Calling Cousins Home: The Great Ape Project and the Revival of Animal Rights Movement

Editorial | Feb 28, 2017 / by Paresh Hate
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The Great Ape Project is an international movement founded in 1993 by an organization of anthropologists, primatologists, and ethicists who advocate defending the rights of the non-human great primates – chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos. GAP wants to bring about a United Nations Declaration of the Rights that will grant legal rights to members of these species. The rights they want to be included are the right to life, the protection of individual liberty and the prohibition of torture.

In 1871, Charles Darwin speculated that humans are closer relatives to apes than any other species alive. Today, genetic, archaeological, and morphological evidence has proved this hypothesis conclusively. These apes are our closest extant evolutionary cousins in the animal kingdom. It is estimated that humans share almost 99 percent of DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, approximately 98 percent with gorillas; 97 percent with orangutans.

Biologist Morris Goodman, from Wayne State University, Detroit, considers it the GAP organization’s goal to “make people recognize the non-human primates as rational and emotional beings who are only living an evolutionary time different from humans.”

The book about the Project mentions findings that support the idea of great apes being capable of possessing self-consciousness that according to most make us humans “persons”. Apes are documented on the official website of GAP to engage in sign languages, gestures, recognition of themselves in mirrors, usage of tools. Some of these apes have been observed using the computer with the reasoning of a seven-year-old child. Apart from this, they are seen to have complex social structures resembling humans, though less sophisticatedly. Many argue that these factors bring primates much closer to humans than expected a century ago. The cognitive capabilities of these species are similar to very young human children or intellectually disabled; and hence, their rights should be protected in the same way.

One reason behind extending rights to non-human primates is this: speciesism is as ill-motivated as racism, sexism, and all the other 'isms' that involve discriminating against particular groups. This way of thinking that motivates categorization is considered by biologist Richard Dawkins to be “a pernicious idea that needs to be retired” from our scientific understanding of the world. According to Dawkins, once we see the flaw in obsessing over differentiations, we can realize how ‘species’ is a useful category for biology- nothing more. This implies that categorizing “us vs. them” at any point among beings is going to be arbitrary in the larger scheme of things. Just like we have abandoned race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity as reasonable categories that should endorse discrimination, GAP advocates and proponents want to do with species.

Ethicist Peter Singer says, “What extending basic rights to great apes mean[s] is that they will cease to be mere things that can be owned and used for our amusement or entertainment.”

He also mentions Francisco Garrido, a bioethicist and member of Spain’s parliament, who moved a resolution pressurizing the government “[T]o declare its adhesion to the Great Ape Project and to take any necessary measures in international forums and organizations for the protection of great apes from maltreatment, slavery, torture, death, and extinction.” The resolution’s approval would indicate that legislature accepts the requirement to safeguard these animals from individual abuse, along with extinction.

Such cases and GAP acceptance in the United States and Brazil on a large scale is a silver lining for animal rights enthusiasts. But the movement is not without its critics. Neurobiologist Colin Blakemore who is opposed to granting legal rights to non-human primates, states, “…I worry about the principle of where the moral boundaries lie. There is only one very secure definition that can be made, and that is between our species and others.”

He thinks it would be essential to perform research on great apes if humans were threatened by a pandemic virus that afflicted only humans and other great apes. Blakemore is right. Prudence is essential here. Moral ideas are important, but can they be traded off for necessities in times where the only way to save us in future could come at the cost of violating other animals’ alleged rights?

The crucial question, however, raised by GAP is whether it is morally justified for us to hurt them even for noble reasons. Those motivated by the reasoning that GAP follows believe the very foundations of our argument for practical necessity in circumstances of diseases and viruses are dubious. Arguments such as those appealing to our potential need for great apes are seen immoral because morally, for these GAP proponents, there is no difference between humans and other apes. If we won’t behave in such a way to our humankind, neither should we do so with these apes.

Legal scholar Gary Francione questions the sensibility behind GAP. Francione, himself a participant in the original Declaration, has since publicly stated his regret in joining the movement. He argues that the only criterion required for “personhood” is sentience and any other factor such as availability of human-like characteristics renders the project guilty of anthropocentrism that it criticizes. Francione says, “[Such] effort is problematic because it… [does] not challenge the speciesist hierarchy—[it] reinforces it.”

Acceptance of animal rights, for Francione, would mean rights for all species. This criticism states that GAP isn’t wide-ranging enough. Being a vegan himself, Singer says, “The Great Ape Project does not reject the idea of basic rights for other animals. It merely asserts that the case for such rights is strongest in respect to great apes.”

Such reasoning is unlikely to convince those like Francione who believe ideas on which GAP is founded are counter-productive in the larger animal rights struggle. Another worry for most others is that granting rights to great apes seems acceptable, but what if such efforts in future argue for providing rights to all species? Slippery slope arguments bring into light an important question that Francione agrees with: is it moral to use any animal for human purposes?

Projects like GAP have created polarizing opinions among both academicians and public. In 2007, a particularly cunning seven-year-old chimp Ayumu bested university students at a game of memory. He and two other young chimps recalled the placement of numbers flashed onto a computer screen quicker and more accurately than humans. Such cases challenge our assumptions. More specifically, they require us deciding whether our practical needs trump our ethical convictions.

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Written By Paresh Hate

I do social and political criticism of status quo because it has unresolved foundational issues pertaining to ethics and philosophy that call for scrutiny.

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