Essays call for great apes to be liberated: Researchers say gorillas and chimpanzees should be legal equals to humans. Tom Wilkie reports

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The Independent Online
THOMAS JEFFERSON would have been proud of the sentiments but disappointed by the prose. In a book published today, his declaration that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights is being extended to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orang-utans.

According to The Great Ape Project - Equality Beyond Humanity, keeping chimps, gorillas and orang-utans in zoos ought to be illegal and using them in medical or scientific research should be as unacceptable as vivisection on humans.

Far from The Planet of the Apes being some Hollywood fantasy, the book maintains that the similarities among all the great apes - chimpanzees, gorillas, humans, and orang-utans - far outweigh any superficial differences. All of the great apes can use language, think aloud, plan ahead, make moral judgements, deliberately deceive others, and remember the names of those whom they have not seen for years. The book may prove to be one of the most subversive published in English this year. This collection of essays on the moral status of the animals closest to humans in evolutionary history is not just wet and worthy hand-wringing by the liberal and politically correct. It contains work by serious researchers in the scientific world, such as the Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins and the American physiologist Jared Diamond.

One of the editors of the book is Peter Singer, the English philosopher now living in Australia, His earlier book, Animal Liberation, formed the intellectual foundation for the animal rights movement in the UK and in the rest of the English-speaking world.

The core of the book is a sustained argument, couched in terms of biology, evolution, and ethics, that all the great apes should be treated as moral and legal equals. 'This step is,' the editors of the book say, 'a cautious one. We now have sufficient information about the capacities of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orang-utans to make it clear that the moral boundary we draw between us and them is indefensible.'

The goal of the enterprise is 'the acceptance of some non-human animals as persons,' with the full moral and legal rights which accrue to people. 'At a practical level it will entail freeing all imprisoned chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. . .'

The book contains a 'Declaration on Great Apes' to which all the contributors of the books have subscribed. Among other things, it faces head on 'the objection that chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans will be unable to defend their own claims within the comity (of moral equals), we respond that human guardians should safeguard their interests and rights in the same ways as the interest of young or intellectually disabled members of our own species are safeguarded.'

The declaration notes that 'we live in a world in which, for at least three-quarters of the human population, the idea of human rights is no more than rhetoric', but says 'the denial of the basic rights of particular other species will not however assist the world's poor and oppressed to win their just struggles, nor is it reasonable to ask that the members of these other species should wait until all humans have achieved their rights first.'

The Great Ape Project - Equality Beyond Humanity; ed Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer; 4th Estate; pounds 9.99.