A Great Aping of humans’ rights

Even Spain is starting to recognise apes’ rights. We should stop looking to chimps to renew human civilisation.

Josie Appleton

Topics Science & Tech

Spain – land of the bull fight, and notorious cultural indifference towards animals – has considered a government resolution to express support for the Great Ape Project.

The Great Ape Project, founded in 1993 by an international group of academics and researchers, calls for great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans) to be welcomed into a ‘community of equals’ with humans, and that they be granted three basic rights. First, the right to life; second, the ‘protection of individual liberty’ (along with due process: ‘The detention of great apes who have not been convicted of any crime or who are not criminally liable should be permitted only where it can be shown that the detention is in their own interests or is necessary to protect the public. In such cases there must be a right of appeal, either directly or through an advocate, to a judicial tribunal’); and third, the prohibition of torture (1).

The Spanish resolution was brought by Francisco Garrido, a bioethicist and member of the Socialist Party, and the campaign has been gathering signatures and publicity in the Spanish press. The initiative has drawn some fire, with bodies such as the Catholic Church and trade unions arguing that it downgrades everything from abortion to workers’ rights. But the fact that Spain could consider the idea shows how far this issue has gone: supporting basic rights for great apes is now seen as the mark of sensitivity and morality the Western world over.

This is not a good sign. The Great Ape Project emerged out of disillusionment with human beings and human values, and effectively looks to apes to provide a new moral compass. Great apes are cast as wise and knowing figures that can help to renew a corrupted human civilisation. ‘Do we really know ourselves?’, asks the philosopher Raymond Corbey, in the 1993 book, The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity. ‘How can we act morally after the implosion of our traditional narratives? Perhaps our nearest relatives in nature, the apes, who problematise, destablise, and thereby renew our identity, can help us, by playing the role of missing link between humans and animals.’ (2)

Supporters of rights for great apes talk in emotional terms about their encounters with the creatures. Francisco Garrido said: ‘When a chimpanzee takes your hand to tell you something, you feel that you are dealing with a special creature.’ (3) Diane Fossey, of Gorillas in the Mist fame, eulogised: ‘On perceiving the softness, tranquillity, and trust conveyed by Macho’s eyes, I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary depth of our rapport. The poignancy of her gift will never diminish.’ (4) The ‘touch’ of an ape is presented as a kind of absolution; forgiveness for human sins. The icon of the Great Ape Project is an image of human and ape fingers touching through the bars of a cage (a play perhaps on that icon of Renaissance humanism, Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’). Ape researchers sought to build intimate relationships with their subjects: one described their lab as a ‘multi-species family’.

Chimps and are cast as examples for human society. In The Great Ape Project, Douglas Adams tells how he looked into a gorilla’s ‘wise and knowing eyes’, and wondered ‘maybe it is not that they have yet to gain a language, it is that we have lost one’. Fossey admired the cooperation of one gorilla group: ‘The success of Group 5 remains a behavioural example for human society.’ (5) One social anthropologist expressed her desire to strip away completely all human frameworks and assumptions, to try to talk to apes completely on their terms. ‘How about apes teaching humans their language?’, she asked. ‘To get an idea of our own reputation throughout the animal kingdom, we would have to be taught an immense number of animal languages and world views.’ (6)

Humans are discussed as arrogant and blundering, an unflattering contrast to the innocent and compassionate chimps or gorillas. Fossey saw local Rwandan people as barbarous, and went to extreme lengths to protect the gorillas, even killing villagers’ cattle and firing guns at them. As one reviewer noted, humans ‘enter Fossey’s book [about her experiences] only as a disrupting force in the Garden, through murderous poachers, selfish graduate students, and mendacious politicians’ (7).

Behind the call for apes’ rights lies the degeneration of human rights. Relationships with apes are built on the back of the cheapening of human relations.

‘Rights’ for human beings are borne by free, self-conscious individuals: we claim rights and enact them. Apes’ ‘rights’ are forms of protection, to allow them to live a life free of pain and with plentiful food. Here the rights are about achieving the telos – the goal/endpoint – of an organism. So a seed has a telos to grow into an oak tree, a cow to have space and food and have calves, an ape to wander around a jungle undisturbed. This is the meaning of ‘right’ that allowed Sweden to decide in 1988 that cattle had a ‘right to graze’.

The Great Ape Project’s ‘community of equals’ is not a community of free individuals, debating and arguing how they want to live. It is a community of sensitive beings, who feel pain and emotions. ‘We are all related through pain’, argues the animal rights activist Richard Ryder. Here we are asked to form communities by bowing our heads and showing humility, feeling other organisms’ pain.

Great apes should not have rights. The debate draws on evidence about ape intelligence. Supporters produce results showing how clever apes are – that they can use signs, remember things from the past and talk about the future, solve problems, express sadness. In actual fact, it doesn’t matter a jot how intelligent great apes are. Clearly they are more social and more intelligent than other living creatures: after all, we shared an ancestor a few million years ago. But they are not conscious; they cannot be free.

Apes have a passive relationship to the world: they use the tools and resources that are to hand; they live in the same way year after year, millions of years after millions of years. Whatever their intelligence, they have not made the leap to start to transform their conditions of existence.

Studies of ape intelligence are important academically and scientifically, but they are of no moral import. Freedom does not mean solving colour tests in the lab, or learning signs, or showing grief at the death of a group member. It is about choosing how you live, making the shift from responsive survival to active mastery. Free, conscious activity lies at the heart of human being: it is evident in all we do, and if apes could be free this would be evident in what they do too. Rather than merely reproducing, they would have started to have a history.

Human beings’ telos is not merely to have a certain amount of forest in which to roam, to have offspring, or to be free from pain and illness: it is to forge our own destiny. Our overriding aim is to be able to decide the conditions of our own existence. That is the thread that runs throughout human history. That is the end, inch by inch, we have been working towards, as we have levered ourselves out of nature and become more and more human.

Society has often sought to define itself in relationship to apes. The Victorians looked to apes to prove their own civilisation, with stories about ferocious gorillas eating children and running off with women. They were wrong. But we are wrong too to see apes as priests of nature, who by their touch can relieve mankind of its sins. Great apes are merely (sophisticated) natural creatures, who are neither immoral or moral, and have no message to give us.

Let us treat great apes as research subjects, or objects of scientific or conservational interest. And let us find salvation in ourselves. It is by furthering human freedom that we can, in Corbey’s words, ‘know ourselves’ – not by looking into an ape’s eyes or receiving the touch of its hand.

(1) See the Great Ape Project website

(2) Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, (eds) Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, Fourth Estate, 1993

(3) See article reproduced on Science, Monsters, and Critics, 29 April

(4) Quoted in Animal Acts: configuring the human in Western history, (ed) Jennifer Ham and Matthew Senior, Routledge, 1997

(5) Quoted in Animal Acts: configuring the human in Western history, (ed) Jennifer Ham and Matthew Senior, Routledge, 1997

(6) Quoted in Animal Acts: configuring the human in Western history, (ed) Jennifer Ham and Matthew Senior, Routledge, 1997

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Topics Science & Tech


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