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Same species, different needs: could ‘genes for’ improve the way we treat animals?

The New
Scientist recently reviewed a variety of studies showing that many traits often supposed unique to humans are in fact shared by
There is evidence that apes, dolphins,
songbirds, elephants, and monkeys share with humans some of the
most important aspects of behaviour associated with speech; killer whales have
distinct cultural groups; great apes and some monkeys have a degree of
understanding of the minds of others, enabling them to deceive; chimpanzees,
gorillas, and crows use tools; and there is suggestive evidence that elephants,
magpies, baboons, whales, and chimpanzees demonstrate emotional behaviour, and
that monkeys and rats are capable of drawing primitive moral distinctions.

Claims that animals have capacities usually thought
unique to humans are controversial, and those who make them are often accused
of anthropomorphising animal behaviour. Plausibly,
there is often more to such accusations than concern for explanatory
parsimony. As humans, we profit from
using animals—for food, research, sport, and so on—in ways that we would not
use other humans, and suggestions that animals are more like humans than we
usually suppose place an unwelcome demand on society to rethink its ethical stance
towards animals. This suggests that a
clear division between humans and other species is important to us in justifying
the discrepancies between what we view as ethical treatment of other humans and
what we view as ethical treatment of non-human animals. Pragmatically speaking, if we
humans wish to retain a privileged moral status, and if our privileged moral
status is at least partly due to our being different to other animals in
certain important (usually biologically-based) respects, then it is in our
interests to resist attempts to draw similarities between humans and other

However, the claim that all humans enjoy a higher moral
status than all non-human animals is threatened not only by important biological
similarities betweeen humans and other animals, but also by important biological
dissimilarities among humans. Philosophers
like Peter Singer observe that certain humans,
including infants and the mentally disabled, have mental capacities that more
closely resemble those of certain non-human animals than those of adult,
healthy humans. And David Hull has
argued that ‘it is simply not true that all organisms that belong to Homo sapiens as a biological species are
essentially the same’ [1]: specifically, any property possessed only by humans is not possessed by all humans, and any property that is possessed by all humans is not unique to humans. This means that there is no group of
properties possessed by all and only humans, in virtue of which we can claim to
enjoy a privileged moral status. The
upshot of this, in essence, is that one’s moral status is not properly
determined by one’s species.

These observations about human differences and their ethical
implications are familiar to academic philosophers, but are rarely mentioned in
public debate. To the extent that there is public
debate about humanity, it usually focuses on emphasising similarities
between humans and playing down our differences. Issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia
make this attitude understandable. However, the explosion in discoveries of human ‘genes for’—including a gene
for obesity
a gene for left-handedness,
a gene for obsessive behaviour,
and even a Jewish gene for intelligence—shifts the focus from human similarities to human differences. Genetic engineering to improve physical and
mental capacities could in the future increase genetic diversity among humans,
if widely adopted. Either way, an
increasing awareness that humans differ in as many ways as they are similar seems

Is this a good thing?  I believe that, potentially, it is a very
positive thing.  Delineating moral status
along species lines may be convenient, but it is crude.  It encourages the view that all humans have
equal needs, and that it is acceptable to treat non-human animals in ways that
we would never treat even those humans of comparable sentience and cognitive
abilities. Focusing on genetic
similarities and differences between individuals could greatly improve society’s
abilities to meet the needs of those individuals, whether or not they are
human.  Ethically, this would be a huge
step forward for humans, and especially for other animals.



[1] Hull,
D. L. (1986) ‘On Human Nature’,
PSA 2: 3-13.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. fairly soon, some animals will be found to have a concept of self, which should make some of us queasy when we eat their meat.

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