September 2004

Jen Crispin

nonfiction

Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights by Steven M. Wise

If you're looking for an impassioned argument for animal rights, Drawing the Line is not the book for you. If you're looking for a manifesto, a clearly drawn out list of rights and wrongs for living a life respectful of animal rights, then Drawing the Line is still not for you. But if you're looking for a well thought out discussion of animal rights, based on science and with an eye for the law... Well, then, Steven Wise's Drawing the Line is just about perfect.

Although many of his anecdotes have deep emotional appeal, Wise does not rely on tugging the heartstrings to make his case. An animal rights lawyer, his writing is careful and structured, frequently consulting the opinions of experts in the fields of philosophy, psychology, neuroscience and animal behavior. Fundamentally, his argument is a legal one, aiming to convince the law community to grant legal "dignity rights" to animals based on their capabilities.

Based on the idea that personal autonomy is not absolute, but rather can exist on a variable scale, Wise proposes extending that scale to nonhuman animals. Just as a judge would grant more rights to a fully capable adult than they might to a two-year-old child, does it not make as much sense to grant the same rights to an animal with the same ability to reason and communicate as that child? He then defines a scale of autonomy, where one is a fully autonomous human being, and zero is no autonomy, say a single-celled organism. Eight different species are discussed, concentrating on one or two well-studied examples from each, such as Koko the gorilla and Alex the grey parrot. Using standards of child development psychology, and the classic mirror self-recognition test (simply whether or not an animal can recognize that it is looking at itself in a mirror), an autonomy value is assigned to each.

For those not already well versed in the emotional and rational lives of animals, you will come away from each chapter with a new respect for the animal in question. Even the chapter on honeybees was filled with surprises. Most of us probably learned that honeybees can communicate through dances, but that they can disregard "nonsense" messages (there can't be nectar in the middle of a lake!) and their ability to apparently make collective decisions on new hive locations were truly surprising. And whose heart would not be broken by Alex the parrot's cry when left at the veterinarian for lung surgery: "Come here. I love you. I'm sorry. I want to go back."

Wise's reliance on anecdotes, while necessary, is both the book's strength and its weakness. In the chapters on elephants and orangutans, I doubt there exists a single story that I didn't read aloud to someone, anyone, who would sit still and listen. The elephant stories were mostly heart-rending, about broken family ties and emotional reactions to death. The orangutan stories, by contrast, were mostly of cleverly manipulating their human trainers and observers. The orangutans are so charismatic in fact, that Koko comes off a little dull by comparison, and the higher autonomy value given to gorillas relative to orangutans seems to be based on the gorilla's closer evolutionary relationship to humans alone. A little further justification for the higher rating would have been welcome.

But by the end of the book, what I wanted most was a list of rights and wrongs. I was completely convinced that animals should be granted dignity rights, and desperately wanted something to do about it. The stories about elephants in circuses were enough to keep me away from those, but should I now be avoiding zoos, too? What does it mean to respect the dignity rights of animals? What can I, as an individual do? Unfortunately, I'm really not the target audience for this book. However I wish that Wise would have acknowledged that it wouldn't only be judges and lawyers reading his book, and given the average citizen something to do with conviction surely acquired reading the book.

So maybe I was looking for a different sort of book when I picked up Drawing the Line. But if a manifesto is what I really wanted, I suppose I could always pick up some Jeremy Bentham or Peter Singer. Drawing the Line however, is excellent at doing what it does, which is laying a basic framework for the eventual adoption of dignity rights for non-human animals.

Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights by Steven M. Wise
Perseus Publishing
ISBN: 0738203408
336 Pages