The great ape debate

Comparing primates to humans makes apes of us all.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

Three of the UK’s best-known scientists – Jane Goodall, Sir David Attenborough and Desmond Morris – are backing a campaign to stop the use of great apes in medical experiments. They are demanding the closure of the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in the Netherlands – the only remaining research centre in Europe that experiments on great apes, which is developing drugs to fight AIDS, hepatitis and malaria.

The UK government banned experiments on great apes in 1986, arguing that the ‘cognitive and behavioural characteristics and qualities of these animals mean it is unethical to treat them as expendable for research’. An editorial in the UK Independent argues that the ‘demand for a comprehensive ban by the European Union on experiments involving great apes is surely unanswerable’ (1). Really?

According to Jane Goodall, ‘the higher intelligence and the emotional nature of the great apes sets them apart from non-primate animals’, making experiments that cause them suffering entirely illegitimate. In fact, it is precisely what we have in common with great apes – not cognitive or behavioural characteristics, but genetic similarities – that makes research on primates so valuable. As Stuart Derbyshire argues, ‘Primates are generally the most useful animals, because of their close kinship with humans; but other animals have also been put to good use’ (2).

The medical benefits of research on primates are beyond question. But what is raised today is whether it is ethically right to carry out such research when primates are said to be so similar behaviourally to humans. Jane Goodall says apes have ‘human-like’ qualities, arguing that ‘everybody who has worked with chimps has no doubt that they are capable of emotions’, while another report claims that the ‘ethical difficulties of using chimps outweigh any benefits to medical science’ (3).

This is an argument put forward by the Great Ape Project (GAP) – that because apes have ‘human-like’ qualities they need ‘special protection’, not just from being researched on, but also from being hunted and kept in zoos (4). GAP is even calling for a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes that would involve ‘the extension of the basic ideal of equality to include all the great apes – chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans – giving them the right to life, the right not to suffer cruel treatment and the right to take part in only benign experiments’.

But are apes really comparable to humans?

Peter Singer, who co-founded GAP, says, ‘We need to break the species barrier. We need to extend ethics beyond the human species and incorporate the great apes into “the community of equals”, the moral community within which we accept certain basic moral principles or rights, enforceable by law, as governing our relations with each other’.

Such demands for ‘equality beyond humanity’ resonate with many, because they are premised on the fashionable view that the differences between humans and apes are not all that significant. My response to those who claim that tree-dwelling apes resemble us in their capacities and ‘their ways of living’ is: ‘speak for yourself.’

It is well known that chimps share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans. Primatology – the study of the primates – has also shown that apes do communicate in the wild. They have even been trained by humans to use rudimentary sign language. According to Jane Goodall’s observations of chimpanzees in the wild, chimps not only use, but also make tools – using sticks to fish for termites, stones as anvils or hammers, and leaves as cups or sponges. And anybody watching juvenile chimps playfighting – tickling each other and giggling – will be struck by their human-like mannerisms and their seeming expressions of glee.

GAP emphasises our genetic relatedness to our simian cousins. But so what? We also share 60 to 70 percent of our genes with a goldfish, yet nobody would seriously suggest that a goldfish is two-thirds human (5).

Apes may well possess some rudimentary human-like characteristics. Then again, they may not. For instance, we know that apes ‘communicate’ in the wild. But these vocalisations should not be elevated to the status of human communications. Human beings debate and discuss ideas – constructing arguments in order to change the opinions of others. Just because apes, like other animals, have been found to ‘communicate’ information, for instance the proximity of a predator, to their fellows, there is no reason to assume that they intend to do so.

There is no evidence of apes having thoughts that they intentionally convey to others. Animal studies demonstrate that animal communications should be understood as instinctual vocalisations that may be adapted to particular situations through conditioning. Like Pavlov’s dogs, animals repeat vocalisations in situations that have previously been rewarding.

Some argue that ape communications are different from other animals – that they do in fact have the ability intentionally to relate their thoughts and feelings to others, and can even deceive their fellows, if they so wish. To be able to do that, apes would require a theory of mind – that is, the recognition that one’s own thoughts and feelings are sometimes different from somebody else’s.

So is there evidence that any of the great apes has a theory of mind? Studies which attribute beliefs to apes rely heavily on fascinating but largely unsubstantiated anecdotes. As Steven Mithen points out, ‘Even the most compelling examples can be explained in terms of learned behavioural contingencies, without recourse to higher order intentionality’ (6).

In other words the apes’ feats can be seen as a matter of trial and error learning – closer to instinct than intelligence. They may just be highly adaptive and adept at picking up useful routines that bring them food, sex or safety without necessarily having any understanding or insight.

Although there is no substantive evidence of apes having a theory of mind, they may possess its precursor – a rudimentary self-awareness. Apart from human beings, apes are the only species found to be able to recognise themselves in the mirror. In developmental literature, the moment when human infants first recognise themselves in the mirror (between 15 and 21 months of age) is seen as an important milestone in the emergence of the notion of ‘self’. How important is it, then, that apes can make the same sort of mirror recognition?

The development of self-awareness is a complex process with different elements emerging at different times. In humans, mirror recognition is only the precursor to a continually developing capacity for self-awareness and self-evaluation.

Younger children’s initial self-awareness is focused around physical characteristics. With maturity comes more of an appreciation of psychological characteristics. When asking ‘who am I?’, younger children use outer visible characteristics – such as gender and hair colour – while older children tend to use inner attributes – such as feelings and abilities.

The ability of apes to recognise themselves in the mirror does not necessarily imply a human-like self-awareness or the existence of mental experiences. They seem able to represent their own bodies visually, but they never move beyond the stage reached by human children in their second year of life.

The exact nature of ape awareness is not yet resolved by science. But it is still possible to get a handle on how far they really do differ from us, by taking a step back from the discussion and reminding ourselves how things are in the real world. In particular, look at the extent to which humans, unlike apes, have been able to shape and change our environment.

It remains unexplained why, if apes do possess something as powerful as an ‘awareness’, they have not used it to move beyond their hand-to-mouth existence. Perhaps they are hiding their light under a bushel, since there is such minimal evidence of awareness in the wild.

Take their use of tools. It takes chimps up to four years to acquire the necessary skills to select and adequately use the tools to crack a nut. Given the amount of time and effort the young invest in attempts to crack nuts, this raises serious questions about their ability to reflect on what they are doing and to learn from their ‘experiences’. Nuts are, after all, an important part of their diet.

The accomplishments of apes in captivity look more impressive. Washoe the chimp, Chantek the orang-utan, and Koko the gorilla were all taught to use American sign language – gaining a vocabulary of between 150 and 1000 words. Yet despite years of intensive training, none of the apes ever exceeded the abilities of a two-year-old child. What is probably more impressive than the achievements of the apes themselves are the persistent efforts of the trainers who manage to get them somewhere near to the level of a toddler.

Most importantly, apes never develop the ability to use language to regulate their own actions. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (7) showed that a significant moment in the development of the human individual occurs when language and practical intelligence converge. It is when thought and speech come together that children’s thinking is raised to new heights and they start acquiring truly human characteristics. Language becomes a tool of thought allowing children increasingly to master their own behaviour.

The differences in language, tool-use, self-awareness and insight between apes and humans are vast. A human child, even as young as three years of age, is head and shoulders above any ape. It is very difficult to sustain the argument that apes are ‘just like us’. The fact that this assertion has gained backing from scientists reflects more a change in perspective than a response to new scientific discoveries.

What appears to be behind the fashionable view of ape and human equivalence is a denigration of human capacities and human ingenuity. This is the most disturbing aspect of the discussion. It is indeed ironic that we, who have something that no other organism has – an ability to evaluate who we are, where we come from and where we are going, and, with that, our place in nature – increasingly seem to use this unique ability in order to downplay the exceptional nature of our own capacities and achievements.

Investigations into apes’ behaviour could shed some useful light on to how far they resemble us – and give us some insight into our evolutionary past, several million years back. But real insights into what shapes ape behaviour will only come if we develop a science true to its subject matter.

It is sloppy simply to apply human characteristics and motives to animals. It not only gets in the way of understanding what is specific about animal behaviour, but also degrades what is unique about our humanity.
Read on:
Read more on the Animals issue
(1) Independent, 28 March 2001
(2) See Animal research: a scientist’s defence by Stuart Derbyshire
(3) Independent, 28 March 2001
(4) Great Ape Project
(5) See Genes, culture and human freedom by Kenan Malik
(6) The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Steven Mithen, Phoenix, 1998. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
(7) Lev Vygotsky, Thought and Language, first published in English in 1962. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today