If you pay any attention at all to the animal liberation movement, then you’ve probably heard about great ape personhood. You’ve probably also heard the case for great ape rights, so I’ll just summarize the main points. Great apes, especially chimpanzees, have been shown to be very similar to us. They communicate, use tools, develop lifelong relationships, and can even learn sign language and math, under certain circumstances. Besides that, chimpanzees share as much as 98% of their DNA with humans, making them genetically closer to us than to gorillas.
This is the problem: On paper, chimps may be very similar to humans, but there are some complications when it comes to considering them humans. Should a pet chimpanzee who attacks a human be tried for assault? Should a chimp that steals a banana be prosecuted? Even if we applied our laws to chimps in our society, we could not regulate apes in the wild. One could argue (and some do) that we should not give them rights without responsibilities, yet how can they have responsibilities that they are not aware of?
This is what it comes down to: We can’t make non-human primates human. As genetically close as they are, they are still a different species. In fact, the idea that we can grant apes humanhood as a privilege is ironically speciesist itself. But is anyone really saying that we should consider chimps to be human? They are not naturally part of our society, and even non-AR supporters would agree that it works best that way.
To me, great ape personhood is not about recognizing non-human primates as humans. It’s about recognizing them as individuals. If we consider chimpanzees to be individuals, rather than objects or commodities, then the ways we abuse them are much harder to condone.
We sometimes think that non-human animals, including great apes, only have the rights that we give them. In other words, we can, if we choose, give chimpanzees the right not to be experimented on, but they don’t have that right unless we magnanimously grant it. But is it really about granting rights, or is it about recognizing rights that all living things already have?
Debates over rights have always been major political issues, and they will be for quite a while. But no matter whose rights are in question, if we place ourselves in a higher position, with the sole authority to grant rights, then maybe we aren’t making as much progress as we think we are. On the other hand, if we accept that living things, including humans, naturally have rights that should be recognized, we really are moving forward.
“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”
— Albert Einstein
For more info on animal intelligence, look at National Geographic’s page on animal minds.