Sapience is defined in the Wikipedia as ‘wisdom, or the ability of an organism or entity to act with appropriate judgment’.
‘In fantasy fiction and science fiction, sapience describes an essential property that bestows “personhood” onto a non-human. It indicates that a computer, alien, mythical creature or other object will be treated as a completely human character, with similar rights, capabilities and desires as any other human character.’
A ‘sapient’ is therefore some being who should be treated in the same way as a completely human character.
Throughout history, we arrogant humans have believed that we are the only creatures on this planet who possess significant wisdom; so much so that when Linnaeus was naming our species he chose ‘Homo Sapiens’, which translates as Wise Man. No other creature was given a name which include ‘sapiens’.
If aliens from another planet had landed on Earth, say 25,000 years ago, they would have found four groups of creatures with very large brains which would have seemed to be worth trying to communicate with. These would have been humans and elephants on the land and whales and dolphins in the seas. At that time the humans would probably have been outnumbered by each of the other three. Now, of course, humans vastly outnumber the others, largely because we have killed so many of them and expanded our numbers incredibly.
I am a writer and my work includes novels with both human, dolphin and elephant characters. In researching the lives of these creatures prior to writing the books, I became increasingly aware that all of them had far more in common with humans than I had suspected. They all seemed to live in groups and families which cared for the others in a way the best of humans do. They seemed to have a huge capacity for Love, not just among their own kind but were eager to extend this to humans, at such times when we did not threaten them in any way. I searched for a name which would identify them as special in this way and discovered the word ‘Sapient’.
These animal sapients appear to have a ‘thinking power’ and ‘memory capability’ far in excess of all other creatures I know and I came to the conclusion that they are special in the same way that we regard all humans to be. If this is true they would be expected to have some characteristic in their make-up that is notably different from other creatures. They did – and it was not hard to identify. Whales, dolphins and elephants all have huge brains with convolutions similar to those in the human brain.
I was also struck by the fact that they generally live in close-knit family groups although, unlike most modern humans, these family groups were usually led by an older female (the matriarch). Could it be that we too once lived in families or groups led by a women, rather than a by a man which has been the human pattern for most of our recorded history?
A further similarity was that the young of all these creatures were dependant on their mothers for several years and were unable to fend for themselves until they had been taught many skills. Whales, dolphins and elephants have a natural life-span of some sixty or seventy years, very similar to our ‘three-score years and ten’.
A few years ago I read a suggestion that dolphins should be treated as ‘honorary persons’ and given the same protection and respect for their rights as we humans have awarded ourselves. In thinking about this proposal it seemed to me entirely proper that there should be ‘dolphin rights’ similar in concept to ‘human rights’. It may be true that, within their own communities, dolphins have established such a concept of which we are unaware as we do not (yet) understand their language. Whether this is so or not, I believe that we should establish a clear and internationally accepted set of human to dolphin rights which would include freedom from fear of death and of captivity, and a right to a clean environment. Who could argue against this?
If you are reading this, you will know enough about the appalling way humans have treated whales and dolphins over the centuries – and indeed are still doing it in some parts of the world. Gentle, intelligent whales and dolphins are still being killed and eaten in Japan, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands and by Inuits in Canada and Alaska. It is surely time that a clear definition of whale and dolphin rights should be put before the United (human) Nations!
In a similar way, the African and Indian elephants should be granted a similar status, protecting them from being killed for their meat and ivory and also be protected from encroachment of their habitat and freedom from captivity in the same way that we try to protect fellow humans.
When I have floated these ideas to friends they usually agree but then try to add their favourite animals to the list. Proposed candidates include dogs, cats, horses, tigers, wolves, bears and pandas. I had clearly not made my point well enough! Whilst I agree that all animals (including those we eat) should be well treated and respected for what they are, my proposed sapients are notably in a different class for the reasons outlined above.
However I will admit to an area where I have a problem. There are several primates who could also be considered for inclusion, yet I don’t feel about them in a similar way to my proposed sapients. These are gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees. All of these are already protected by international conventions although this has not ensured that they are safe from habitat loss and even being killed for ‘bushmeat’.
Bearing in mind that, if too many creatures are given ‘sapient’ status, the whole concept is devalued – where would you draw the line?
Gunta on Never be too sure ~ That you a… trekkingworldgirl on The Sapients of Earth.