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March 29, 2007

Are Apes Worthy of Human Rights?

Monkey Over five months ago, on this site, I asked “Are Chimps People?” I posed that question after reading about ape specialists in a BBC News article who had concluded, “Sort of.”

Now it seems that some folks are less ambivalent. A recent BBC News piece indicates rising sentiment that our simian friends are not only people, but are entitled to human rights. Among the justifications experts cite:

  • Chimpanzees differ from humans by only 1% of DNA. (The DNA of a banana is 25% similar to that of humans. Does that mean a banana is one-fourth a person?)
  • Great apes recognize themselves in a mirror. (I’ve seen my sister-in-law’s Rottweiller do likewise.)
  • Apes can learn and use human languages through signs or symbols. (But I’ll bet no one is holding their breath for the arrival of The Great Simian Novel.)
  • Great apes have displayed love, fear, anxiety and jealousy. (And they also display a capacity for violence, cruelty, rape, murder, stealing, and the like. Yet I’m not aware that anyone pressing that they be held morally accountable for such behaviors.)

One ethicist sums it up this way: “[A]pes possess cognitive and emotional faculties that make them worthy of moral consideration.” Of course by those criteria, certain humans may not be so worthy.

Which leads to the criticism of genetics professor Steve Jones:


Defining creatures and allowing them rights based on criteria invented by one group is itself an enormous breach of human rights…one need look no further than Austria in 1939 to see why....Rights and responsibilities go together and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana because they don't have a moral sense of what's right and wrong. To give them rights is to give them something without asking for anything in return.

That’s well put, Mr. Jones!

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More like 95% similarity, similar to the field mouse.

On the other hand, the great apes, especially the bonobo, make you wonder. I wouldn't give them the right to vote, but even if they were as common as cattle, I wouldn't want to eat one. Language, tool-making, awe.

Of course, the most linguistic animal known apart from humans is the African Grey parrot, and a south Pacific crow is also a tool-maker.

No animal other than humans has yet been known to tell stories, though.

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