At the end of a difficult week for those of us who like to believe in the forward progress of human evolution, some small comfort is to be derived from Hollywood. In the latest outing of the Planet of the Apes franchise, there are definite signs that, even in popular culture, a more grown-up attitude towards animals is beginning to emerge. You can tell a lot about a society from the way it portrays on screen man's nearest genetic relations. In King Kong, the gorilla represented misunderstood savagery. Films from Monkey Business to Every Which Way But Loose portrayed chimpanzees or orang-utans as zany, humanoid pets. The original Planet of the Apes contained a satirical take on human greed and violence.
The idea behind the new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, takes a less man-centric view of animals. It tells the story of a chimpanzee used in research into Alzheimer's and taken home by a scientist working on the project. When this super-brainy chimp ends up in a sanctuary, the trouble begins. Like the documentary Project Nim, the film points up the dangers of treating an animal, even an intelligent one – particularly an intelligent one – as if it were human.
Off-screen, the debate about how humans should behave towards animals which share all but 2 per cent of their DNA with us has reached a delicate stage. Evidence of the intelligence and sensitivity of the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang-utans) becomes ever more compelling.
This week the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has revealed research by American primatologists into an all-female group of wild chimps. Offered the choice of taking an action which would give a selfish reward or one that would be shared with others, the chimpanzees made the generous, "pro-social" choice. For a chimp, giving to others is, at the very least, part of its survival strategy. Mankind is less generous. There are currently between 500 and 1,000 chimpanzees currently being kept in warehouses in America, for occasional use in laboratories. Some live in those conditions for 50 years.
Although the effects of tranquillising, of restraint before surgery, of post-traumatic stress, fear and boredom have been known for some time, only now are questions being asked. This week, and not before time, America's Institute of Medicine is conducting a public inquiry into the ethics of using apes for invasive research.
In Europe, the approach is significantly less brutal. All the same, the EU is currently taking soundings as to whether member states should be allowed to use apes for research "where action to a life-threatening, debilitating condition endangering human beings is warranted". The Home Office's public consultation, canvassing views until 5 September, can be found at its website ( tinyurl.com/32rebck).
Dr Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist who has made a life study of chimpanzees in the wild, has argued that the UK should support a total ban. In America, the case has come from a more surprising source. Roscoe Bartlett, Member of Congress for Maryland, used to conduct research with apes in his previous career as a physiologist, but is now so convinced by the ethical case against the practice that he has introduced a bill to phase it out. "Past civilisations were measured by how they treated their elderly and disabled," he wrote in the New York Times. "I believe we will be measured, in part, by how we treat animals, particularly great apes."
He is right. We are at a moment of potential change in our attitudes towards the species with which we share so much, including the capacity to suffer. Most sensible people, even in Hollywood, now see that they are not imitation humans nor scary monsters nor comical pets, but highly evolved and sensitive animals. Sustained cruelty to them in the name of science – or indeed imprisoning them in zoos in the name of human curiosity – is simply wrong.
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