Behold the ape
Devon Chenelle | Monday, April 4, 2016
Whether it be Henry and William James, or Kim, Kourtney and Khloe, little grabs the popular imagination quite like remarkable families. One such family is that of (aunt) Hanabiko “Koko” and (niece) Binti Jua. Koko’s innovations in linguistics and animal husbandry revolutionized both fields. Binti Jua became one of Chicagoland’s heroines when, in Brookfield, Illinois, a three year-old boy suffered an 18-foot fall into a zoo enclosure filled with savage beasts. While onlookers screamed at the injured boy’s plight, bleeding from his face and suffering from a broken hand, Binti Jua leapt into action, picking up the wailing child and protecting him from the animals. When rescue personnel arrived, Binti Jua calmly handed over the boy – while still holding unto her own infant son Koola, attached to her back throughout the incident. Koko and Binti are, of course, western lowland gorillas.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one of the modern world’s most important documents, a profound reaction to the death and horror of World War II, and all the injustices that led up to it. Its first article declared “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood,” a claim helpfully augmented in Article 2 with the provision that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,” attempting to make amends for the evils of discrimination by race, sex, and class. Yet a growing body of scientific evidence seems to indicate that the Declaration misses an even more pernicious form of discrimination: species-ism.
Koko the gorilla became famous through her apprehension of thousands of English words, and her use of that vocabulary to demand her own household pets. The gorilla pit the young boy fell into was Binti Jua’s home. It’s entirely possible to dismiss these accounts as distracting oddities, more suitable for “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” than serious thought. To do so, however, would be utterly wrong. The notion that humans, by virtue of their various unique traits, bear a status distinct and apart from the rest of creation, looks increasingly untenable. Every imaginable distinguishing human trait is found, likely widely, elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The honeybee’s waggle dance language can share huge amounts of information, and vocal dialects have been observed in whales and birds. Notre Dame professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s book A Foot in the River states “one of the commonest false assertions is that humans are uniquely tool-using or tool-making animals.” Scientists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd noted in their book Not By Genes Alone that “the complexity of chimpanzee tool traditions rivals those of the simplest modern human tool kit known, that of the Aboriginal Tasmanians.” Even, as noted in E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, “artistic impulses are by no means limited to man.” The similarity between bird and whale songs and human music has long been known and a 2014 study observed a chimpanzee drumming with “long-lasting and dynamically changing rhythms.” Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, wage war, dance for rain and undergo political revolutions. The sheer complexity of chimpanzee social development, described by E.O. Wilson as “manlike,” is compelling evidence for identifying ourselves as but one of the animals, separated not by kind but degree.
It is not just primatological evidence that helps make this case, but also anthropological findings. The old pop-cultural stereotype of Neanderthals as uni-browed savages was woefully wrong. Measurements of their skull size hint that they may have been smarter than modern humans, and Neanderthal burial sites are as impressive as any human ones of the same period. Could there be any reasonable standard for assigning rights that would deny them to the Neanderthals and grant them to the, at best, behaviorally identical early homo sapiens?
If humans do have rights, as we all would like to affirm, it cannot reasonably be solely by virtue of our anatomy and descent alone, but only through the natural dignity afforded through our faculties of “reason and conscience.” As those faculties are partially shared with the apes, rights should be partially extended to them. No one wants to shove an orangutan into a voting booth, but it is our moral obligation to defend apes’ right to life and respect. Charles Darwin once wrote “how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties.” As usual, the evidence vindicates him. It is morally outrageous to deny rights to any beings on something so “vague and arbitrary,” as man’s putative separation from the animals.
Devon Chenelle is a sophomore in Keough Hall. He is a history major with an Italian minor. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.