Rights for Chimps
The Guardian, July 29, 1999
The unknown author of Genesis portrayed God as first creating the animals and then making man in his own image. Ever since, western tradition has tried to draw a sharp divide between ourselves and other animals. Even after Darwin had shown the continuities between ourselves and other apes, we have tried to cling to the idea that there is something quite unique to human beings, some way in which we differ, not only in degree, but also in kind, from animals. The most popular candidate for that unique distinction is our use of language.
No wonder, then, that when the chimpanzee Washoe began to use sign language to communicate, sceptics rushed in to say that she was only mimicking the signs that were made to her. They conveniently ignored observations that Washoe actually taught signs to her adopted son Loulis, and was recorded signing to herself on video cameras when no one else was around.
Dozens of other apes - not only chimpanzees, but also orang-utans, gorillas, and more recently bonobos (or pygmy chimpanzees) - have now been taught to use sign language as well. Somehow the sceptics have still not admitted defeat, claiming that the signing is being `over- interpreted'.
But now the work of Sue Savage Rumbaugh and Duane Rumbaugh in Atlanta, Georgia, will put an end to that objection and perhaps with it, to the entire debate.
The bonobos studied by the Rumbaughs use a large, computer-style keyboard with symbols on it and everything they do is recorded, so there can be no question about subjective interpretations of what they are saying. And now that a voice synthesiser has been linked to the keyboard, the sentences they construct even sound like human speech.
Though hailed this week as a `breakthrough', the use of the voice synthesiser is really only a vivid way of demonstrating what careful observers already knew: these apes are constructing sentences to communicate with us. Exactly what the limits of their capacities for thought are, we do not yet know. Most observers equate them with a three to four-year-old child, but no doubt their ways of thinking will differ in many ways from those of human children. There seems no doubt that, over the next few years, we are going to find out a lot more about the minds of great apes.
The end of the debate over the apes' use of language has come at a crucial time in a separate, but related, debate over the ethical status of our closest relatives - who in law are still simply things, items of property, and can be bought and sold, and even killed at the absolute discretion of the owner. Six years ago, the Great Ape Project brought together a group of philosophers, scientists, writers, lawyers and social scientists - among them Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins and Douglas Adams - in support of a change of moral status for great apes. They signed a declaration of rights, urging that chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans should be recognised as having rights to life, liberty and freedom from torture.
The success already enjoyed by the Great Ape Project is testimony to the power of an idea whose time has come. The British government has stopped the use of great apes in medical research.
In the United States, the National Science Foundation has recommended that chimpanzees may not be killed simply because they are surplus to laboratory requirements - a departure from the way in which all other laboratory animals are disposed of when no longer useful. And in New Zealand, a parliamentary committee has discussed the Great Ape Project's ideas and the debate is soon expected to move to the floor of parliament itself.
Still, it would be wrong to paint a rosy picture of the situation of our closest relatives around the world. In America, chimpanzees are still kept in cages measuring only 5ft by 7ft - a bare prison, solitary confinement for an inherently social animal. In Europe, if not in Britain, experimentation on chimpanzees continues.
More significant still, in terms of numbers, is the contribution of European timber companies to the destruction of the great populations of free-living chimpanzees and bonobos in the Congo, Cameroons and other countries of central and western Africa.
By building roads into the forests, they are providing access for hunters, who shoot anything that is edible - and that includes great apes - and sell the meat, either to the timber workers directly, or to restaurants in the cities down the road. Unless something is done about this, and soon, we will have discovered that our closest relatives can talk to us, just at the time when they have ceased to exist in the regions that have always been their home.