An animal rights pop quiz

"Over the weekend, I borrowed a friend’s time machine and cold-bloodedly killed a Neandertal, a Homo erectus, an Australopithecus, a dolphin, a chimp, eight sentient robots, the first extraterrestrial visitor to Earth, and my neighbor with the unreasonably loud sound system. Question: in the eyes of the law, how many murders did I just commit?" — John Rennie on the ongoing debate about intelligence, species, and the rights of non-human persons. Read his great story at Smart Planet. (Via Philip Yam) NOW WITH WORKING LINK!


  1. It depends on what the laws were at the times he did the killing. The first three were all pre-law, so they’re out. The last one is likely a murder. For the others we need to know where he was on the timeline to guess, and if it was in the future there may be new laws.

    And why 8 robots? Are robots 1/8th of a person?

  2. This depends – when are we trying the person – now or in the future?

    Assuming it was today:

    Neandertal – no
    Homo erectus, – no
    Australopithecus, – no
    a dolphin, – no
    a chimp, – no
    eight sentient robots, – no
    the first extraterrestrial visitor to Earth, – no
    my neighbor with the unreasonably loud sound system. – no, I mean yes

    In the future with time travel murder laws, you might get murder for everything  but the chimp or dolphin. (Or dolphins and chimps may be protected in the future against any killing.) It really depends how hard the Neanderthals lobby to have them and other early hominids labeled as “human”.

  3. If you were a neighborhood vigilante, then you were just keeping the streets clean.

  4. With the possible exception of the neighbor with the annoying sound system (and possibly even that one if you did it in the past or future) you will have committed zero crimes, murder or otherwise. You won’t be permitted to. If you do something criminal while time traveling, someone (possibly yourself!) will later go back and stop you from doing it.

    And yes, everybody kills Hitler the first time they go back.

    1.  I wrote  a time travel story where a time traveler is stopped by another one as he tries to kill Hitler. Turns out killing  a young Hitler would let someone worse come to power and the Germans then would control all of Western Europe.

        1. It’s easy to steal ideas from other people if you have a time machine. If you play your cards right you can even sue the original author for copyright infringement.

        2.  All well and good, except I wrote it in high school *mumblemumble* years ago. Way before Family guy was on TV. Not that it is the most original idea. It sounds like something Harlen Ellison or Rod Serling would come up with.

  5. A number of commenters seem to be assuming Autralopithecine, Neandertal, and Homo Erectus did not have laws.  Is that necessarily the case?

    They almost certainly didn’t have written laws, since it’s probably a good assumption they existed prior to the advent of written language.  But that doesn’t at all imply that they lacked laws, any more than modern cultures with non-written languages (necessarily) do.

    1. He traveled to a future time when Neanderthals and Homo erectus have been cloned back into existence, silly.

  6. What color was the alien?  There’s recently been a lot of crime in my neighborhood and it’s usually committed by green aliens.

  7. There’s an awful lot to unpack here before we even get to the actual point under debate. We can’t get agreement on what “rights”, “person”, and “human” mean, so talking of “the rights of non-human persons” is jumping to a fairly large number of conclusions even before we even start on the unspoken assertion of these rights.

  8. If I go back in time and murder my father before I was conceived can I be executed for murdering myself?

  9. How many murders?  Well, since we’re talking time travel here, should we also declare that we require Justice from the defendant, for all the victims and their descendants (if any)?

    Sorry… suddenly I felt like I was channeling Charles Becker, the Mayor of the Munchkin City in the county of the Land of Oz.

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