5 New Candidates for Personhood

I wrote this for a market that I was unaware didn’t pay. I figured that as long as it was written for free, I might as well publish it to my own site:

Lately, it seems like everything wants to be a person. Corporations. Blastocysts. Personhood is the new black. So if brainless clusters of cells and soulless conglomerations of capital should have the rights and freedoms inalienable from humanity, what entities should strive for personhood next?

Cancer Much like the blastocysts that have the potential to become a person, certain brain tumors and cancers have the potential to create another person. In fast-growing brain cancers like glioblastomas, the impact on healthy tissue can cause shifts in personality. These include changes in speech patterns, habits, moods, and memory. Even benign tumors can cause these changes, which feel normal and genuine to the person experiencing them, and can go unnoticed or improperly diagnosed until secondary symptoms arise.

In the case of slow-growing benign tumors, patients may want to preserve the changes brought on by uninterrupted cell replication because they happened organically over time, just like “real” changes in personality. Some may even feel that those changes were for the better. What if a brain tumor could short-circuit your alcoholism? Or crowd out your agoraphobia? If your tumor made you a new you, wouldn’t you insist it was part of your humanity?

Alter Personalities One of the premises in Peter Watts’ stellar novel Blindsight is that alter personalities act as a committee of diverse individuals with an important role in problem-solving and decision-making, and that integrating them into a singular persona is akin to murder. And in The United States of Tara, protagonist Tara Gregson decides to forego medication and allow her alternate personae to emerge and live their own lives. Doing so forces her to confront the childhood trauma that helped initiate her dissociative identity disorder — a trauma so deep it took multiple women to deal with with it, not just one.

As it turns out, a history of childhood abuse is common in patients with DID. The alters are part of the survivor’s coping mechanism. And even with therapy, they might stay with a patient from between three to six years. They’re a huge part of a patient’s life. They have their own memories and habits. Would it be wrong for DID patients to argue for the personhood of their alters, especially if integrative therapy hadn’t worked for them in the past?

Animals Animals are intelligent. They act as individual agents in control of their own lives, just like humans. This National Geographic piece says it all: Sheep recognize faces. Chimpanzees use tools. Parrots invent words. Recent studies suggest that the roots of cognition lie in the neurons themselves, and that it’s only because human cognitive evolution converged with human speech evolution that we’re able to discuss the matter and tell ourselves how smart we are. But according to psychologist Nicky Clayton and her fellow researchers, some birds possess social intelligence equal to that of humans and other primates. Crows remember human faces for a period of years, can cache food, remember where it is, remember which other birds know the secret, use and modify tools to get more food, train their fledglings for up to three years, and gather as groups when one of their number dies. They can even use vending machines.

But their intelligence isn’t the only reason to grant animals the full rights of personhood. If we did, we might finally pass some meaningful legislation on carbon emissions. Or maybe they would just criminalize our cars, so we would stop running them over.

Online Communities Websites like MoveOn, Avaaz, DonorsChoose, and others are instrumental in mobilizing citizen action. But they also have their own distinct communities with their own unique cultures and norms. Online, they are nation-states, with their own dialects, laws, and systems of punishment. And increasingly, those forms of citizenship have real meaning in the offline world: just ask any victim of cyber-bullying. And with the recent trend in “real name” policies, the stakes have never been higher. In South Korea, where the mandatory use of real names online collides with a superfast Internet that puts North American networks to shame, the consequences for data theft have been disastrous. So how long will it be until major online communities decide to protect member data and their right to speech?

Robots This one’s so obvious, I wrote a whole novel about it. But when you think about it, some machines already have the same responsibilities as human soldiers. We now rely on aerial drones and unmanned tanks so heavily that they’re receiving “ethical governor” software. If we prioritized the robot right to speech, what might they tell us about 500 innocent Pakistanis killed by military drones since 2004? And what would they tell their representatives about future wars?

…Now do I actually think any of these things will become people, anytime soon? No. But personhood is like pornography — you know it when you see it. And while we’re nominating ludicrous candidates for personhood, I thought I’d mention a few more deserving names.

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