectual abilities and emotional feelings that entitle them to some legal protection. To Wise, the key question is whether various animal species possess what he calls "practical autonomy," which

boils down to this: a being has practical autonomy and is entitled to personhood and basic liberty rights if she:
  • can desire
  • can intentionally try to fill her desires; and
  • possesses a sense of self-sufficiency to allow her to understand, even dimly, that it is she who wants something and it is she who is trying to get it. (p. 32)

Wise then constructs a scale to measure these features, by asking such questions as whether some creature can recognize itself in the mirror. The maximum score on his scale, 1.0, is achieved, we are told, by a normal one-year-old human infant. On this gold standard, the bonobo scores at 0.98, the gorilla at 0.95, the orangutan at 0.93, the dolphin at 0.90, the parrot at 0.78, the elephant at 0.75, the dog at 0.75, and the honeybee at 0.59.Wise argues that the first cut should be 0.90 for basic integrity and liberty rights, and that the application of the "precautionary" principle drawn from environmental law (briefly, better safe than sorry) dictates that we protect these basic liberties for animals that check in at over 0.70 on his scale.

It takes little imagination to see that ifWise has articulated the right standard, then he has made his case for legal rights. I am no expert in animal behavior, but anyone with even a passing knowledge of the field must be impressed with the complex forms of social behavior exhibited not only by primates but by many forms of animal life, from lions to rats. It is difficult to imagine how courtship, reproduction, hunting, playing, and quarreling could take place if the animals that engaged in these activities were only undifferentiated lumps of clay. It is therefore no surprise that Wise is able to chronicle desire and intentionality both by personal experience (Christopher his child and Marbury his dog), and by speaking with animal behaviorists who have cared for, lived with, and trained particular animals for years.

The case for animal rights depends, however, not only on the ability to chronicle behaviors, but also on the soundness of the justificatory scheme he proposes. It is here that Wise's world view falls in around him. Start with the descriptive claims. Wise describes in great detail Irene Pepperberg's parrot research at MIT: she has painfully trained parrots to recognize certain objects and colors. But she has never been able to show how parrots can teach themselves these skills. Nor is she a neutral observer of parrot talents and skills. I am prepared to believe much about the latent ability of parrots to communicate and bond with their trainers. But does Alex the parrot have cognitive skills that rival those of a five-year-old child, as is claimed? No way. I entered first grade at age five. What parrot can sing...



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