Jan. 13, 2010
Theologian Al Mohler has written a provocative column on the move to grant personhood to whales and dolphins. Federal law already protects marine mammals. I had the honor of serving in the U.S. Coast Guard where, among our other duties, we boarded foreign fishing trawlers to make sure none of them was taking these magnificent creatures in violation of our Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Anyone who has been dolphins body-surfing along the bow of a cruise ship or, in my case, the mighty Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell, has felt a thrill. Its impossible even to see these wonderful animals and not share in the joy they seem to feel.
Rev. Mohler quotes the London Times about these cetaceans:
Dolphins have long been recognized as among the most intelligent of animals but many researchers had placed them below chimps, which some studies have found can reach the intelligence levels of three-year-old children. Recently, however, a series of behavioral studies has suggested that dolphins, especially species such as the bottlenose, could be the brighter of the two. The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.
Rev. Mohler says that our Christian worldview must, in the end, lead us to reject the very idea of granting personhood to non-human creatures like whales and dolphins. It is a grim thought that marine mammals are better protected in federal law than are unborn children.
When Justice David Souter was confirmed for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, many of my fellow pro-lifers and I were perplexed. Hed been named by President George H.W. Bush, so we thought he might hold promise on restoring the right to life to the unborn.
But my heart sank when my wife handed me a little squib for the Style section of the Washington Post just days after Souter was seated on the High Court. It described how the bachelor Souter had gone grocery shopping at a corner market in his new neighborhood of Georgetown and asked the lady at the checkout if the can of tuna hed just purchased was dolphin-safe. For some strange reason, too many of those willing to protect these great creatures are unwilling to protect their own kind. They want to save the whales, but think its OK to harpoon unborn children. Souter, who left Washington recently unsung and unhung, was one of these.
The knowledge of the inherent differences between the animal world and humans is deep-seated. When I boarded my last Soviet trawler in the Bering Sea, I was going over the side when I made a final requestin Russian—of the Captain. Naobarot, spaceetyeh keetov (By the way, save the whales.)
We know wot you mean, said the Russian skipper, smiling through stainless steel teeth. But you cant say it that way. Spah-ceets means to save ones soul. Whales dont have souls. Only people have souls.
I half expected the trawlers smokestack, with its jaundiced yellow profile of Vladimir Lenin, to fall into the sea. Lenin hated religion. He regarded any religious idea, however slight, as unspeakably vile. Seventy years of militant atheism had not pounded into the skull of this Soviet captain the understanding that people do not have souls.
In expressing his delight at seeing humpback whales broaching and sounding on a vacation trip to Hawaii, Rev. Al Mohler signals his belief that these great creatures should indeed be protected by international conventions. He does not believe we need to hunt the whales or kill them for whale oil.
I had occasion to read Moby Dick when I was on a family vacation in Maui. That great American novel certainly gives one a sense of how the entire development of New England relied on the whaling industry. Whaling was a major American occupation until the CSS Shenandoah virtually wiped out our Yankee whaling fleet in Alaskan waters during the Civil War.
We can certainly see how our role as stewards of Creation calls us to protect marine mammals. But that in no way requires us to extend personhood to these creatureshowever marvelous they are. We, not they, were made in the image of God.