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Yellowdog's avatar

How could someone who appeared to be an animal prove themselves human?

Asked by Yellowdog (11165points) February 21st, 2017

This is kind-of a twist on that familiar “what makes us human” and “what distinguishes a human from an animal” question that makes its rounds from time to time. Have fun with it.

And the best way to have fun with it is to take it seriously. There are AT LEAST three ways to go with it—

(1) If a human were turned into an animal, (a.k.a. “Bewitched”, “Jeanie” or little Anthony Fremont but in a less isolated setting)—how could a person get their human rights recognized or restored?
(1a)—Humanlike animals, such as monkeys
(1b)—Common, likeable domesticated animals—dogs, cats, horses, birds—some of which (birds) might retain the ability to speak, or otherwise understand and communicate
(1c)—more exotic animals such as an elephant or rabbit or snake
(1d)—something monstrous or
(1e)—truly disgusting and repulsive but not human or even a known or identifiable animal

(2) What if a person (seriously—because of a medical condition or transformation/transmutation) LOOKED very much like some other primate ??? What other than speech might prove their humanity?

(3) (the most serious of the three possibilities mentioned here) If a Chimp, Gorilla, or other primate COULD obtain human or near-human sentience, could or would they be allowed to pass as human in society?

(4) I’ll throw this in, too—the movie “A.I.” brought this up—what about androids and machines—could they ever feel human emotions and/or be recognized as human?

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16 Answers

Seek's avatar

They could take the Gom Jabbar.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Sorry for the long answer. I have split it into sections for readability.


Regarding the Background Premise

To begin, I don’t actually think this question helps us get at what makes us human or what distinguishes a human from an animal (or, since humans are animals, from a non-human animal). The idea that an answer would be revealing in this way rests on an old (and common) Aristotelian assumption that whatever is unique about humanity is the essence of humanity. But while unique features are useful way of tracking a kind of thing we are looking for, they are not necessarily definitions.

An example: if we were in the Gobi desert and I wanted you to bring me an antelope, I could say “bring me one of the four-legged, horned animals” (assuming you didn’t already know what an antelope was). But “an animal with four legs and horns” is not the definition of an antelope. It’s just a serviceable way of tracking what I want in situation we are in (since there are no other four-legged, horned animals in the Gobi desert). So picking out an antelope (or a human) does not necessarily require knowing the defining features of being an antelope (or a human).

In any case, “human” is ultimately a taxonomical category. Humans are defined by their biology, not their abilities. Indeed, our concern with abilities usually comes in not when we are asking whether or not something is human, but whether it is a person. And while it is a common error to conflate the two categories, they are most certainly different. A human that lacks linguistic or rational capacities is still a human. It’s just not the kind of being we think exemplifies humanity. So now let’s look at the various ways you suggested we might approach the question.


(1) If a human were turned into an animal, (a.k.a. “Bewitched”, “Jeanie” or little Anthony Fremont but in a less isolated setting)—how could a person get their human rights recognized or restored?

Assuming that the (former) human retains its memories, the most straightforward way would probably be to do something that the type of animal it has been turned into cannot do. Scratching out a condensed version of what happened on an appropriate surface—wood, sand, whatever—would probably go a long way to getting recognized (something like, “My name is Joe, and I have been turned into a cat by a witch. What else can I do to convince you?”) Of course, this depends on the capacities of the animal you have been turned into. A human-turned-fish might have a significantly harder time than a human-turned-cat, for example.

—Humanlike animals, such as monkeys

A humanlike animal could presumably never prove that it is a human because it is not. Again, “human” is a taxonomical category. Whether or not they could prove themselves to be persons is another question altogether. Not only would they need an answer to the ongoing debate over what constitutes personhood, they would need a concept of personhood in the first place and a desire to prove themselves persons.

—Common, likeable domesticated animals—dogs, cats, horses, birds—some of which (birds) might retain the ability to speak, or otherwise understand and communicate

Same as above.

—more exotic animals such as an elephant or rabbit or snake

Same as above.

—something monstrous or (1e)—truly disgusting and repulsive but not human or even a known or identifiable animal

Same as above insofar as we are starting with the premise that they are not taxonomically human. That said, plenty of actual humans have been considered monstrous, disgusting, and/or repulsive by others in the past. Here we can only appeal to the fact that appearance is not a moral quality and that disgust is not a reliable indicator of any sort of value other than aesthetic.


(2) What if a person (seriously—because of a medical condition or transformation/transmutation) LOOKED very much like some other primate ??? What other than speech might prove their humanity?

A DNA test.


(3) (the most serious of the three possibilities mentioned here) If a Chimp, Gorilla, or other primate COULD obtain human or near-human sentience, could or would they be allowed to pass as human in society?

“Passing” is not a matter of being allowed. It is a matter of what other people actually think. For a primate to pass as human, it would have to appear human to passersby. That’s what passing is. If you mean to ask whether it would be allowed to contribute to or participate in society the way we allow humans to do, I think we probably would. However, the novelty of it all would probably limit it to certain careers at first (since some industries would be more interested in it than others).


(4) I’ll throw this in, too—the movie “A.I.” brought this up—what about androids and machines—could they ever feel human emotions and/or be recognized as human?

Once again, they would never actually be human because “human” is a taxonomical category. So if we recognized them as such, we would be mistaken. That said, humans are just complicated biological machines. As such, there does not seem to be any a priori reason for thinking that we will never be able to produce a machine that has all of the same capacities as a human being (including the capacity to feel the same emotions that humans feel). Whether or not we’ll get there before we go extinct, however, is a question that only the unfolding of history can reveal.

LostInParadise's avatar

The question reminds me of the novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells. I have not read it, but I know it is about an evil genius who creates hybrids between humans and animals.

As it applies to androids and machines, this question has been asked before. At what point will we be able to say that we have created a machine as intelligent as a human? The mathematician Alan Turing came up with a simple test. Have a person communicate through a terminal with a human and also with a computer or robot or android or whatever you want to call it. There are no restrictions on the questions or answers. If the machine responses cannot be distinguished from human responses then the machine passes the test and we have truly artificial intelligence.

Not everyone agrees that the Turing test would be valid. There are philosophers who are convinced that no such machine could be constructed. One well known line of argument comes from the philosopher John Searle, and is known as the Chinese Room argument

I encourage you to read the article, but the gist of it is this: A person is placed in a room. He is given questions written in Chinese. In the room are books in English that tell how to an return an answer using Chinese characters. Searle says that this setup is like a computer, and just as the man in the room has no understanding of the questions or answers, the same holds for computers. In both cases, all that is done is to follow a set of instructions.

The only thing that I have to say about this is that I think Turing’s test is about as good as we can currently do, and the most important takeaway from the Chinese Room argument is how little we understand the human mind, or any mind for that matter. How does a lizard or an insect process sensory information, remember parts of it, and take appropriate actions?

ragingloli's avatar

Easy, they could not.
Anything they could possibly come up with, would be dismissed as either coincidence, tricks taught by a human, or a curious form of mimicry.

flutherother's avatar

Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man is a case in point. He was human but was treated as a monster because of his appearance and his inability to communicate. He would have died an outcast had he not met Dr Treves who befriended him and gave him somewhere to live.

CWOTUS's avatar

I’m trying to think how I do this on a daily basis, and the only way that I can come up with is… to show my Connecticut driver’s license, or my passport. But those work partly because the photo on the document roughly matches my face, because no one gives those much more than a cursory glance to see if that condition is met.

Alternatively, I suppose, money would do the trick. Pay me enough, and I’ll recognize anyone as anything they like.

Sneki95's avatar

Asking questions.

Humans are seemingly the only animals that question things.
I read about some experiment where a gorilla was thought a sign language. The animal showed enormous intelligence and ability to answer very complex questions detail, but never asked anything itself.
This experience brought scientist to conclusion that so far, humans are the only species known to ask questions.

So, if an animal like creature starts asking questions, it may be a good indicator that it isn’t an ordinary animal in the first place, or not an actual animal at all.
In line with what was said above, you can’t be trained nor tricked into asking questions, it requires higher intelligence and understanding things to question it.

Another clue that came to my mind would be using figurative language. Can anyone really be thought to use figures of speech?
Same goes for creating works of art.

I think artistic sense is something only humans have. Animals create tools and come up with various systems, but only out of practicality, not out of creativity or style.

CWOTUS's avatar

That’s interesting, @Sneki95. Do you recall where you read that? Do you know if the experiment has been replicated?

Just keeping my hand in here. Doing my bit to prove my species membership.

RedDeerGuy1's avatar

If they can do my taxes then I would consider them human.

Sneki95's avatar

@CWOTUS I think I read it somewhere on TV Tropes. It wasn’t any article, just an example. I can’t find it now to save my life, but I remembered reading about it.

I found this, though. (real life section)

Zaku's avatar

1) I think they’d probably tend to get captured and imprisoned in a secret research lab somewhere, with those responsible hiding that they had anything to do with it.

2) They’d probably just need to get some ID and supporting documents, assuming the process was gradual enough. Might also end up a research prisoner, perhaps via medical excuses.

3) No, they’d definitely tend to be a research prisoner, unless they happened to be kept by people who could/would prevent that. If there were several and it were publicized well enough, there might be some shift towards recognizing them as people, but they’d still be ridiculously over-publicized and in paparazzi hell and researchers would go ape trying to study them all the time, etc.

4) It frightens me how much people misunderstand what AIs are and are not, including irresponsible people writing popular books about “The Singularity” and so on. The answer is probably not for a very very very very long time, and then maybe sort of but hopefully society will be much less savage and ridiculous than it is now so that by then it can not be the problem it would be in today’s ass-backwards retarded society, where Microsoft could then just crank out 100 billion AI’s and claim they all have civil rights and want to vote for their AI CEO as president of everything, etc. My guess is that when/if it ever actually makes sense to consider an AI a person, society will be wise in how they are deploy major technologies such as GMOs and independent AIs, and in how society should interact with them. I would expect society and science to have made major advances too in its general level of common understanding about the difference between hard and mind, spirit and information, and so on, and not be as confused as pop science currently is about what consciousness and AI and whatever this new special AI are and are not, which would affect how they would be treated by a wise future culture. I’d think if a special AI just can process data and make decisions like a person but has no feelings that aren’t just data, that it might be treated more or less like computer software or technology and not have any particular rights at all. If such a thing is regarded as a full being with thoughts feelings and so on that are respected, then I’d expect a culture to also develop wisdom around exactly how and what kinds and how many are created, and what their rights and responsibilities are.

kritiper's avatar

To show the ability to reason and to be able to conceive the concept of time.

Soubresaut's avatar

Do requests count as questions? Or do questions in this context means things more like “why is the sky blue?” and “why did that happen?”

“Researchers at The Gorilla Foundation said that Koko asked for a cat for Christmas in 1983. Ron Cohn, a biologist with the foundation, explained to the Los Angeles Times that when she was given a lifelike stuffed animal, she was less than satisfied. She did not play with it and continued to sign ‘sad.’ So on her birthday in July 1984, she was able to choose a kitten from a litter of abandoned kittens. Koko selected a gray male Manx and named him ‘All Ball’.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koko_(gorilla)#Koko.27s_pets

And Alex the parrot says quite clearly that he “wants to go back” and “wants water” during this video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldYkFdu5FJk

Edit:
Well, if we take wikipedia at its word, Alex may have asked a more “true” question, but since there’s only one mentioned incident with one parrot it’s not a great sample size:
“Looking at a mirror, he said ‘what color’, and learned ‘grey’ after being told ‘grey’ six times. This either made him the first and only non-human animal to have ever asked an existential question (apes who have been trained to use sign-language have so far failed to ever ask a single question), or his parroting the question phrase was very luckily situated.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_%28parrot%29#Accomplishments

Shirley29's avatar

When they can talk and when they reason out. When they understand what we speak and interact to it then they can be humans.

Sneki95's avatar

@Soubresaut That may be the gorilla I mentioned, though Koko differs a bit from what I wrote (may as well me not remembering well).
Her language is far more complex from other animals, but is still quite simple in comparison to humans. Which still means that, for an animal to be capable of proving itself a human, it would have to master language in the same manner as humans so, from developing grammar to using figurative language (though Koko seems to use it in some extent).
I still think that request “I want a kitten” does not equal to a question “Where is the kitten?”.
Alex seems more of an interesting case. Did he really asked a question, or was it just trained to “ask a question” in order to get something?

Could asking questions be some sort of a Turing test for animals?

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