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Rights for Gorillas! Oh, and Humans

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/ columnists/guest_contributors/article1594049.ece
The Times. 31 March 2007.
Rights for gorillas! Oh, and humans
Felipe Fernández-Armesto

London Zoo is liberating its gorillas. Uncaged, and consigned to a display called a "gorilla kingdom", they will now enjoy a simulacrum of independence. Cynics say they are still being exploited as spectacle rather than science: visitors will not really learn about gorillas in the wild. But we shall learn something more precious. We shall learn about ourselves. When I was young my favourite primate exhibit at the zoo was the chimpanzees' tea party. Chimps reduced tea tables to chaos with slapstick abandon, to the delight of paying onlookers. This was a daily form of entertainment in zoos in the 1950s. But it no longer happens. It would affront the dignity of chimpanzees.

The chimps' tea party was funny, or so we thought, because we were convinced of our own uniqueness. Only humans, we supposed, had culture. Chimps' antics at tea were mistaken for proof of our superiority. Now the joke is on us, because primatologists have proved that chimps and other nonhuman apes do have culture. Indeed, many nonhuman species live in societies differentiated from one another not by adaptations to different environments, but by collective practices learnt and transmitted across the generations. Chimp cultures actually include food-distribution rites, just as ours include tea parties.

Nor is it just in possessing culture that apes resemble humans. They practise politics (including subterfuge and deception), play games, display altruism, and make war and peace. They develop rituals (including those associated with friendship and courtship) and have been observed apparently responding to rain, or the imminence of rain, by joining in rhythmic stamping. All great apes have varieties of cultural practice, especially in connection with mating, that defy environmental or behaviourist explanations.

Just about everything formerly thought uniquely human turns out to be shared - albeit in small measure - with other apes. They make tools. Their language abilities include coining words and appreciating the difference between subject and predicate. They have what seems to be aesthetics, perhaps even art. Female apes wear dead rats or cockroaches as headgear with all the apparent self-consciousness of a lady in an Ascot hat. Humans remain different - but the differences are of degree. Humans remain unique, but our uniqueness no longer appears to be itself of a unique kind, since every species is unique in its own ways.

Palaeoanthropology has confronted us with evidence that Homo sapiens has been matched in the fossil record by many other species with similar toolkits and cultures. One of the extraordinary phenomena of modern times has been the popularity of Lucy, the three million-year-old East African biped. She resembled humans too little even to be classed as part of the genus Homo, yet public identification with her is profound, dramatically witnessed by a recent BBC programme about her, which climaxed in a scene of the presenter, Lord Winston, carrying her body reverently, as if for reburial with human honours.

So our moral community may be permeable by other creatures. Human history shows little sign of progress. We are, in most respects, as stupid and cruel as ever. But we have, at least, expanded our moral community, bit by bit, forsaking prejudice of kin, race and class, until today, when we have come to include the whole human species in a single embrace. Once we admit that non-human ancestors are morally equivalent to ourselves, it becomes logically impossible to hold the line against other kindred species. New Zealand, Spain and Norway are among nations that have encoded ape rights in their laws. If the theory of evolution is correct, all species are linked, for all creatures are part of a single continuum and have common ancestors. If apes are admitted to our moral community on the ground of their similarity to humans, then other creatures will have to be admitted on the ground of their similarity to apes, and so on until all creation is encompassed. We should then be morally self-disqualified from eating or exploiting any species. As Bertrand Russell once said, there is no logical conclusion "short of votes for oysters".

So should we go on expanding our moral community, sharing our rights with other species? Maybe, but it seems premature to raise the question while human rights are still imperfectly in place - among the inmates of Guantanamo or the victims of repression, persecution, exploitation, discrimination, infanticide and want. The first lesson of the gorillas of London Zoo is that rather than discarding the myth of human uniqueness, we should first try to live up to it. When all humans have equal rights, when we have liberated the human zoo, and turned our own cages into a kingdom, we can start thinking about embracing the apes.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is author of So You Think You're Human? A Brief History of Humankind
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