Saturday, August 29, 2015

Buenos Aires attorney general takes on an orangutan in the zoo and laments the death of Darwin

A prominent and influential government lawyer in Buenos Aires has come to the remarkable conclusion that “Darwin is dead” because of the court case in the Argentina city for rights for the orangutan Sandra.

Attorney General of the city of Buenos Aires Julio Conte-Grand wrote an article on the topic for the August 25 issue of the Argentina newspaper La Nacion.

Julio Conte-Grand signs papers
Conte-Grand argues that the real nail in the coffin of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the idea that an orangutan like Sandra should have the basic legal rights of a “non-human person.”

I am playing a role in this case after forming a committee with orangutan experts Leif Cocks, president of The Orangutan Project, and Gary Shapiro, president of the Orang Utan Republik, to write a report for the court on conditions for the ethical treatment of Sandra. The report was submitted to the court by the association of lawyers for animal rights called AFADA.

It would be interesting to speculate what the motives are for the attorney general to comment as he did on a case in progress. Whose interests does his article serve? Certainly, it seems fair to conclude that the attorney general represents some popular sentiment in Argentina that the case of Sandra is dangerous in some way. The article would be a way of being seen to exert some public pressure on the liberal-thinking judge in the case, Elena Amanda Liberatori, although the article does not say explicitly that the judge may end up killing Darwin by her decision.

Conte-Grand recognizes the “popular” and “crude” version of the theory of evolution, or natural selection, to be that “man descended from monkey.” Of course, that is a false version of the science of the theory, and Conte-Grand is careful to hint that this version is not trustworthy. And yet, at the same time, he is subtly or not so subtly invoking an error to support his article. That is why we enjoy the skill of lawyers. They are clever Homo sapiens.

Conte-Grand says the court case of Sandra goes far beyond the need to protect Sandra from cruelty, as though that is the limit of our ethical responsibility as human beings. The ethical rule would thus be that we can kill other living beings for whatever reason as long as we do it in a kind way. Should that really be the limit of our ethics?

Giving legal status to an orangutan would destroy the logic and science of natural selection, says Conte-Grand. Although he does not state his argument clearly, he is arguing that evolution is a process of developing from "lower" to "higher" forms of life. In his argument, apes are a "lower" form of life and humans a "higher" form and his concept of ethics is built on this notion of going from "lower" to "higher" forms of life. For him, an orangutan as a legal “non-human person” would have basic rights that a human embryo does not. A human at an early stage of development would thus be “less” than an orangutan in “Darwinism in reverse,” Conte-Grand says.

The argument makes serious errors in several ways. On a really basic level, evolution does not make the distinction of “lower” and “higher” forms of life in the way that human beings do. The elements that we value and distinguish as higher and lower are really concepts developed by human beings, not nature. We could also question whether a “higher” being would wage devastating wars, create massive poverty and unleash the destructiveness of global climate change.

But the more serious error is that evolution is not a system of ethics and evolution should not be used to make ethical decisions. For instance, evolution would not tell us that it is wrong to eat other human beings. As the world gets more and more crowded and resources dwindle through human wastefulness, the machinery of evolution might favour eating the surplus human meat. But we would say that is wrong and not ethical. And I suspect that Darwin would agree.

Presumably the attorney general is not a vegetarian on ethical grounds, but eats meat, like beef or chicken, maybe with gusto. And that is considered legal, because cows and chickens are objects and property under the law. But does the attorney general want Sandra to be legally an object and property which he can also eat? I have trouble imagining Julio Conte-Grand with knife and fork ready to eat an orangutan or chimpanzee steak because he believes there is nothing in evolution that forbids him from doing that. The attorney general has strong values and ethics that evolution does not have. We should be grateful for that.

So what is the real reason for opposing a little more ethical treatment of Sandra? It is the old argument that if you free women and slaves, then everybody who is not a woman or a slave will lose. That was once a “crude” and “popular” argument that carried weight.

Conte-Grand ends his article by saying that Darwin and Newton are buried in Westminster Abbey not far from each other and that they must be asking each other “what they did wrong” if an orangutan is being considered for legal status as a “non-human person.” It is not clear why the attorney general is dragging Newton into the discussion, although Newton had fascinating interests in the occult, alchemy and the apocalypse, predicting the world would not end until at least 2060, which may be foresight into the effects of our self-inflicted global climate change.

As for Darwin, his theory of evolution may owe a debt to orangutans. After Darwin returned to England from his voyage around the world and began years of thinking about his theory, he encountered his first ape, an orangutan named Jenny, in the zoo in London in March 1838. Darwin wrote in his notebook at the time about how the behaviour of Jenny started him thinking about a nonhuman person. Jenny was dressed in human clothes in drawings of the time. Darwin played a harmonica in front of Jenny and gave her peppermint candy to see if she reacted like a human being. He watched how she reacted to seeing herself in a mirror. Darwin was intrigued by the similarities of thought and emotion in his orangutan and human beings, later writing the book The Expression of The Emotions in Man and Animals.

How should we interpret Conte-Grand’s strange anxiety about orangutans, particularly since there is really not a significant population of orangutans in Argentina to worry about? I would say that it is always interesting how Homo sapiens feel threatened by the idea that an intelligent fellow species of primate might deserve a few legal rights, such as the right to life and liberty and freedom from harm by human beings. But would the stability of meat-eating Argentina really be undermined if Sandra had a few more rights?

The case of Sandra in Buenos Aires seems to have touched a nerve, based on this outburst by the attorney general in La Nacion. All I would say to Sandra is, “Don’t give up hope yet that the legal system is stronger in the end than human self-interest.” That is why we created the legal system, to protect us from ourselves. Too bad we can’t do that with global climate change.

Here is the link to the original story in Spanish:
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