Cats And Neanderthals

Palaeontological classification is more important than it looks. If the Neanderthals were human, whatever that means, then we and they are different subspecies of human; but if not, then the “slot” of subspecies is available to be filled by the various human “races”, and we all know where that leads. Were a community of live Neanderthals to be suddenly discovered, everyone would immediately want to know whether they were “human” or not. What people would actually mean by that is whether it would be OK for us to maltreat them openly and without shame, or would we have to pretend that it was for their own good or all their own fault, the way we do when maltreating other human beings? If we one day encounter extraterrestrials, our habit of equating humanness in the genomic sense with humanity in the sense of rights may get us into very serious trouble. It might be better to anticipate that day by thinking in terms of “personhood” as a wider category than humanness. I used to say that my cats were persons – not human persons, to be sure, but feline persons. The term “person” has its own ambiguities, not least since it derives from the word for “mask”, but at least it gets us away from the biological. Our best paradigm with which to meet possible extraterrestrials would be Spider Robinson’s phrases, “gentlebeings” and “beings of courtesy and goodwill”, which are wholly independent of minor details like the number of arms and legs.

Posted on March 31, 2009 at 14:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Beings and Gentlebeings

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Urban Djin
    on March 31, 2009 at 18:33

    Creatures? Why assume that such beings would have been created? What if they had evolved? I’d stick to “beings”. We wouldn’t want them to think us dim.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on March 31, 2009 at 18:52

    Well, it was Spider’s phrase, if I am remembering him correctly, but I don’t think he’ll mind if I change it anyway.

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