Science: An end to genocide for our ape cousins

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The outcry over animal experimentation, and the government's ban on cosmetic tests, has largely overshadowed a decision which means that our closest relatives - in evolutionary terms - should no longer have to suffer for science.

David Pearson wonders whether we will soon accept that `great apes' are people, too.

On November 6, the Home Office announced a ban on the testing of cosmetic products on animals. Though this new policy will not affect most animals used in scientific experiments, it will save the lives of thousands of animals each year.

But few people have noticed another section of that announcement - banning all experiments on great apes - which will have no short-term effect in this country, yet amounts to an extraordinary admission that at least some animals should not be experimented on, no matter how great the putative benefit of such experiments.

In the UK, the use of animals in scientific experiments is regulated by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which is widely (but not universally) condemned by animal welfare advocates because it does not rule out many scientific procedures that are painful or distressing in other ways to the experimental animals.

Nevertheless, a licence to perform experiments on great apes has never been issued under the Act - though there was always the danger that, in exceptional circumstances, one would be. Now, in reviewing the Act, Lord Williams of Mostyn, a Home Office Minister, has said "the Government will not allow their use in scientific procedures." The Home Office adds: "This is a matter of morality. The cognitive and behavioural qualities of these animals mean it is unethical to treat them as expendable for research."

This is the first time any government has recognised that animals can have a value in themselves, rather than just a degree of utility as property of humans. This intrinsic value is directly related to the complex emotional lives, intelligence, social structure and other high-order cognitive phenomena exhibited by the great apes, traits that are scientifically demonstrable by observation and interaction; this is not mere sentiment or wishful thinking.

"Great ape" is a technical term, describing five species of primates: chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, orang- utans, and humans. The first three live wild in Africa; orang-utans come from Indonesia and Borneo. Human beings, of course, are ubiquitous. There are other apes, such as gibbons, that are not classified as "great" - all apes are distinguished by their lack of a tail.

The evolutionary family tree of the great apes has been worked out by analysis of their DNA. Roughly speaking, the more the DNA of two different species differs, the longer ago they diverged from a single common ancestral species. It turns out that chimpanzees and bonobos diverged about 2.5 million years ago; their common ancestor diverged from human beings about 6 million years ago. About 8 million years ago, the gorilla line of ancestry split off, preceded about 15 million years ago by the orang-utans.

The surprising - non-obvious - thing about this family tree is that it means that chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans than to gorillas. Thus humans must be classed as great apes: if chimpanzees and bonobos are, and gorillas are too, then humans must be as well.

Furthermore, the great apes share most of their - our - DNA. At least 96.4 per cent of the species' DNA is in common, and as much as 98.4 per cent in close groups such as human beings and bonobos. Overall, the great apes are as closely related as African and Indian elephants.

A recent taxonomic reappraisal of the primate family tree has placed all the great apes in the "hominid" family, previously reserved for humans and our upright, two-legged ancestors. This analysis really brings home the place of humans in nature - as a particular species of animal. In a sense we already knew that, but not in such quantitative terms. We did not appreciate just how close we are to our non-human relatives.

The family resemblance does not stop at similar appearances and matching DNA. The continuity within the hominid family is seen in our cognitive abilities and emotional depth. Individuals of all non-human great apes have been taught to talk, using sign languages. (They are not anatomically equipped to make the complex utterances that we humans take for granted.) This has opened up a window into their mental lives to reveal an astonishing depth and complexity.

Koko, a gorilla, has a vocabulary of more than 500 sign-words. She uses these in often playful and inventive ways, such as referring to a zebra as a "white-tiger" and peas as "bean-balls", and saying "bottle necklace" to describe the plastic loops that hold drinks cans together. She expressed distress over the death of a pet kitten called All-Ball - more than five years after its demise.

Sceptics may point out that many such utterances can be interpreted less ambitiously, or that they are ambiguous. But equally, there are many instances (such as those given here) that are unambiguous. In his book Next of Kin, the American scientist Roger Fouts tells the heart-rending story of his forced separation from a chimpanzee friend called Booee - who was sold by his owners to a medical laboratory where he was infected with hepatitis. They were briefly reunited after a 13-year separation. Booee instantly recognised Roger, and immediately began a sign-language conversation. Both were deeply upset when the meeting had to end.

As a final example, consider Chantek, an orang-utan. Orang-utans have lively, inquisitive personalities that are often belied in popular representations. They have been known to tie knots and use simple tools - often to escape from their enclosures. H Lyn White Miles, of the University of Tennessee, says of Chantek: "We have lived day to day with Chantek and have shared common experiences ... We have healed his hurts, comforted his fears of stray cats, played keep-away games, cracked nuts in the woods with stones, watched him sign to himself, felt fooled by his deceptions, and frustrated when he became bored with his tasks ... Through these rare events shared with another species, I have no doubt I was experiencing Chantek as a person."

Has this careful account of the natures of our closest relatives gone off the rails? Isn't it absurd to think that an animal can be a person? Well, I am a person - and I am also an animal of the human species, Homo sapiens.

But can non-human animals be persons? Note the distinction between the terms "person" and "human". It would, literally, be nonsense to classify a non-human as a human. But "person" has many connotations.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the current meanings of "person" is "a self-conscious or rational being". This sense has impeccable philosophical precedents. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke defined a person as a "thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places".

"Person" is also a term that plays a strongly evaluative role. As it refers to the possession of characteristics generally seen as morally relevant, such as rationality and self-consciousness, it is often used to ascribe moral properties - usually some rights or duties, and frequently the right to life - to the beings so denominated. For example, under law, a corporation can be a person. To be a person is the opposite of being a thing, or property.

What we know about the characteristics of the great apes is sufficient to grant them the status of persons according to such traditional philosophical definitions. This requires that they be granted the special protections and rights that are accepted as being warranted by personhood. It means a radical shift - from their current status of property to the moral and legal status of persons.

This is why the Government's announcement is such a significant step forward. It follows a campaign by the Great Ape Project since its foundation in 1993, including the drafting of a Bill (which failed) presented by Tony Banks MP in the House of Commons in February 1997 to prevent the experiments that have now been banned.

The Great Ape Project wants to extend this recognition somewhat farther: to grant the legal right to life, to prohibit torture (eg many biomedical experiments), and to protect the individual liberty, of all great apes. Their nature demands nothing less of us, if we are to consider ourselves as ethical, moral beings.

David Pearson is co-ordinator of Great Ape Project UK. The Great Ape Project can be contacted at PO Box 6218, London W14 0GD, or by e-mail at: