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15 February 1999

Monkeying around with rights

Dr Helene Guldberg explains why apes should not be given the same rights as humans

An international campaign to extend legal rights to great apes has sparked a controversial debate. The Great Ape Project, supported by scientists, lawyers and philosophers from around the world, is aiming for a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes, which would give apes the right to life, the right not to suffer cruel treatment and the right to take part in only benign experiments. The project is hoping for its first major success later this month, when the New Zealand parliament votes on a new animal welfare bill, which could make it the first country to give apes legal standing.

The Great Ape Project (GAP) is calling for 'the extension of the basic ideal of equality to include all the great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans, as well as humans'. This call for equality is premised partly on the genetic similarity between apes and humans. Chimpanzees share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans, so the conclusion is reached that chimps are 98.4 percent human. They are not. We also share a proportion of our DNA with bananas, but it would be patently absurd to suggest that bananas are part human.

But the call for an extension of legal rights to our closest living 'relatives' is based on more than genetics. The Great Ape Project also claims that our simian cousins 'resemble us in their capacities and their ways of living'. As far as I'm concerned, it requires a fantastic leap of the imagination to compare the everyday life of a tree-dwelling animal with my way of living - or any other human being for that matter. In addition there is no conclusive scientific evidence of ape consciousness. The study of belief attribution (which is referred to as 'theory of mind') in apes, is still in its infancy and relies heavily on often fascinating but largely unsubstantiated anecdotes. Apes have not been found to have the ability to have beliefs about beliefs or to think about thoughts

But what about their communications? The linguistic accomplishments of great apes in captivity are undoubtedly impressive. Washoe, the chimp, Chantek, the orang-utan, and Koko, the gorilla, were all taught to sign with a vocabulary of up to 1000 words. They have even been shown to use novel combinations of words. However, despite years of training they never exceed the abilities of a human toddler. What is probably more impressive than the achievements of the great apes themselves are the exhaustive efforts of the trainers managing to get these apes to the stage of a two to three-year old child.

If creatures do not possess complex linguistic skills, and the capacity to reflect on and therefore modify their own actions, they cannot be viewed as autonomous moral agents. As the New Scientist states: '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?'

We should not and cannot give apes human legal status. Human rights are meaningless unless you are capable of exercising them. Apes, who have no capacity to reflect on their own behaviour, are clearly incapable of exercising equal rights.

Dr Helene Guldberg has researched and written on animal behaviour. For more on this topic see her book review 'Dumb animals' in the latest February issue of LM and her article Do deer suffer like us? in the June 1997 issue of LM.

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