I was listening to the BBC's Culture Shock radio program recently, and they were talking about the Great Ape Project. I hadn't heard of it, but what it aims to do is to push people to think about that line between humans and animals, and to recognize how close our kinship really is to the other great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas). They are pushing for something similar to the declaration of human rights to apply to all great apes (humans are also classified as great apes), or what they call "the community of equals". Their declaration seeks to guarantee the right to life, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture for all great apes.
The Great Ape Project claims that:
The idea is founded upon undeniable scientific proof that non-human great apes share more than genetically similar DNA with their human counterparts. They enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and happiness. They share the intellectual capacity to create and use tools, learn and teach other languages. They remember their past and plan for their future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.
I had heard before that great apes could teach each other language. They can learn American Sign Language, and then use it to communicate with humans, and once they have learned it they have been observed teaching it to their children. And I had heard that they grieve in the same way as we do when a member of their community is killed. I read about a center where people are providing post-traumatic counelling to great apes rescued from poachers, who have often been mistreated. There have been cases where, if a young great ape's parents are killed in front of it, it will go into what for all appearances is shock, stop eating, and die. (Can't find a link to it, unfortunately)
Christianity holds that we as human beings have a special place above all other life. But what careful investigation is showing more and more is that some forms of life at least are much more similar to us than we used to think, and it might be wrong to treat them as "others". The worst atrocities in our history involved treating other human beings as inhuman, unlike "us", not sharing our special status. But if great apes are thinking creatures, shouldn't they be treated with an equal level of respect?
I wonder, if in response to this, anyone who is religious is going to think "But we have souls, animals don't", or something similar. If anyone reading this is thinking that, I would like to ask you two questions:
1. What evidence do you have that human beings have souls?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for (1), what evidence do you have that no other form of life whatsoever has a soul? If God gave us souls, why must we be the only ones?
[UPDATE: This post was written almost two weeks ago, just scheduled to publish now because I knew I wouldn't be blogging for a couple of weeks but still wanted some content out there. After it was written, I had a conversation with Paul, where his response was "Of course everything has a soul, that's what makes it alive. It's just that humans have immortal souls.
So, revised questions for those who believe everything has a soul, but humans are the only ones that have immortal ones:
1. What evidence do you have that everything has a soul?
2. If you have sufficient evidence for this, what evidence do you have that the human soul is immortal?
3. If you have sufficient evidence for 1 and 2, what evidence do you have that we're the only ones?
Truthfully, the whole idea of the soul seems very tenuous to me, and I'm wondering why people believe it, aside from that it would be nice if it was true...].
In order to dehumanize great apes on the basis of the idea of the soul, you would have to prove both 1 and 2 [UPDATE: or 1, 2, and 3] conclusively. If you think your line of reasoning is probable, but you can't prove it conclusively, I have another question:
Do you want to risk shrugging off the killing of something that might have a soul[/immortal soul]?
On the basis of scientific evidence, the Spanish parliament has now endorsed the Great Ape Project's declaration, and the great ape project is continuing to push for it to be more widely adopted.
Questions to think about (and answer in the comments if you like):
1. How much of a distinction should we draw between humans and other animals?
2. What do you base your answer on?
3. What are the moral implications of your position?