Jeremy Taylor defends the hunt to find the genes that make us human
Should we extend the concept of "rights" to chimpanzees and, perhaps, other primates? The philosopher Peter Singer argued from a strictly utilitarian perspective that any animal for which there was proof they could feel pain should have the right not to endure cruelty and torture, nor be the subject of animal experimentation. More recently allied activist groups have campaigned in Austria, New Zealand and Spain for rights for chimpanzees to be enshrined in law and for chimpanzees to be acknowledged as "nearly human" - in direct comparison with young children, the mentally frail, or the criminally insane.
They defend their claim for human status for chimps using arguments from genetics, neuroscience, cognition, and behaviour. Chimpanzees, they say, are at least 98.5% genetically similar to humans and there is no aspect of human cognitive activity - tool-making and use, mathematics, language and theory of mind, that we humans do not share with chimps. They also have a rich human-like emotional life including remorse, empathy, altruism and other forms of moral behaviour.
I will briefly review a few of these claims and provide evidence that they do not stand up to scrutiny in the baleful light of contemporary science. So, if there is less scientific justification for chimp-human equivalence than these people like to believe, how best to legislate in order to more effectively conserve them, and their habitats? Ape rights people argue that they are talking about "rights in general" not "human rights" and that those people who argue that the concept of rights should be unique to humans are merely being speciesist - a form of racism.
However, Jeremy will argue that the latest reports from the cognitive science front-line suggest we humans are cognitively unique after all - a dirty thought in many circles these past decades. That, because rights only make sense if you understand them as a concept, understand that they have to be fought for and often forcibly extracted from those who hold the reins of power, that they need to be protected and are part of a social contract that comes with rules and obligations, they are a uniquely human social construct - as flawed as it may be - and we should put aside such distractions as "ape rights" in search of other forms of adequate protection for the host of plant and animal species now at risk on the planet.
We do not feel the need to invoke the idea of genetic or cognitive proximity to want to protect the white rhinoceros or the green-flowered Helleborine orchid so why do we make the chimpanzee a special case and thus try and box our way into the the ludicrous philosophical position of opening the flood-gates to the status of humanity to the rest of the animal kingdom as a prelude to their conservation?
Some interesting links to look at
Last week’s Horizon on Dogs, Humans and Genetic modifications - http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00pssgh/Horizon_20092010_The_Secret_Life_of_the_Dog/Dolphins being treated as ‘non-human persons’ - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article6973994.ece
Elephants that can ‘paint’ - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=He7Ge7Sogrk&feature=related
Jeremy Taylor's Blog - http://notachimp.blogspot.com/
Reviews of 'Not a Chimp'
Ewen Callaway, New Scientist, 13 August 2009
Georgina Ferry, Guardian, 25 July 2009
Peter Forbes, Independent, 16 July 2009
Sanjida O'Connell, Telegraph, 30 June 2009
Helene Guldberg, Spiked Review of Books, Issue 25, June 2009