Friday, 20 July 2012

Almost Human: On Great Apes, Selfhood and Rights

The Great Apes are always seen as humanlike- probably why films like The Planet of the Apes resonate so much- after all could we really relate to a 'Planet of the Elephants' even if we know elephants are intelligent? And when we see apes in pain or being mistreated this tends to again tear at our heart strings more than most animals, save in Western cultures perhaps dogs or cats. While we aren't directly descended from chimpanzees (contra Darwin's initial musings on human evolution), we are very closely related- so this does indeed make sense. But is there a scientific basis to this feeling that we aren't too different from apes?

In particular, after a recent Australs debate (to the effect of that this house would grant the great apes more rights than other animals), I was prompted to think about some of the scientific underpinnings of that debate- do apes have selfhood? Should we grant rights on this basis? Do apes have unique cognitive capabilities? This very complex series of questions is far too much for a blog post of this length to entirely deal with- so for those particularly interested I recommend The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal, or indeed any of de Waal's masterful works. I will briefly outline two claims: apes have many humanlike capacities and do have selfhood (or something very closely equivalent) and that attendant to this we should grant animal rights on a spectrum (because they should exist for purposes that aren't just for human benefit).

"Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn": What separates apes from man?
A good summary answer would be: effectively, a lot of apes' capacities are simply gradations of fully mentally able human capacities. 

Let's start with recognising others: that capability is a lot more basic- it exists in a lot more species than can recognise themselves- for instance social insects are aware of what the other members of the colony are feeling but hardly care much for their own being. The most basic capacity of any social creature is emotional contagion- that is, the ability to perceive others' emotions and feel them yourself. This is what newborn babies in hospitals can do- cry when others cry, even if they don't know why they do this. The next stage is consolation- this is what the higher primate species (as well as dolphins, some lower primates and a few other species) can do- have direct concern for others. An example is that male chimpanzees are often comforted by direct relatives and friends after losing a fight. The final kind is targeted helping- so for example, if you hear a scream and know that you should go and rush to deal with the danger itself. This exists somewhat in non-hominid higher primates, but humans do have a more finely attuned capacity to this (though this has negative effects to- it enhances our capacity to torture as well). Humans do indeed also have a more evolved capacity for imitation- giving rise to stronger memes or 'units of cultural transmission' (analogous though not the same as genes). 

More controversial though, is the question of whether we can find selfhood in non-human animals. This is a very philosophical question (with increasing argumentation from psychologists like Susan Blackmore that the idea of a truly independent self doesn't exist at all- see her book The Meme Machine), so I will largely leave treatment just to self-recognition. One standard test of self-recognition is to put a dab (that is visible but impossible to feel) on an animal's forehead (or equivalent) and see if they try to rub it off when they see themselves in a mirror. Now, in a very young human child (say less than 2) if you try this- they can't yet recognise themselves and so they don't try and rub the dab off. But in an older child or chimpanzee they will indeed try and rub the mark off- showing that they recognise that it is indeed themselves in the mirror (this circumvents the problem of having to ask children or chimps). 

The fact that these capacities exist in non-humans isn't troubling at all- if it didn't, the traits would be evolutionarily new and thus not particularly 'deep' in our neural architecture. As de Waal notes in The Age of Empathy, if we were the only species to recognise ourselves and feel empathy- these would be particularly weak traits of ours- and this is certainly not the case.

So, humans are only separated from apes by gradations of these capacities- not the cosmic leaps that were once supposed in the philosophy of mind (and what a relief- such philosophies are so supremely arrogant about humans that they were often allied with attempts to put our little rock of a planet in the centre of the universe).

How Should We Grant Rights Then?
I would find granting rights merely on capabilities deeply problematic- I am not a professional philosopher, but it would seem to me that there is little distinction between the capabilities of the mentally impaired or young children and particular animal species, yet I would prefer the state to give more rights to the humans (and certainly never withdraw rights wherever they can be given on the basis of incapacity alone). But a capability consideration in how we view rights seems to make intuitive sense- fish after all feel pain in a less brutal way than a chimpanzee does, and I would feel much less guilty about the pain of a fish.

I would therefore propose that animal rights exist on a spectrum (which is already partly recognised in law, but I think should be changed to reflect human purposes less). Obviously there are other reasons to give animal rights- torturing animals reflects badly on humans and also society wants to minimise the amount of pain in the world. But to the extent that rights to animals are 'inherent' (which I would argue they partly are), I would say they need to be reframed in the context of the capacities of that animal. And possibly not even how 'human' they are- but merely in the contexts of empathy and selfhood (for example if animals had other ways of expressing either of those ideas, it would still make sense to grant them rights).

In particular, such rights might included being treated differently in experimental trials or having particular guarantees on the kinds of environments in which Great Apes are kept.

Any ethical conversation, particularly about animals, is always very divisive. But this post has attempted to explain a few of the surface scientific and philosophical issues about the Great Apes and their rights. In particular, it has claimed that they have a kind of selfhood, and so should be afforded more rights on a spectrum. After all, if Great Apes are so like us- it should be unbearable to see them suffer.

Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.


  1. >The fact that these capacities exist in non-humans isn't troubling at all- if it didn't, the traits would be evolutionarily new and thus not particularly 'deep' in our neural architecture.

    I'm a little skeptical of this claim, thinking especially of the tremendous prominence of language pathways in human brains and the relatively recent evolution of modern language (probably <2mya).

    I know that's pretty peripheral to your main points though, and I'm generally in agreement. I've always thought though that part of the rights advantage that humans enjoy is due to their greater participation in societies and economies, which gives more moral impact to their loss/suffering due to more widely disseminated social effects (cue discussion on Dunbar numbers).

  2. I have 2 points to make-

    Firstly, the whole concept of "rights", in the context of the history of human rights, should be understood as a shield rather than a sword- being about the victim rather than the perpetrator, it protects particular victims in particular ways from any perpetrators. Whereas if you applied it in the way you want to, which I discern from your examples of testing on animals, it would be better seen as a sword- to impose upon humans that they should never treat animals in this way. This becomes obvious when you realize that we can't (nor would we, under any moral code) stop an animal from torturing another by tearing it apart while still alive. I guess this is a problem with most pan-speciesist philosophies- that they expand out from human concepts to include other species rather than letting our renewed understanding of other species and life in general affect how we view human concepts (and then sublating both with a more general worldview.

    Secondly, don't ever become a professional philosopher. That phrase is perverse to the point of being oxymoronic.