Legal personhood for chimps?

Do you think these lawyers are going just a little too far?

I mean, consider this statement:

If these guys get their way, it is highly probable we’re looking at all-out prohibition on the use of chimpanzees for research, which would very likely be disastrous for the efforts at curing numerous nasty diseases, including HIV. Are apes really intelligent enough that it’s worth it?

My opinion - some ARE intelligent enough to deserve basic ‘human’ rights. I don’t think anyone who has followed the story of Koko the gorilla could deny that animals can be self-aware and have an intellect well within the range of what is considered human. It could be that only a small percentage of these apes are capable of this kind of thought, or it could be that most do but only a few were able to make the mental leap to learning our languages. Either way, I think it best we extend rights to their entire species, the only alternative would be to deny rights to them based solely on species, even though some are as smart as humans, or to grant rights on an individual basis after some kind of intelligence test - if we base rights on some test result we run into the problem of extremely retarded humans who are less capable of conscious thought than many language-trained apes and how to deal with them under such a system.

I read another article about these lawyers and concluded that they were over-reaching.

Still, this omnivore would like to see some additional rights extended to certain nonhuman primates.

A small amount of reading about Bonobos and casual observation at the zoo leads me to tentatively conclude that chimps have some decidedly human qualities. Informed arguments to the contrary would interest me.

Hmph. If they get certain human rights, do they get the certain human responsibilities that go with them? If so, I can see most chimps getting arrested for Lewd Misconduct in a Public Place, Threatening Behaviour and Disturbing the Peace on a more or less daily basis. And if not - why not?

More seriously: I’ve read some of the studies on animal language training (a good introductory book is Eugene Linden’s Apes, Men and Language; Linden is unashamedly “pro-chimp”, but I recommend the book anyway) and I am decidedly Not Impressed. There is nothing in this to suggest anything other than clever animals picking up on trainer-approved behaviour - operant conditioning, or the so-called “Clever Hans” phenomenon. Films of Koko and her like in action show her throwing out any old signs, and her trainers rationalising them however they fit. (“How do you feel now?” “Pink.” “Ah, that’s because she had some pink bubble gum earlier…”)

Of course apes, being human-like, engage in some human-like behaviour. And of course apes (like any other living creature, with the possible exception of telemarketers) should not be treated with wanton cruelty. But to assign human rights to something which is unambiguously not human seems foolish to me.

As stated in the OP, the lawyers involved in this issue are in search of

for the great apes. Asside from the issues of whether or not the great apes deserve these rights, I know that I recieve these rights whether or not I am charged with Lewd Misconduct, for example. For humans, our legal rights are for the most part independant of our actions. Only by commiting serious crimes do we forfeit our right to life. It does not seem to me that rights are contingent upon a person’s behavior. That’s why they are rights and not privilages.
That being said there are some important issues raised in the article referenced in the OP.

I would question whether or not an animal (or person) who cannot communicate his or her feelings directly could possibly be a plaintiff is a case. Am I wrong in understanding the meaning of plaintiff as being “individual who brings grieviences against the defendant”? It is one thing for a person or orginization to start a case in the name of an animal, and it is another to see the animal itself bring a lawsuit against someone. Maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t see too many animals being able to say, “hm… I’m unhappy I think I’ll sue!” It sounds like a thinly veiled way for animal-rights people to bring THEIR agendas into the courts.

Perhaps the most significant argument posed in the article against giving the great apes human rights is this:

Animals with animal rights? Yes
Animals with human rights? Probably not
Let’s face it. As much as we might want to be open to accepting everybody and everything as equals, there are some scenarios that are just not realistic. Our human rights are called such because we came up with them to apply to human/human interactions. We do not bring animals to court for infringing upon our human rights. Human rights are designed as a fundamental basis of human interaction. Another system is necessary to govern human/animal interactions.

With that being said, the evidence points strongly that apes have great capacity for language, thought, expression, and communication. I think that with those qualities having been clearly demonstrated (in my mind, anyways), some sort of real system of rights for the great apes should be adopted.

Hmmm. I think I have to take issue with the “language” thing. Communication, yes, but language, no. (I know there are those who disagree, hence my cite of the Linden book - have a look and decide for yourselves, people). Apes have been trained to produce language-like bahaviour - just like teaching a parrot to talk, except that apes, being cleverer than parrots, have a more flexible range of responses to the training. Still, I wouldn’t support human rights for apes any more than I would human rights for parrots.

Actually, a thought has occurred to me. You might well find that extending human rights to apes would lower people’s respect for them - because, if you admit them to a “human” category, you become aware that they’re pretty inadequate humans. Anecdotal evidence; Nim Chimpsky, the only gorilla in the studies (Koko was a chimp), reportedly frustrated his trainers to the extent that they said they “should have called him ‘Dim’”. Is it better for the apes to be seen as smart animals, or as dumb humans?

No, I think I stand by my previously expressed opinions. There is no reason why the great apes should have any preferential treatment as compared to other animals. No animal, as I said earlier, should suffer wanton cruelty. But, as far as I can see, extending human rights to apes wouldn’t benefit the apes, or anyone else - except possibly the lawyers.

RoboDude, does this have anything to do with the bestiality
thread you started a while back :smiley: ?

To throw something else into the mix: a couple of years back I read that certain British scientists felt they would, if allowed to research the matter for a few years, be able to breed half-man/half-apes. Supposing this came to pass, would they be considered human?

If you’re going to use annecdotal evidence as a bulkward to your line of reasoning, it would help if the details were actually correct. Koko is a Western lowland gorilla, not a chimp.

I’m not sure where apes fall on the continuum of conciousness, or their ability to sue language to communicate. I’m not sure where the apes fall on the continuum of conciousness or language use. Althought it’s not unknown for either sloppy technique or willfull blindness to allow sceintiests to see what they wish to see, it seems difficult to dismiss so many studies that show there are some apes who have skills in language as merely operant conditioning.

Perhaps people are expecting clear-cut evidence that will show, one way or the other tat apes can or cannot use language in the same manner (if not to the same degree) that humans do. Noam Chomsky’s very definition of language seems to go out of its way to preclude its development in any other animal, and many other linguists seem intent on judging the performance of language in terms of human language. In attempting to judge the language ability of apes and other animals are the linguists, by the nature of the definition, overlooking the possibility that apes can use language to communicate, but that they use it differently than humans?

Little nitpick here. You’ve got the species of the two animals confused. Koko was, and still is a gorilla.

Nim Chimpsky was a chimp.

Could have sworn… oh, well. I stand corrected.

However. There still isn’t anything in these studies which convinces me that apes are learning to use language in a human way. As to whether they are learning to use language in a way which we don’t understand as language… this seems to depend on how you define “language”, and if we’re shifting the definitions around, we’re going to be on shaky ground. My rule of thumb is that a language is a means of getting ideas from one head into another. From what I’ve seen and read on this issue, I don’t think this is happening between apes and humans. Too much of it seems to depend on interpretation by the humans involved.

And I think operant conditioning can, indeed, account for the behaviour of the apes concerned. If they are animals, they are clever animals, and it’s possible to condition them pretty darn effectively.

Again, anecdotal evidence (and you may be excused if yu refuse to trust my evidently fallible memory): one of the apes involved was placed for a time with untrained apes, and would engage, to some extent, in attempts to use sign language with them. In particular, she would make a “come hug” gesture when she wanted sex with a particular male. And the male picked up on this, and pretty soon he was using the “come hug” gesture himself. And if that isn’t an example of positive reinforcement, I don’t know what is.

The circumstances of the experiments made positive reinforcement for approved-of behaviour almost impossible to avoid. These researchers literally raised their apes as members of their own family. It must have taken incredible patience and dedication. I respect them enormously. But I’m afraid I still think they were wrong.

If we accept the premise that chimpanzees are human, then presumably it would be wrong to keep them in zoos. But, as their habitat continues to be encroached upon by development and agriculture, there may be no other way to keep the species extant, other than in zoos.

Another interesting issue about the extension of human rights to non-humans is artificial inteligence. If we create real artificial inteligence, it will most likely demand certain rights. Should we give rights to AI? Isn’t it sort of cruel to have something that can think (ape or computer) and tell it that it’s not close enough to us to get the rights that we have?

Once in a while chimps in the wild will kill one another. If we decide that they have a right to live does that mean we’ll have to arrest certain chimps for murder? Yeah I know it sounds ridiculous but no more so then saying chimps have rights.


There’s a whole huge debate in comparative psychology about whether animal intelligence is quantitativly different to man, ie they are similar to man but just not as bright, or qualitatively different ie no matter how long you train them, they are just never going to be smart. IIRC from my long ago psych degree, the discussoin was still open, to put it delicately, with a substantial number of the faculty pointing out that these chimp and gorilla researchers would never get any funding to continue with their research/ lifestyle (and lets be honest, if you raise a chimp as one of your own children, in your house, then there are also certain lifestyle choices being made) if they didn’t come up with some positive results sooner or later. I regard studies on chimps by their trainers/ owners in the same light as trials of new drugs run by pharmaceutical companies; not wrong, but to be interpreted with a degree of caution.

However, regarding the OP, rights aren’t granted on the basis of intelligence, or smarter people ought to have more rights than less smart ones. Further, rights also confer responsibilities, and can a chimp ever understand that, no matter how well he can sign?

Interesting topic for debate… I will call myself officially undecided.

I do recall reading (I’ll dig for a link) a while back about how some chimps/apes have a similar region of the brain to humans which it is believed allows our concept of “self” to form. Hence, you understand on some level that you are an independent agent moving about in the world and not just reacting to stimuli like a programmed robot - this would tend to make me think some sort of “protections” (if not “rights”) are called for.

Not the link I was looking for, but I found this an interesting read: