Thursday, April 23, 2015

State of the Apes

Is this a person?
Earlier this week, a New York judge agreed to hear arguments regarding the possibility of granting Chimpanzees subjected to medical experiments status as 'legal persons' for purposes of defending them against such experiments.  This comes a few months after an Argentina court granted an Orangutan 'basic rights' resulting in freeing the animal from a zoo.

These small steps are perhaps symbolic of slowly changing global attitudes toward animals with higher capacity for behavior and expression.  Certainly such rulings would seem absurd a century ago.  Apes are genetically our biological cousins and are increasingly viewed as possessing greater (human-like) intelligence and emotional range compared with other animals.  They seem to possess the qualities of what humans typically define as a 'person.'


It has been observed for years that certain apes use tools to accomplish tasks.  They can improvise very well, as was seen a few days ago when one whacked an irritating drone with a stick. A Chimpanzee did that.  Chimps demonstrate particular understanding and the ability to learn, as one group indicated by looking both ways before crossing a road in Uganda.


Whether captive or in the wild, Chimps show remarkable expressive range and considerable language skills.  When a group was transferred from the Netherlands to Scotland, they actually picked up Scottish accents when communicating. The "grunts" of Chimps are more meaningful than they might first appear.  They change vocalizations as they discover new things or experiences - just as humans linguistically do.


Many Chimps have been taught sign language to engage in more exacting, high-level communication with human beings. Read this incredible story of one Chimp who was able to discuss her miscarriage with a human caretaker.  When given another baby to raise, the Chimp understood the situation via sign language and she even taught sign language to her orphaned baby.  Think about the emotional and intellectual complexity of this situation.  Seems more like a 'person' than a goldfish to me.


The language ability reflects higher levels of conscious experience and it is by no means limited to Chimps. Scientists at Durham University in the UK have recently translated the calls of Gibbons, revealing a very complex vocabulary of vocalizations - words, in fact.


Just as with humans, this higher intelligence has its darker side.  Years ago I blogged about tribal warfare among apes. Recently, a Gorilla took offense to children imitating the behavior of the apes in a Nebraska zoo.  The ape charged the children with such force that he cracked the glass enclosure of their observation area. 


Complex reasoning by Rhesus monkeys was videoed in India last year.  After one monkey was rendered unconscious by an electrical shock at a rail station, another monkey attempted several different techniques to revive its unfortunate companion, demonstrating a high-level awareness of the situation and the ability to improvise using what was available to resuscitate the monkey.  


Such complex behavior and communicative competence might be behind Pope Francis implying that not only monkeys but other animals possess souls and can go to heaven - just like humans.


Humans and the so-called Great Apes (Gorillas, Chimps, etc.) can recognize themselves in a mirror. Most animals are incapable of this, suggesting that, as far as sight is concerned anyway, they do not have a higher-level sense of Self.  But Rhesus monkeys can overcome this limitation, suggesting that a sense of Self is present in them yet undetectable by the "mirror test."  These monkeys can be taught to recognize themselves, reflecting an enormous capacity for learning and discovery and self-appreciation that most animals do not possess or cannot physically experience.


The simple fact is, much of what we attribute as "human" such as language, ideas, emotional understanding, self-understanding, is not really all that unique to humans.  It applies to a variety of animals in our world.  The workings of our brains are not all that special, just more complex.


Human beings have created the Anthropocene.  As such, we are encroaching into (and controlling) more and more ecosystems on Planet Earth.  This makes it more difficult for Apes to avoid humanity than ever before.  So, perhaps it is well and good that we are considering the legal status and possible 'personhood' of these magnificently complex, high-reasoning, emotional creatures.  As we expand the influence of our species wouldn't it be great if we became more inclusive of the animal kingdom?  


What separates us from Great Apes is a differentiation of minor degree rather than a difference in basic nature.  By bringing them closer to us we might just develop behavioral patterns as a species that will benefit the whole ecology of the planet.  So, Apes might be teaching us the way forward.

Late Note:  Still following events regarding Chimpanzees in particular.  The latest news...

Chimpanzee lawyers argue for animal rights in a New York court.

An article on cannibal warrior Chimps.

Chimps probably possess advanced cooking skills (if they only had a way to make fire).

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