December 6, 2021

Our expanding circle should include chimpanzees

Supporters issue a chimp manifesto

July 14 was World Chimpanzee Day / photo Nick Riley

As foundational principles of bioethics go, it’s pretty hard to go past personhood. It’s the issue which underlies debates about abortion, stem cell research, genetic engineering, euthanasia, and, of course animal rights. As Peter Singer and other philosophers argue, as humanity advances, some animals should be included in the “expanding circle” of our altruistic instincts.

One example of this is a manifesto of chimpanzee liberation which has just been published in the Italian journal Human Evolution by several specialists on evolution and primatology, “Pan Survival in the 21st Century: Chimpanzee Cultural Preservation, Rehabilitation, and Emancipation Manifesto”. The authors include Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, an expert on bonobo language, and Eviatar Nevo, a distinguished Israeli scholar of evolution.

The authors’ proposal is that chimpanzees and bonobos (of the genus Pan) should be reclassified as “hominins” — the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors. They should be allowed to live unmolested in African reserves.

Why? The picture of chimpanzees most of us get from observing them in captivity is a vast understatement of their capabilities. In the wild, they have a sophisticated social, cultural and moral life which disintegrates in zoos. “Pan’s cultural loss is thus equivalent to the destruction of prehistoric pre-human heritage.” It is unethical to treat them as mere animals:

If we were to find another extant member of our Homo genus, it would be equally unethical to hunt, capture, separate families or imprison them, and not learn everything we can by observing their cultures and behaviors. As Pan embodies our early Homo/hominin cultural heritage, we must respect and learn from them, as they carry the secrets of our own past.

Even more radically, they suggest that “those [Pan] who can write, paint, produce, interpret and recollect cave- art type iconography should be provided with means to do so, be freed and regarded as Homo”.

Keeping chimpanzees and bonobos in zoos, or still worse, using them as experimental subjects, is deeply unethical. “Parallels can be made between the personal/cultural devastation of captive Pan to those of enslaved or concentration camp imprisoned humans. These include transport conditions, mortality rate, tattooing numbers and the removal of any sign of selfhood, heritage, customs, and cultural identity. Furthermore, splitting up families, erasing privacy, dignity and choice, result in the ruin of their cultures and traditional ways of life.”

So are they persons? The authors contend that the answer is Yes. “Personhood rights are stated to be conferred to those who have high-level mental competencies, and given by virtue of being human. However, since Pan exhibit a high degree of shared suite of traits with hominins, they too deserve to be included in that category.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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