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Making apes out of us all

Dr Helene Guldberg goes bananas about the idea of ape rights

The Great Ape Project (GAP) recently caused an international furore with its attempt to get the New Zealand parliament to extend individual rights to the great apes. Yet GAP, backed by scientists, lawyers and philosophers from around the world, has far bigger global ambitions.

GAP is 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, as well as 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'.

Some have highlighted the absurdities involved in extending individual rights to the great apes. As the New Scientist pointed out: 'If a chimp kills another chimp in the wild, or a human, do we really want to hire a fleet of lawyers? And if we extended honorary personhood to all animals, would the gazelle be entitled to rights against the lion?' (13 February 1999)

Yet GAP's call for 'equality beyond humanity' resonates with many, because it is 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.

But does any of this make apes comparable to humans? The Great Ape Project emphasises our genetic relatedness to our simian cousins. But so what? We also share 60-70 percent of our genes with a goldfish, yet nobody would seriously suggest that a goldfish is two-thirds human.

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 them having thoughts that they intentionally convey to others. Ethological studies demonstrate that animal communications should be understood as instinctual vocalisations that may be conditioned by environmental factors to be adapted to particular situations.

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 - the human 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' (The Prehistory of the Mind: a search for the origins of art, religion and science). 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. When asking 'who am I?' younger children use outer visible characteristics - such as gender and hair colour - while older children tend to use inner psychological 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 of developmental theories 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. Apes know so very much less than human beings that, even if they have the rudiments of non-linguistic cognition, it clearly produces little that we would recognise as intelligent.

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 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 some 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.

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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