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Judging Bees (And Other Animals) On Their Likeness To Humans

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It seems that almost every week now there’s a new “study” being released documenting the “amazing” human-like cognitive capabilities of some animals. It has become the norm to judge another’s moral value or importance based on our perception of them and how we relate to them as opposed to the value and individuality inherent in that being, regardless of our own biases or capabilities. We judge other beings in accordance with their ability to act or think like us, as opposed to recognising that anything beyond sentience is irrelevant when we’re determining another’s moral value. As Darwin said, there a no uniquely human characteristics, and it’s high time we accepted that our own abilities make us no more (or less) morally valuable than another sentient being who simply has different characteristics and abilities.

A recent example involving bumblebees demonstrates this exercise in human arrogance rather well. Consider that Bumblebees are sentient beings with their own very individual preferences and capabilities unique to them. They communicate to other bees using a pheromone-emitting dance of sorts, letting others know which flowers are a good source of food; they can carry as much as 75% of their body weight in pollen and nectar; they can navigate incredibly complex flowers; they secrete a scent from a gland in their tarsus letting other bees know not to visit a recently used flower; they’ve been known to fly up to 80km in one stint. And of course, this is what we know of their behaviour. There will be so much more that we don’t know and indeed, shouldn’t know. The only thing that should be relevant to us is that they are sentient and therefore we have an obligation not to exploit or use them.

Despite the fact that bumblebees are sentient beings with incredibly complex and intricate behaviours, we deem it appropriate to judge them in light of their capacity to act in human-like ways. We put a fake bumblebee on a stick and “teach” them how to get a sugar treat by pushing a ball into a hole. When that bumblebee then teaches his friend how to play golf too, we say “wow” and “how amazing,” as if the bumblebee has  just proven his worth to us by engaging in a human-like activity. This sort of judgement of value is one of the main contributors to our societal speciesism. We’re constantly comparing other animals to us as if our characteristics and capabilities represent some minimum standard for being taken seriously.

This is something Professor Gary Francione calls the similar minds approach. In essence, it’s nothing but a licence to continue using animals for our purposes and “testing” their capabilities – they will never be human-like enough to be taken seriously because they are not and never will be human.

Sentience is all that matters and is all that is required to have the right not to be used exclusively as a resource. That means veganism, and it means dropping the speciesist idea that we have the right to judge animals in accordance with how much they are like us.

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