There was once an orangutan named Ken Allen at the San Diego Zoo who was notorious for carrying out complex escape plans. He found every nut and bolt in his cage and unscrewed them; in his open enclosure he threw rocks and feces at visitors. On one occasion, he constructed a ladder out of some fallen branches, carefully testing his weight on the rungs. After that, the zoo raised his enclosure walls and smoothed them to remove handholds.

Hoping to distract Ken, the zoo introduced some female orangutans. But Ken enlisted them as accomplices: While he distracted the zookeepers, his fellow inmate Vicki pried open a window. One time, Ken was caught waist-deep in water in the enclosure’s moat, attempting to inch up the sides, despite the fact that orangutans are believed to be intensely hydrophobic. As for the electrified wires on top of the enclosure walls, Ken tested them repeatedly, and one day, during a maintenance break, he tried to hop out.

Animal escape attempts often make novelty news headlines, but these are not mindless acts of sabotage or curiosity; rather, they are forms of active and knowing resistance to the conditions forced upon them by humans. Animal acts of resistance in captivity mirror those of humans: They ignore commands, slow down, refuse to work, break equipment, damage enclosures, fight, and abscond. Their actions are a struggle against exploitation—as such, they constitute political activity.

Politics, at heart, is the science and art of making decisions. We commonly think of politics as the stuff done by politicians and activists within the framework of national and local government—but really it is the mundane, everyday business of communal organization. Any time two or more people make an agreement or come to a decision, politics is at work. For humans, politics plays out in all kinds of ways: in parliaments, at the ballot box, in our daily decisions about how we want to live. Every choice we make that affects others is itself political. This obviously includes voting, but it also includes the things we make and design; our relationships with our partners and neighbors; what we consume, act upon, share, and refuse. Even if we say that we want nothing to do with politics, we don’t really have that option—politics affects almost every aspect of our lives, whether we want it to or not. By definition, it is the process by which almost anything at all gets done. In this sense, politics, when organized, is also a kind of technology: the framework of communication and processing that governs everyday interaction and possibility.

This understanding of politics also means that our decisionmaking processes must extend beyond our own human lives: to nonhuman animals, to the planet, and in the very near future to autonomous AI. I call this a “more-than-human” politics, drawing from ecologist and philosopher David Abram’s concept of a more-than-human world, a way of thinking that fully acknowledges and engages with all living beings and ecological systems. A more-than-human political system can take many forms. Among humans, most political interactions are legislative and judicial, but we have much to learn from the myriad ways animals act politically among themselves.

Animals do politics practically; this is true for individual animals, as in the case of Ken Allen, but it is especially important for animal social groups. Social cohesion is critical to collective survival, and so all social animals practice some kind of consensus decisionmaking, particularly around migration and selecting feeding sites. Just as in human society, this can lead to conflicts of interests between group members. (Most of us are familiar with the horror of getting a group of people to agree on a restaurant.) The answer to this problem in the animal world is rarely, if ever, despotism; far more frequently, it involves democratic process.

A few remarkable examples: Red deer, who live in large herds and frequently stop to rest and ruminate, will start to move off from a rest area once 60 percent of adults stand up; they literally vote with their feet. The same goes for buffalo, although the signs are more subtle: The female members of the herd indicate their preferred direction of travel by standing up, staring in one direction, and lying down again. Birds, too, display complex decisionmaking behavior. By attaching small GPS loggers to pigeons, scientists have learned that decisions about when and where to fly are shared by all members of a flock.

Perhaps the greatest exponent of animal equality is the honeybee. Honeybees have their own distinct history, first as thoughtful pastoralists and pacifists—all bees are descended from one species of wasp that decided to go vegetarian some 100 million years ago—and secondly as highly organized, communicative, and consensus-building communities. Their storied commitment to social life is enshrined in the beekeeper’s proverb, which might double as a political slogan: “Una apis, nulla apis,” meaning “one bee is no bee.”

Honeybees perform one of the greatest spectacles of democracy-in-practice, known as the “waggle dance.” The waggle dance was first described scientifically in 1944, by Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch, as a means by which forager bees share the locations of nearby pollen sources. A few years later, one of Frisch’s graduate students, Martin Lindauer, noticed a swarm of bees hanging from a tree. Their behavior indicated that they were searching for a new home. But he also noticed that some of these bees were performing waggle dances, and that unlike pollen-dusted foragers, these bees were covered in soot and brick dust, earth and flour. These weren’t foragers, Lindauer realized; they were scouts.

Lindauer’s observations over time revealed that the bees’ waggle dance communicated not just a map to food, but also political preference. When the swarm first started looking for a new nesting site, scouts would announce dozens of competing locations at the same time, and after a few hours or days they gradually moved toward a decision. The final site was chosen in an open and fair manner, with each bee’s opinion being heard and each listener making its own independent assessment of the proposal. More and more bees would begin to dance the same location, until all the dancing bees gradually converged on the same spot—the new nesting site—with the same patterns of movement. Then the whole swarm took flight. In short, the bees were partaking in a kind of direct democracy.

Animals, then, act politically, and they turn out to be rather good at it. So how should we integrate this knowledge into a more-than-human politics of our own? How can we give animals political standing?

One approach is to adjust our existing legal structures to better accommodate them. Today, efforts are underway to give nonhumans legal personhood, which entails the right to speak and be heard as individuals before our courts. If nonhumans were considered as legal persons, then courts could recognize them as having their own inalienable rights and deserving of both protection and self-determination.

One recent case that has gotten some attention is that of Happy, an elephant who is currently incarcerated in a bare concrete enclosure at the Bronx Zoo. In September 2019, Happy’s case was heard before Judge Alison Tuitt of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The first move of Happy’s representatives was to ask for a writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is one of the cornerstones of English common law, as well as that of the United States, and it is also a kind of test of whether a court considers its subject to be a legal person. (It means literally, “you have the body.”) If the writ is granted, then that person must be deserving of rights and, potentially, liberty.

In a long and carefully argued decision, Judge Tuitt declined to issue the writ. “Happy is an extraordinary animal with complex cognitive abilities, an intelligent being with advanced analytic abilities akin to human beings,” she wrote. “The Court agrees that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property. She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty.” However, Judge Tuitt felt that she was constrained by previous legal precedent, in which other courts had refused to extend habeas corpus to nonhuman animals. In the judge’s opinion, the matter was one for the legislature, not the courts. (The decision was appealed and again rejected; Happy remains at the Bronx Zoo.)

In some other countries, legal personhood has already been granted to nonhuman entities. India’s courts, for example, have extended personhood not only to animals but to the Ganges River. The river has its own “right to life,” argued the lawyers in the case. This ruling is particularly interesting, because when activists come to the defense of a natural entity such as a river they usually have to prove that its degradation is a risk to human life: This is how anthropocentrism plays out in law. By declaring the river a person in its own right, however, activists have to show only that the river itself is damaged—by pollution, fertilizer runoff, mining spoil—in order for it to be protected in law. The Indian court’s decision resulted in a blanket ban on mining along the Ganges, as well as the closure of hotels, industries, and ashrams that discharge sewage into it.

India is not the first country to enact such policies. In 2008, Ecuador rewrote its constitution to include a guarantee of “Rights of Nature.” The new constitution recognized the inalienable rights of ecosystems to exist and flourish, gave people the authority to petition on behalf of nature, and required the country’s government to remedy violations of these rights. In 2018, Colombia’s highest court declared that the Amazon rainforest was a legal person.

Around that time, New Zealand’s government granted personhood to another ecosystem: the 290-kilometer-long Whanganui River. For centuries, the Māori have considered the Whanganui sacred. Its waters nourish their crops and communities, and they recognize its intrinsic being: its life force, or mauri. The Māori have led a centuries-long fight to protect the river, and in 2017, when New Zealand passed the Te Awa Tupua Act—recognizing not only the river but its tributaries and watershed as “an indivisible and living being”—the Māori were given special recognition and influence over its governance.

What made the law possible was a shift in attitudes, a move away from seeing the river as a resource—“what do we want from the river?”—and into a space where it was possible to ask, “what do we want for the river?” This attitude is not new, at least to the Māori—they have always recognized the personhood of the river. What is new is the long overdue accommodation of the law to traditional cosmologies.

To recognize indigenous ways of thinking in law is critical not only for the survival of the beings in question but for our own ongoing processes of decolonization and enfranchisement. In South America, the extension of rights to nonhuman persons is often associated with the philosophy of sumak kawsay or buen vivir: a way of doing things rooted in communities, coexistence, cultural sensitivity, and ecological balance.

While buen vivir takes its inspiration from the belief systems of the Aymara peoples of Bolivia, the Quichua of Ecuador, and the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina, it represents more than the opposition of traditional knowledge to modern thought. Rather, writes the Uruguayan scholar Eduardo Gudynas, “it is equally influenced by Western critiques of capitalism over the last 30 years, especially from the field of feminist thought and environmentalism.” The practice of buen vivir does not require a return to some sort of imagined, pre-Columbian past, but a synthesis of those historical ideals with a progressive, contemporary politics.

Yet those of us in Europe and North America who live in so-called Enlightenment culture and within histories of domination and cultural imperialism often lack a willingness or ability to acknowledge the actual reality of these ways of seeing and being outside the fixed framework of Western philosophy and law. This lack of understanding and awareness is particularly evident in our attitudes to technology, where efforts to apply some of these same ideas to machine intelligence are off to a very dismal start indeed.

In February 2017, the European Parliament, concerned about the rise of robots that make autonomous decisions and act independently of their creators, adopted a resolution proposing a specific legal status for “sophisticated autonomous robots as having the status of electronic persons.” This special category of personhood would allow courts to hold the machines themselves responsible for making good any damage they caused. Even this intentionally limited proposal was met with opposition; in an open letter, 150 experts in medicine, robotics, AI, and ethics called the plans “inappropriate,” as well as “ideological and nonsensical and non-pragmatic.”

The European Parliament resolution, however, was a response to a very real problem: the legal lack of clarity concerning autonomous systems. Self-driving cars are one such example; autonomous weapons platforms like military drones and robotic sentries are others. If a self-driving car hits someone—as has already happened—the law remains uncertain as to where the blame should lie. Likewise, while military drones, missiles, and machine-gun posts remain for now under the control of human operators, they will soon operate fully autonomously, with consequences that may be predictable and unpredictable—but almost certainly horrifying. In both cases, legal frameworks such as electronic personhood would provide some way of addressing them.

Although the European Parliament resolution proposed creating a distinct category of “electronic person,” rather than a “legal person” on the model of the habeas corpus campaigns, the writers of the open letter feared that such a classification would impinge upon human rights. What exactly such an impingement might entail was unspecified in the letter, but the inference is that any strengthening of nonhuman rights inevitably weakens protections for humans—a dangerously short-sighted argument.

For most of our history, humans have had the upper hand in determining who is deserving of rights and who is not. We have taken our superiority in one particular aspect—intelligence, as measured by ourselves, obviously—and used it to draw a line between ourselves and all other beings and to justify our dominance over them. While this line has been redrawn many times, to include an ever greater number of human beings, it has mostly held fast against the inclusion of nonhuman beings. Legal arguments for redrawing it further, such as the case made for Happy the elephant, invoke nonhuman intelligence and cognitive complexity in their support. But what if this cognitive complexity were to radically exceed our own, rather than simply differ from it? This is the problem—and also the opportunity—posed by artificial intelligence.

While it seems useful to bring up questions of ethics with regard to technology like self-driving cars or intelligent decisionmaking systems, this discourse largely serves to hide the wider problems that such technologies provoke. In 2019, Google created a short-lived forum, the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council, to advise it on “the responsible development and use of AI.” When Kay Coles James, the president of the deeply conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, was appointed to the advisory council, Google employees and outsiders protested, pointing to statements of hers they considered to be anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant. One other member of the board tendered his resignation. Google’s response was to shut down the council, less than a fortnight after launching it.

In December 2020, controversy flared up once more. One of the leaders of Google’s Ethical Artificial Intelligence team, Timnit Gebru, says she was fired when she refused to withdraw an academic paper she had coauthored that addressed deep biases within machine learning systems including Google’s own. The paper highlighted issues of opacity, environmental and financial cost, and the systems’ potential for deception and misuse.

Companies refer to pressing concerns with new technology as “ethical issues” so that they can look and feel good about discussing them, while limiting that discussion to a debate about abstract values. Really, these issues are political problems, because they’re about what happens when technology comes into contact with the wider world. A focus on corporate ethics merely serves to reduce such problems to ones that can be handled internally by engineers and PR departments, rather than through a broader engagement with—and deference to—human society and the more-than-human environment.

This is the problem with legal personhood, too. A system of laws and protections developed by and for humans, that places human concerns and values at its core, can never fully incorporate the needs and desires of nonhumans. These judicial efforts fall into the same category of error as the mirror test and ape sign language: the attempt to understand and account for nonhuman selfhood through the lens of our own umwelt. The fundamental otherness of the more-than-human world cannot be enfolded into such human-centric systems, any more than we can discuss jurisprudence with an oak tree.

Legal representation, reckoning, and protection are founded upon human ideas of individuality and identity. They may prove useful when we take up the case of an individual chimp or elephant, or even a whole species, but their limits are clear when we apply them to a river, an ocean, or a forest. A plant has no “identity;” it is simply alive. The waters of the earth have no bounds. This is both ecology’s meaning and its lesson. We cannot split hairs, or rocks, or mycorrhizal roots and say: This thing here is granted personhood, and this thing not. Everything is hitched to everything else.

The enactment of a more-than-human politics calls explicitly for a politics beyond the individual, and beyond the nation-state. It calls for care, rather than legislation, to guide it.

Just as the questing root of the tree undermines the foundations of a stone house, attentiveness to the omnicentric forces of the more-than-human world explodes the existing political order of domination and control from without and within. “In vain we force the living into this or that one of our moulds,” wrote the philosopher Henri Bergson. “All the moulds crack. They are too narrow, above all too rigid, for what we try to put into them.” Ultimately, we must apply the same logic to our political systems.

The most urgent political work we must do within the more-than-human world will always take place outside of our existing systems of law and governance, because its ultimate aim is their dismantling. Like the resisting orangutans in the San Diego zoo, our demand is not that we are recognized by the state as existing—we exist already—but that we are truly free to determine the conditions of our existence. And that “we” is everyone—every singing, swaying, burrowing, braying, roiling, and rocking thing in the more-than-human world.

This story is adapted fromWays of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence, by James Bridle. The book will be published this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


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