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Should Primates Have the Same Rights as Humans?
In late 2014, a court in Argentina took up the case of Sandra, a 29-year-old who has been held captive all her life. Born in Germany, taken from her parents and transferred to a detention facility in Buenos Aires in 1994, where she has been on permanent public display, Sandra has never tasted freedom. But Sandra’s life will soon change. The Argentine court ruled that Sandra has been illegitimately deprived of her basic rights and should earn sanctuary.
There is one more detail I should note: Sandra is a Sumatran orangutan. She’s an ape. The detention facility she has called home for most of her life is a zoo.
“In a landmark ruling that could pave the way for more lawsuits,” Richard Lough of Reuters writes, “the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) argued the ape had sufficient cognitive functions and should not be treated as an object.” The Argentine court agreed, ruling that although she is not biologically human, Sandra is smart enough to be recognized as a “non-human person” with rights that human persons are bound to respect.
Scientists recently discovered that the orangutan, which translates as “man of the forest” in Indonesian and Malay, shares 97% of its DNA with homo sapiens. Being such close cousins, the court in Argentina reasoned, orangutans deserve to be free from bondage. As their native habitat, the rain forest, has receded in recent decades, orangutans have become an endangered species. There are only 7,000 Sumatran orangutans remaining in the world. Sandra could not survive in the wild, given her upbringing, so the court ordered that she be liberated from public display and moved to an animal sanctuary to live out her life in Brazil.
Some 5000 miles north of Buenos Aires, a 40-year-old chimpanzee named Tommy in New York was not quite as lucky in his recent legal battle. One of four chimps the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has battled to liberate in recent years, Tommy is caged and used for research purposes. Judge P.J. Peters did not dismiss the claim out of hand. Instead, he offered a carefully reasoned rejection of Tommy’s habeas corpus petition:
"While petitioner proffers various justifications for affording chimpanzees, such as Tommy, the liberty rights protected by such writ, the ascription of rights has historically been connected with the imposition of societal obligations and duties. Reciprocity between rights and responsibilities stems from principles of social contract, which inspired the ideals of freedom and democracy at the core of our system of government."
The rights of personhood, Judge Peters contended, hold only for beings who are capable of fulfilling social duties. “Needless to say,” the court ruled, “unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights — such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus — that have been afforded to human beings.”
One might ask whether this litmus test for deserving human rights would provide grounds for stripping people who are unable to fulfill social duties — comatose patients, people with intellectual disabilities, children — of the rights of personhood. These and other humans, after all, are just as incapable of filing taxes or obeying traffic rules as Tommy (or Sandra). In a footnote, Judge Peters takes on that critique: “To be sure, some humans are less able to bear legal duties or responsibilities than others. These differences do not alter our analysis, as it is undeniable that, collectively, human beings possess the unique ability to bear legal responsibility.”
That’s true, of course. But it is not entirely clear why a human being who is temporarily or permanently unable to take on legal responsibilities deserves full personhood rights while a chimp who is similarly unable to assume these duties is a mere wild animal with no rights at all. Presumably it is the infant’s or the low-IQ adult’s connection with the family of human beings that gives her human rights. But how is such a relationship measured? And what more objective standard is there than DNA? The information encoded in the nuclei of our cells suggests that, deep down, we are remarkably similar to the higher primates.
These cases probing the boundaries of the human community bring to mind a passage from Book 8 of Plato’s Republic. The hallmark of the democratic city, Socrates said, is liberty. But liberty quickly degenerates into license, he warned, and in the end the people “finally pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten” and “may have no master anywhere over them.” The anarchy that ensues is the “fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows.”
The descent to tyranny is swift and colorful. Plato describes the flood of liberty breaking down every distinction that makes society possible: slaves claim they are as free as their masters, children lose all respect for their parents, students stop listening to their teachers, and—perish the thought—women claim equality alongside men. But the democratic city is at its absolute breaking point when even the animals get into the act:
“Without experience of it no one would believe how much freer the very beasts subject to men are in such a city than elsewhere. The dogs literally verify the adage and 'like their mistresses become.' And likewise the horses and asses are wont to hold on their way with the utmost freedom and dignity, bumping into everyone who meets them and who does not step aside. And so all things everywhere are just bursting with the spirit of liberty.”
If uppity animals blithely knocking into humans while walking down the street is truly a sign of impending doom, democracy may be close to its demise, especially in Argentina. But Plato may be wrong that widening the scope of liberty to non-human animals portends the loss of civilization. I mean, just look at Sandra's face:
Image credit: Shutterstock.com
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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