So, what rights to what animals get?
When Charlton Heston’s character in Planet of the Apes came across that great edifice of Western Civilization and realized that the old Orangutan was right … humans are fundamentally destructive of themselves and their near relatives … he replicated in the fictional future what Louis and Mary Leakey did when they came across the skull of Zinjanthropus at Olduvai Gorge, in the 1950s, at a spot now memorialized by the famous Olduvai Plinth. Well the Leakeys thought they were looking at a human ancestor at the time, and therefore missed the point. What they were looking at, most likely, was somebody’s dinner. Dinner consisting of a member of a species of our nearest living relative, on an archaeological site generated by many different effects including the activity of what actually was our direct ancestor, Homo erectus.
To be fair, we can’t be sure if Olduvai Hominid #5 was eaten by Homo erectus or by a leopard or something. But, it represented a species that disappeared when Homo erectus appeared. For several million years, at any one point in time, a diversity of hominid species lived in Africa, like we see today in the diversity of antelopes. Then Homo erectus came along and thereafter the diversity was suddenly reduced and generally maintained to one species almost everywhere, two species here and there.
My point is this: It is not entirely unreasonable to view the question of what humans can do to other species with suspicion. This would be the same kind of suspicion that a parole board would level against an inmate asking for release. We are a species with a record, and we are asking the question: What ways shall we allow this species, already tried and convicted of serial speciescide, to interact with other animal species? We are a level five extinctionator asking to move into a neighborhood with lots of vulnerable species like chimps and polar bears. And we’ve done little to earn trust. One could make the argument that the assumption that we can kill any animal we want to should not be the starting point for this discussion. Perhaps the assumption that we should not use any animals in research or cuisine is a more appropriate starting point given our record.
To summarize so far:
1) There is no way to satisfy all parties in this discussion, so every party that wants to be part of it has to be open to final solutions that are different then, to them, ideal.
2) Parties in this discussion should avoid the presumption of wrongness and nefarious intent on the part of other parties.
3) The fundamental assumptions often made in this discussion are probably flawed and the realities are probably mostly quite arbitrary.
4) There is a reasonable argument for a phylogenetic approach to assigning “rights” to non-human animals.
5) Humans need to be a little more humble in their approach to this issue, given their record.
My strong preference is that chimpanzees and other great apes are given, essentially, the same level of protection in relation to research as humans are given. Certainly, when it comes to other invasive or damaging but non-research related activities, it is fairly easy to see how this can be carried out, at least in relation to policy: No hunting, no habitat destruction. When it comes to research, however, this may be more difficult. For the vast majority of research projects, apes simply should not be used. But people have argued that certain critically important research that has saved human lives has been done on chimps (typically) and had that not been done, there would be more human death and misery, etc. Those who believe that the Great Apes should not be used in research may well respond “tough luck, those humans simply have to suffer, as though the apes never existed.” Others would accept that some research should be done despite the fact that we really don’t want to.
Bring all the ideas to the table and remember that you are not going to get the exact solution you want. I believe that there is no way to disconnect the specifics of a particular (potential or real) research program and the questions at hand. Humans can be (and are) used in research. If so, then so can apes be used in research, but not in just any way one feels like doing. One can say post-hoc that a certain medical advance used ape research, but did it really? And is it the case that the actual research that was done, in terms of sample size and methods, was necessary, or were there alternatives that were not pursued because it was considered acceptable to treat the Great Apes in a particular way that may not be acceptable under a modernized policy?
My feeling is that research on the Great Apes may be justifiable, but not a priori, and certainly not a priori on the basis of presumed successes of the past. Each and every proposed case needs to be evaluated to a degree much greater than any of this research has been evaluated to date. No more secrecy, no more vagueness (at the moment we are not even sure exactly how many chimps are in research facilities). No more dicking around. Just honest and open evaluation. And in the end, I would think almost no research using Great Apes would be considered acceptable.
(See also: Are Pigs Really Like Humans?)
I should also mention an exception to the phylogenetic guideline that gives the Great Apes a special place: Dolphins and other whales. It may well be that dolphins, which have evolved smart brains, what appears very much to be actual symbolic capacities, curiosity, apparent sentience (not just something that looks like sentience) and a complex social system that makes chimps look simple, should be fully protected. Personally, I’m for ending all whale harvesting, not because of any humanness but for the same reason I don’t think we should hunt aardwolves or rhinos. We’ve done enough, just leave them alone. There will be exceptions, we’ll deal with those as they come along. But as a rule, the conservation of these species is paramount. Since the whales are rarely used in human disease related research, they are in a different position that the Great Apes in this discussion, and should probably be addressed separately.