Re-Animalizing the Human / Humanizing the Animal

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
Perhaps my only unease stems from the argument of genetic correspondence and statistics. What is the numerical figure for non-humanness? I also am not totally confident about the impact of such legislation, given that our current human rights laws are not enforced with respect to certain humans, such as Muslim detainees in Guantanamo.

To me the idea that apes, monkeys, and humans were tightly related was very obvious since I was a small child, before I knew of anything called genetics. Moreover, what other children I knew also agreed with was that dogs shared, exchanged and communicated with us in such a way that, again, there was a strong sense of common bonds. To sit through a religion class, in a Catholic school, roughly around the age of seven, and hear the priest declare that “dogs have no souls,” “dogs don’t dream they just twitch in their sleep,” and “when dogs die they go nowhere,” left so many of us in class mortified and shocked that the priest could state such nasty lies, that I can assure the reader that there and then, in that very moment, he alienated at least two dozen Catholics for good. The rest of my years spent in Catholic schools would witness an endless series of challenges to Catholic doctrines from students, rebellious and pointed questions, met with looks of discomfort and very feeble attempts at any defense by priests and teachers. It was as if they themselves could not believe what they were preaching.

Far from the Catholic Church, but unfortunately not far enough, introductory anthropology textbooks still contain the standard statement about the uniqueness and specialness of humans as opposed to “animals.”