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Ann Bradley

Too much monkey business

When I first switched on a Radio 4 programme about the Declaration on Great Apes I thought it was one of those rather arcane BBC comedy programmes where celebrities have to speak on a bizarre subject for 10 minutes without hesitation, repetition, foul language or making a prat of themselves.

It was only after about a quarter of an hour that it dawned on me that everyone involved in the broadcast was absolutely in earnest. Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Monash University, Australia, was indeed arguing that governments should extend to the great apes the right to life, liberty and freedom from torture. Apes in his view should be defended from treatment which would be regarded as improper for human beings.

The declaration states that great apes should not be killed except in exceptional circumstances such as self-defence and if imprisoned 'without due legal process' should be immediately released. Captive apes should be immediately granted spacious sanctuaries before being gradually returned to the wild.

I wasn't particularly surprised to hear these preposterous proposals from Peter Singer. He did after all pen the seminal book Animal Liberation and popularised the concept of speciesism - the supposed sin of allowing the interests of our own species to take priority over other species. But I was a little taken aback to hear a BBC interviewer treating him as if he was making a thoroughly reasonable point.

Days later the question of what rights are due apes was posed again by a fascinating TV programme about how apes under laboratory conditions show a capacity to count, remember, solve problems and communicate. They can even be taught a basic language through which they can communicate with humans. The theme was picked up by the Observer which told of Koko the lowland gorilla who communicates through a sign language vocabulary of 1000 words, responding to thousands of words of spoken English. To the question 'what do gorillas like to do most?', she responds, 'gorilla love eat good'. She has, according to researchers at her California home at the Gorilla Foundation, shown her ingenuity and intelligence by inventing more than 50 sign words - 'bottle match' for cigarette lighter, 'white tiger' to describe a zebra.

Once again the question is posed: are these animals really so different to humankind?

Singer and his colleagues insist they are not and muster biological arguments to back them up. We humans apparently share a staggering 98.4 per cent of our DNA with common and pygmy chimpanzees. We share more genes with chimps than they share with gorillas or orang-utans which, we are told, makes a mockery of the 'specious distinction' we draw between humans and apes.

Can they be serious? We also share a considerable proportion of our genes with corn, but nobody suggests we draw up a declaration of rights for wheat. (Not yet, anyway.)

You only have to look at human society and compare it to the way that apes live to see that, however similar our DNA, the differences between man and animal are far more important than any similarity.

Humans are unique. We alone have developed a society which has consciously changed the world to suit us. We dominate other animals because we have developed the capacity to do so.

Of course animals can be taught to perform rudimentary functions. Dogs learn to come when they're called and cats learn that the squeak of the fridge door means food is on the way. It may even be possible to teach individual apes to solve particular problems and develop their capacity for certain patterns of thought. But whatever researchers teach chimpanzees, baboons and orang-utans, it will remain evidence of what we (people, that is) have taught them. It's a triumph of our capacity to tame and train, not a triumph of an ape's aspiration to live in a different way.

Do apes yearn for freedom and equality? They certainly show no signs of utilising their supposed capacities to organise for it.

Peter Singer argues that the great apes' mental and emotional capacities justify their inclusion in a 'community of equals'. He and his co-thinkers argue that those of us who insist on a qualitative distinction between animal and humankind fall prey to the same sentiments that allowed American slave-owners to hold blacks in captivity and allowed the Nazis to exterminate Jews. Both justified their oppressive behaviour on the grounds that their victims were less than human.

It's a strange equation. Whatever their oppressors may have felt about them, blacks and Jews are humans and demonstrated their humanity by organising resistance and demanding their rights. When apes demand their rights, I'll listen. But until then I'll continue to regard any attempt to reduce the consciousness of African Americans to that of apes as insulting and racist.

It's a weird world. Argue that the Iraqi people should have the right not to be bombed and the media treat you as though you're a lunatic extremist; propose that gibbons be welcomed into the human race and you're treated as a sage.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 59, September 1993

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