The Times. 31 March 2007.
Rights for gorillas! Oh, and humans
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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