Since 2013, the group has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, currently being held in cages by their “owners” without the company of other chimpanzees. It is asking the courts to rule that Kiko and Tommy have the right to bodily liberty and to order their immediate release into a sanctuary where they can live out the rest of their lives with other chimpanzees.
The problem is that under current United States law, one is either a “person” or a “thing.” There is no third option. If you are a person, you have the capacity for rights, including the right to habeas corpus relief, which protects you from unlawful confinement. If you are a thing, you do not have the capacity for rights. And unfortunately, even though they are sensitive, intelligent, social beings, Kiko and Tommy are considered things under the law.
In response, the Nonhuman Rights Project is taking a bold position: It is arguing that if every being must be either a person or a thing, then Kiko and Tommy are persons, not things. I agree, and many other philosophers do, too.
Nearly every day, however, I hear someone complain that the atrium is a “waste of space.” This complaint goes back to 1965, when a group of head librarians from around the country were invited to review the architect Philip Johnson’s design. Among the librarians was Ralph Ellsworth, the director of libraries at the University of Colorado, who voiced his objections to Martin Beck, NYU’s director of planning. The enormous atrium meant that the floors would be U-shaped, which would minimize the amount of storage and inconvenience readers, he asserted. He called the design “a throwback to the 19th century conditions” and “a fantastic architectural anachronism,” comparable to Boeing putting “buggy whip holders on the front of a B-727.”
Ellsworth’s vitriolic letter set the tone, and librarians continue to vehemently denounce the building to this day. They allege that Johnson, like so many architects, failed to appreciate the purpose of the building or draw on the knowledge of librarians. They resent that the needs of researchers, and imperatives of storage and preservation, were deemed to be less important than the desire for grandeur and monumentality. And, unknowingly, they express an abiding tension between practical design and aesthetics, between librarians and architects, which has a curious history.
Brainstorm is testament to O’Sullivan’s unshowy clarity of thought and her continued marvelling at the mysteries of the brain. She doesn’t yearn for all the gaps in medical knowledge to be filled: “If we knew everything about how the brain functioned,” she writes, “what would we be then? Just sophisticated machines?” Some readers might be surprised to hear a neurologist echoing Keats’s criticism that Newton stripped nature of its poetry by reducing the rainbow to a prism. But if O’Sullivan was more clinical it’s doubtful she’d be such a fine writer.