Related to one of the earliest posts on this blog, it was very exciting to see an announcement on the AAA Human Rights Blog, “Great Apes Receive Human Rights,” that speaks of some very interesting news of the extension of human rights legislation to cover gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. The BBC in “Should apes have human rights?” speaks of the growing international movement to grant personhood to animals. (Talk about the “monkey smashing heaven.”)
In addition, the environment committee of the Spanish parliament voted to extend human rights to great apes. According to Donald McNeil in The New York Times, “When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans:”
The committee would bind Spain to the principles of the [United Nations’] Great Ape Project, which points to apes’ human qualities, including the ability to feel fear and happiness, create tools, use languages, remember the past and plan the future. The project’s directors, Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist, and Paola Cavalieri, an Italian philosopher, regard apes as part of a “community of equals” with humans.
Also of especial interest in the NYT piece is the following extract on changing definitions of “human,” supremacy and colonialism:
Ten years ago, I stood in a clearing in the Cameroonian jungle, asking a hunter to hold up for my camera half the baby gorilla he had split and butterflied for smoking.
My distress — partly faked, since I was also feeling triumphant, having come this far hoping to find exactly such a scene — struck him as funny. “A gorilla is still meat,” said my guide, a former gorilla hunter himself. “It has no soul.”
So he agrees with Spain’s bishops. But it was an interesting observation for a West African to make. He looked much like the guy on the famous engraving adopted as a coat of arms by British abolitionists: a slave in shackles, kneeling to either beg or pray. Below it the motto: Am I Not a Man, and a Brother?
Whether or not Africans had souls — whether they were human in God’s eyes, capable of salvation — underlay much of the colonial debate about slavery. They were granted human rights on a sliding scale: as slaves, they were property; in the United States Constitution a slave counted as only three-fifths of a person.
The BBC (same link above) also lists what its sources consider to be the key features of the great apes that make them eligible for benefiting from some human rights (such as the freedom from murder and torture):
- Gorillas, bonobos, orangutans and chimps are great apes
- Chimpanzees and bonobos differ from humans by only 1% of DNA and could accept a blood transfusion or a kidney
- All great apes recognise themselves in a mirror
- Elephants and dolphins show similar self-awareness
- Great apes can learn and use human languages through signs or symbols but lack the vocal anatomy to master speech
- Great apes have displayed love, fear, anxiety and jealousy