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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

The Future Is Now!

Could Whales and Dolphins Get Legal Rights Within Our Lifetimes?

Such is the question posed (and that will eventually by answered) by Steven M. Wise. In the past few decades, biologists have whittled away at what were once considered to be exclusively human traits. The research of Jane Goodall, for example, that showed that Chimpanzees are capable of using and modifying objects in their surroundings as tools, was incredibly controversial in its day. Decades later, we have scientists openly considering the idea of reclassifying dolphins as “non-human persons” rather than animals. (Or, to my nerdy mind, reclassifying them as ramen instead of varelse.)

Whether or not this should happen or will happen is not really something I’m prepared to make definitive statements about. But I do find it fascinating that there’s enough science out there on the subject that we’ve come to the point where anyone is seriously considering a campaign to give cetaceans legal rights as persons instead of objects.

Wise and his organization, the NonHuman Rights Project, were profiled in Wired today, and while Wise’s goals are quite lofty, he has drawn some lines for himself. Previous cases that attempted to argue that dolphins and whales should be granted personhood status include a suit in the United States Ninth Circuit court in which cetaceans harmed by Navy sonar exercises were denied legal standing and a lawsuit that unsuccessfully argued that Seawold’s animal stars are enslaved under the 13th Amendment. From Wired:

Those suits were well-meaning but misguided, said Wise, who believes the plaintiffs erred in seeking full-blown legal standing, or the right to participate in a lawsuit, rather than starting with the basics of personhood. Once that’s granted, argues Wise, discussion can begin over which rights a non-human person should have.

For example, nobody will argue that SeaWorld’s orcas have a right to free speech or guaranteed medical care  — but they could have rights to freedom from imprisonment or captive breeding.

Free speech is indeed a hard right to implement if, even though there’s evidence that cetaceans have language (and even regionally specific culture and names), it’s a language we not yet capable of comprehending or translating. But Wise is optimistic: he’s not trying to hammer out every detail of how our legal system would have to change to recognize the sentience of dolphins and whales, just find a judge with a “fair reading of legal precedent and a willingness to consider the notion that intelligence, autonomy and feeling, not taxonomic designation, is what makes beings eligible for legal rights.” It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a human society has had to expand its definition of who gets to be a person under the eyes of the law… just the first time that we’ve done it for someone of a different species, which is depressing enough in and of itself.

In fact, I can think of several areas of criminal and medicinal practicing law that I’d rather not have to wrap around dolphin behavior, so I guess I’m just not read to climb aboard the SeaQuest DSV.

Read the entire article at Wired!

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  • Anonymous

    Use of sentient beings in scientific tests disgusting. Have personal standard – Never experiment on species with members capable of calculus. Simple rule, never broke it.
    –Dr. Mordin Solus

  • Simon Chui

    It’s only going to happen if and when the two species figure out how to communicate complex and abstract concepts with each other.  Having a human tell a court of law that dolphins and whales should have equal rights is never going to work.  Having a dolphin tell a court of law that their species have been fully sentient all along and that humans should stop being jackasses, on the other hand, is probably going to be very effective, if the dolphins can convince people that they’re speaking for themselves and not being puppetted by humans.

  • Dingo

    If they get person-hood does that mean we can start jailing dolphins for rape and murder then? Because we are going to fill prisons pretty quick.

    Dolphins are horrible, awful animals that rape and murder is what I mean. They are the humans of the sea, but without a penal system, so worse. 
    Worse than humans you guys, dolphins are worse than humans!

  • Psychotronic (Michael F.)

    Science fiction author Larry Niven once wrote of cetaceans being admitted into the United Nations. Maybe one day this will come to pass.

    “By 2100 A.D. on Earth, three species of cetacean had been recognized as intelligent and admitted to the United Nations. Their lawsuit against the former whaling nations had not been resolved, and in fact never was. The cetaceans enjoyed the legal gymnastics too much ever to end it.”

    – Larry Niven, “At the Bottom of a Hole” (1966)

  • Juniper


    One of the reasons we know that chimpanzees are capable of transmitting culture from one tribe to another is that when a chimpanzee male wants to rape a female, he usually uses his hands, feet, and teeth either to straight up attack until she submits, or to drive her into dangerous territory and keep her there until she submits.  However, one tribe learned to use tools (specifically, tree branches) to beat its females in order to rape them, and then other tribes started picking up on the new skill.  

    Dolphins and chimpanzees are very complex, intelligent creatures.  They’re not cuddly little plushies with math skills 

  • Michail Velichansky

    Well, that’s not what they’re trying for, though. They’re not saying equal rights, they’re saying legally defined as people. They’re not actually asking for any rights yet at all — just the possibility that, as people, cetaceans can potentially (and legally, that being the point) HAVE rights. They’re very clear in the article that these are baby steps.

    Of course, it’s still going to be challenging. But maybe not as much so?

  • Michail Velichansky

    I don’t think the idea is to try and help the “nicest” species or something. Any particular dolphin or chimp is not the species as a whole.