"She was too tired after their long hot journey to set to on the delicious food, as her daughters did. She had one paralyzed arm, the aftermath of a bout of polio nine years ago, and walking was something of an effort. And so, for the moment, she was content to rest and watch as her two daughters ate. One was adult now, the other still caught in the contrariness of adolescence (grown up one moment, and childish the next.) Minutes passed. And then her eldest, the first pangs of her hunger assuaged, glanced at the old lady, gathered food for both of them and took it to share with her mother."
This anecdote, written by Jane Goodall, illustrates just how human-like our closest evolutionary ancestor (the chimpanzee) is, according to the founders and writers of "The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity."
The Great Ape Project is an international organization founded to work for the removal of apes from the category of property, and for their immediate inclusion within the category of persons. Their goal is to include apes within the community of equals by granting them the basic moral and legal protection that only human beings currently enjoy.
When the proponents of the Great Ape Project speak of a "community of equals," they are referring to the moral community within which we accept certain basic moral principles or rights as governing our relations with each other. The Great Ape Project contests the generally accepted view that the rights or interests of human beings should take precedence over those of the apes. These advocates for primates foster the ideology that it is unacceptable for apes to be treated as subordinate to humans (used as means for human ends, and as property.) In so doing, the Great Ape Project challenges the assumption of the human right to dominance. An assumption that until recently has always been viewed as a birthright passed from God to Adam to man.
To codify the basic moral principles, the Great Ape Project has written a "Declaration on Great Apes" ( a type of Bill of Rights) that would legally govern our relations with the chimpanzee, the bonobo, the orangutan, and the gorilla. This Declaration on Great Apes, as it basically pertains to modern society, consists of three fundamental rights: (1) The Right To Life, meaning that as our moral equals they may not be killed except in very strictly defined circumstances such as self-defense. (2) The Right To Protection of Individual Liberty, meaning that they cannot be kept caged in zoos or used as entertainment in circuses. (3) The Right to Prohibition of Torture, meaning that they cannot be used for medical experimentation.
So, what is the evidence that apes should be treated as one of us, that they have the right to rights? Genetically, it is argued that because in a DNA comparison, we are between 98 and 99% identical to the chimpanzee genome that apes should be classified in the same species as man.
However, what appears to be the strongest argument made by the supporters for the Great Ape Project is that of the similarities of the behaviors, not the DNA, between man and ape. In other words, all of those little things that make humans so human, like joy, grief, self awareness, anger, concern, deceit, affection, etc. which advocates argue are shared by man and ape alike.
For example, in the book "The Great Ape Project," two primate researchers describe their experiences with Koko, a publicly well-known gorilla, who communicates in sign language using a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. What makes Koko so special is that she can actually carry on a bilingual conversation responding in sign to questions asked in English.
More significantly, Koko has demonstrated the ability, like children, to take the initiative with language that she has learned and make new words and new meanings. For example, in referring to a lighter Koko signed "bottle match; for a zebra, she signed "white tiger;" and for a mask, she signed "eye hat." I had to smile when I read about the "eye hat" example because when my daughter was two, she used to watch me put my contacts lenses on and would refer to it as "Daddy putting on his eye hats." Another creation of hers was "butt burps."
Orangutans have also been taught to sign successfully, but are better known for their ability to display human-like insightful thinking characterized by long attention spans and quiet deliberate actions. For example, in one study, a screwdriver was left lying within reach of a caged orangutan. The orangutan's response to the abandoned screwdriver depended on the conditions: If the keeper was nearby and took notice of the screwdriver, then the orangutan would grab the tool and offer it in trade to the keeper for a preferred food. However, if the keeper did not act as if he noticed the screwdriver, the orangutan would wait until night when all was quiet and would then pick up the screwdriver and proceed to use it to pick the lock or take the cage apart in order to escape.
Another example of human-like behavior is that of social skills. The bonobo, also called the "pygmy chimpanzee" is the most socially adept ape when it comes to keeping the peace within and outside the family. Rather than using aggressive displays or force, the bonobo uses sex as a means to settle disputes ranging from the bartering of food to reducing tensions and avoiding confrontations. Scientists have documented at least 20 gestures and calls from the bonobo indicating a willingness to copulate. Like a child of the '60s, make love not war, is their forte.
But possibly the most human of all characteristics is mans' sense of self, sense of others, and his sense of loss and the ability to mourn(characteristics that demonstrate sentience.
In "Brutal Kinship," National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols provides an example of sentience among apes when he writes about witnessing a chimpanzee mother carrying the corpse of her baby who had died due to injuries sustained from a fall. In spite of the heat of the jungle causing accelerated decay and a powerful stench, the mother carried her baby around for three days trying to get it to respond to her touch. In what appeared to be an overture of compassion, another female chimp brought her own infant to the grieving mother and allowed her to touch her baby.
Later, when the chimpanzee group she belonged to began to move on to new feeding grounds, she dropped her lifeless infant and walked away, only to turn back and pick up the body, shaking it as if trying to wake it up. Only until then did she set the infant down and walk away forever.
No one can say what went on inside the mother's mind when she finally gave up and let go of her dead child's body. No one can say with any certitude that she grieved and continued to grieve afterwards. But if the eyes are really the windows to the soul, all one has to do is to look into the eyes of the chimpanzees photographed in "Brutal Kinship" to convince him or herself that there is a certain something there(possibly even a soul.
And if there is a soul, then is there also a heaven for that soul? If there is a heaven for that soul then is there really a God out there and did he really grant man dominion over every living creature? And if he did, did he mean it as exploitation over all life as we do today, or did he mean it in the sense of a humane steward who looks after the welfare of all of God's creations?
But if there is no God, and we just happened to be fortunate in having evolved and being born with a slightly larger brain and a hugely narrow sense of rights, does it make any sense for us to debate the rights of a fertilized human egg and not the rights of what we accept as our evolutionary relative?
The Great Ape Project challenges us to look at ourselves and our position with what we call "the lesser species." To see with new eyes and a new understanding and hopefully a new humanity, rather than placing ourselves on the uppermost branches of the evolutionary tree only to look down on apes.
Apes share with us the faculty for signing and for listening; for tool-making and tool-use; a hatred of boredom and a love for children; tendencies toward violence and tendencies toward tenderness; and feel distress and pain and pleasure just as acutely as we do.
Maybe the Great Ape Project has it backwards: Maybe rather than include apes as persons we should knock man down a branch or two and include him as the fifth ape. As Michael Nichols the author of "Brutal Kinship" put it, "If we can see that our treatment of chimpanzees has been and is wrong, then we will have truly evolved."