Monday, 27 July 2009

Should great apes have rights?

The Big Questions, 27 July 2009, BBC1.
I must say, I hand it to this programme for coming up with a very stimulating variety of topics. Chimps and bonobos, apparently, share 98.4% of our DNA and their blood and organs can be harvested for human use. (I did a simple Google, however, and found the DNA similarity may be more like 95%.)
The first expert questioned is Professor Colin Blakemore, whom presenter Nicky Campbell challenges concerning whether a creature than can articulate (via symbols) the phrase, "Can I have an ice cream on my birthday?" should not, in fact, be given rights. The professor replies that simian linguistics is a highly controversial field, and that the conferring of rights in theory is not the same as creating a fairer world (as can already be seen amongst us humans!).
Campbell then brings out the crunch question: are we part of a 'continuum' along with apes, or do we have a special, divinely-conferred status? The former, says Professor Paula Casal of the Great Ape Project. They are persons, she insists, because they can recognise themselves in the mirror, identify their species, remember the past, have plans for the future and even tell jokes and use metaphors. This list is an interesting collection of features in my view because they are evidently sufficient in Casal's mind to constitute 'personhood'. No mention, however, of any moral or spiritual awareness.
At this point, author Jeremy Taylor steps in, describing her view as "anthropomorphic wishful thinking". Deaf people, he maintains, have worked with apes and found them not to be signing after all. Richard D North of the Social Affairs Unit chimes in arguing that humans should 'trump' apes every time - pitting, as an example, a disabled baby over against an able-bodied ape.
Primatologist Ian Redmond, who has lived in the wild with apes who have not been taught anything by humans, argues that in fact apes do have 'minds', and that they are worthy of respect. His reasoning then becomes a little creative when he starts comparing ape-rights with the rights of black people and women. He attacks the notion of 'anthromorphism' and says that in fact we should be thinking in terms of 'zoomorphism' - in other words, we should be thinking of ourselves as animals, rather than imagining apes to be like humans.
Ceri Dingle, strident in canary yellow, intervenes by asking, "Why are you so desperate to prove apes are like humans? I think you're demeaning humanity." It doesn't make us animal-haters to argue that we're a superior species.
Peter Hitchens rejects the notion of rights out of hand, arguing it to be entirely subjective and even 'atheistical', a view that I have a lot of sympathy with. We do have duties, however, which derive from our Christianity, he says. These, he says, tell us that we should treat our fellow creatures with as much kindness as we can.
Campbell continues to show how struck he is with our monkey friends, especially extolling an ape who picked up a stunned starling, carried it the top of a tree and tried to release it back into flight.
Douglas Murray, who normally disagrees with Hitchens, agrees that the emphasis must be on bringing justice for all human beings, rather than trying to elevate apes' rights. Dr Anthony Seldon demurs, questioning why we couldn't aim for both.
The most interesting contributor, possibly, is Paula Stibbe, a lady seeking to become a legal guardian for Matthew, a chimp! She rightly rejects Campbell's premise when he asks how intelligent the ape is - is it right to link value or right to life to intelligence? For me she ruins it when she cites Darwin who, apparently, said that the differentiations between species are blurred.
And this is where we come to the heart of the matter, which Campbell is the only one who faces in the programme: was man (in Adam) made in the image of God, as a special creation, or are we part of an evolutionary continuum? It's the molecules-to-man or 'goo-to-you' question! Is man special, or just another animal?
The Bible speaks on this. Genesis 9 makes the distinction clear: "The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth... they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything...Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Nevertheless, though animals are not in God's image, and can be used for food, we must remember that kindness to animals is the mark of a God-reflecting being: "A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12:10).

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