Friday, May 27, 2011

Rights for Dolphins and Martians

A few weeks ago Science had an article about a movement against keeping dolphins captives in zoos and aquariums, and to give them equal rights as "non-human persons". It is now widely recognized that dolphins are quite smart, social animals (some have passed the mirror test of self-recognition) - and there is a strong case to think of them at par with apes (including us). But here is the conundrum: Scientists have been able to figure out that dolphins are smart while working with them in captivity - and now these very results form the argument against further research on them in aquariums.

This is a fascinating and important issue. This issue reminded me of the search for microbial life in Mars. There is so much effort devoted to finding life on the Red planet, and indeed, such a find would be tremendous not only for science but also for the larger perceptions of humanity. But the find will also immediately present us with serious ethical challenges. What if bacteria and viruses from Earth impact evolution of life on Mars? Do we have the right to be present on the planet of Martians? (we could have gotten permission from sentient beings - but it may be hard to do so with bacteria). A successful research program on life on Mars may end up cutting-off on-site research on Mars. That is not only okay - but also fair. Mars, in that case, will be for Martians. We will have to come up with clever ways to continue research without endangering Martian lifeforms and without leaving our footprints there.

I think the same is true for the case of dolphins. Yes, we have figured out that dolphins are smart with research on captive dolphins, but now we have to give respect to the smart species - and be clever (ha!) about finding ways to continue research without limiting their freedom.

Here is an excerpt from the article:
Taking a cue from the Great Ape Project, a collection of scientists and advocates who have argued that chimps and their relatives deserve basic legal rights (Science, 1 April, p. 28), Marino banded together with other scientists, activists, and philosophers to draft a “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans” in 2010. It states that no cetaceans—a group that includes whales and dolphins—“should be held in captivity … or removed from their natural environment.” Instead, live cetaceans should only be studied in the wild. Marino and her allies have gathered more than 3200 signatures and hope eventually to bring the declaration before the United Nations. “We want to use this as a jumping-off point for changing policy,” Marino says. “We need to move the science to a place that doesn't compromise our ethics.”
This may be painful for humans, but the right thing to do. Read the full article here (you may need subscription to read the article). 

Also see earlier posts:
Apes are humans too...
Ecological ethics and the interconnectedness of species
More on the call for rights for apes
Rights for apes threaten Dembski's uniqueness


Akbar said...

If it does happen that we find life of any form on Mars, I would agree to the proposition of not meddling into the pristine ecosystem of alien life forms minding their own business on that planet. Even a slightest clue should raise our vigilance. But on the other hand, business enterprises eager to reap benefits from Martian exploration (in distant future may be) would always find several 'valid' reasons to adulterate, likely exterminate, the newly discovered ecosystem when it wouldn't be new anymore, say, 200 years after discovery of such a system. Reasons like medical research to cure genetic conditions for example.

On a different note, we derive this speculation of life on Mars (or any other planet for that purpose) from our speculation of spontaneous formation of life from the organic sludge in ancient water bodies. Even though there are no present examples of formation of precursor molecules like nucleotides in environments similar to ancient earth, like undersea volcanic vents...sadly not a single molecule. But anyways this is not important...speculations are important, speculations that lead to more speculations, and more, and more, till we end up in SETI crap.

Dot23 said...

Of course, Dolphins are WAY smarter than us, and some of their research scientists have allowed themselves to be put into specially designed mammalian/cetacean interaction environments (eroneously seen by us hairless apes as 'zoos' or 'sealife adventure parks') by us in order to further their studies at close range. SO far the dolphin scientists' experiments have involved: seeing how much fish we can be convinced to give them in return for minor stunts, trying to teach us the dolphin air-click speech (which apes are ill equipped to copy & show no ability to recognise even simple concepts in) & studying crowd interaction (so far they have determined that we eat far too much sugar, salt & alcohol for our weak metabolisms to deal with).

The real issue is, can humans be encouraged to take part in further experiments in the dolphins' home environment, which would be less stressful for the cetacean scientists, and provide greater understanding of human physiology/psychology in a marine environment (well, to be honest, the dolphins just like to laugh at the tailless monkeys when they splash around in the water - they look so funny!)

Dot (ape interpreter for the Dolphin Liberation Army)

Salman Hameed said...

Aha - so you have already started working for the masters. I have seen the potential of dolphins: Check out the third segment of this Simpson's Halloween special.

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