Adam: Modern language is loaded with hidden cultural assumptions, biases, and projections of value. A given language or dialect betrays the underlying edifice on which its social structures are based. These hidden assumptions include our own prejudices, values, and moral judgements; forming the self-reinforcing jigsaw of our worldview. For example, if we long to increase our lifespans, then breakthroughs in medical research to combat aging become desirable - more efficient medicine is 'better' medicine; likewise, if we believe that spending less time travelling from A to B is inherently a good thing, then a faster route automatically becomes a 'preferred' route.
A good analogy might be a three-dimensional web of interconnected relations in which certain ideas precede, follow from, and depend upon each other for support. In the case of medical research, say, the sort of language we use springs mainly from a fear of death and disease. But it also reinforces and contributes to this fear (as well as to an obsession with the passing of time, a strife for self-preservation, and so on, ad nauseum).
Some of the assumptions borne by our language play a meaningful role - for instance, the idea that rape is evil precedes most of our dialogue on the topic. Most would agree that this is a good thing. Other cases might be less clearcut, but in general, we could say that the greater the potential for suffering or harm resulting from a particular idea, the more attention we should pay to the assumptions of our language around it.
Take the almost ubiquitous cultural assumption that humans deserve an exalted status above other living beings. Arguments for the equality of a particular group of people often take the form of a case to establish the 'human rights' of that group. Such rights, by definition limited to members of our own species, hold a very powerful sway in popular thought. Socialists, feminists, gay rights activists, secularists and other such campaigners award a primacy and value to these rights: successfully establishing something as a 'human right' is considered a crucial element of the fight to have it recognised or upheld.
Interestingly and importantly, campaign groups such as those listed above frequently attempt to raise consciousness of their own issues and agendas by questioning or objecting to popular turns of phrase; feminists deliberately use the pronoun 'she' instead of 'he', many secularists prefer not to be 'blessed' or to 'thank god', etc. Merely by altering popular language on a topic, an important aspect of liberation is achieved.
Similarly, the linguistic and conceptual deliniation between 'human' and 'non-human' rights directly affects our actions and attitudes towards other living beings. It is an offshoot of our collective anthropocentrism that allows us to justify our treatment of these species in a manner lesser to that of other human beings. One could be forgiven, then, for presuming that it is based upon sound, legitimate reasoning; as obvious as the wrongfulness of sexism or racial prejudice within our own species.
Yet this could not be further from the truth. By almost any measure, there is no conceivable warrant for our mindset towards other species. Scientifically, environmentally, and even practically speaking, we are railing against what is natural and right.
In his essay Gaps in the Mind, evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins explains that species are neatly grouped and unique only from the conceited hindsight and perspective of our study.
It is we who choose to divide animals up into discontinuous species. On the evolutionary view of life there must have been intermediates, even though, conveniently for our naming rituals, they are usually extinct: usually, but not always.
He goes onto give an example to prove the point, referencing so-called 'ring species', which are loosely defined as a pair of species that can be seen to 'blend' into one another over geographical space. Intermediate forms still live - and interbreed - all along the gradient of change between these species. There is no point at which a herring gull 'becomes' a lesser black-backed gull, there is only a continuous line of forms connecting both varieties over geographical space and resembling them in different ways. They have clearly diverged over evolutionary time, but the intermediaries still live, and it would be ridiculous to regard any particular form as being 'superior' or more 'advanced'; each thrives within its own space and its own environment.
Dawkins relates this to the taxonomic position of humans:
The word 'apes' usually means chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans, gibbons and siamangs. We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes. Our common ancestor with the chimpanzees and gorillas is much more recent than their common ancestor with the Asian apes — the gibbons and orang-utans. There is no natural category that includes chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans but excludes humans.
It is sheer luck that this handful of intermediates [between humans and chimpanzees] no longer exists. ('Luck' from some points of view: for myself, I should love to meet them.) But for this chance, our laws and our morals would be very different. We need only discover a single survivor, say a relict Australopithecus in the Budongo Forest, and our precious system of norms and ethics would come crashing about our ears. The boundaries with which we segregate our world would be all shot to pieces. Racism would blur with speciesism in obdurate and vicious confusion. Apartheid, for those that believe in it, would assume a new and perhaps a more urgent import.
From the perspective of our science, then, the concept of a 'human right' holds little water. If only the chain of intermediate forms between humans and chimpanzees still survived and interbred, the absurdity of our attempts to implement such a notion would be all too apparent (and so on through the intermediaries with ancestral gorillas, etc.). How ironic it is, then, that vast swathes of those who so indignantly proclaim the need to protect 'human rights' are the very same people who believe themselves to be the most rational and scientific!
When we fully recognise that all living species are wholly interrelated, both in ancestral terms and through a single, shared, livable planet, we come to see other species not as objects of utility but as deserving of respect. They form a facet of the environment from which we are inseperable. As Charles Eisenstein puts it in The Ascent of Humanity, "any attempt to divorce a rational society or a rational life from the organic supporting matrix where it belongs requires tremendous effort and incurs tremendous danger. Such a life or society is tenuous, fragile, and short-lived. It cannot exist for long without reconnecting to the wellspring of life."
It is in this light that we should seek to review and reform our perspectives, our thought and our language, regarding humans and other species. It is not - and has never been - a case of 'us and them', but a unified whole of which we are all a necessary part.