The Great Ape Project: Not so Great

If you have been involved in the animal rights movement for any length of time—indeed, if you have contributed only to one animal organization in your entire life—you probably receive a seemingly endless number of fundraising solicitations. Last week, as I was sorting through all of the many opportunities being offered to me to “help the animals” by writing a check, I noticed one from the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) asking for money to support “Project R&R: Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories.”

NEAVS tells us that chimpanzees “share 96% of our genes. They live in families, protect their young, form friendships, and express joy, sorrow and anger. They display intelligence, humor and compassion.” The theme of the campaign is that because chimpanzees have cognitive capacities and a genetic profile similar to ours—they are “real individuals, with unique personalities and needs just like you and me.” NEAVS seeks donations to launch an informational and legislative campaign to join those countries that have “banned or severely limited research on chimpanzees and other great apes.”

The NEAVS campaign and similar efforts—there are a number—are not new or original. In 1993, a number of scholars collaborated on a book of essays entitled The Great Ape Project (GAP). The book was accompanied by a document, “A Declaration on Great Apes,” to which the contributors subscribed. The Declaration states that the great apes “are the closest relatives of our species” and that these nonhumans “have mental capacities and an emotional life sufficient to justify inclusion within the community of equals.”

Since 1993, there have been efforts in several countries to limit or stop research on great apes. The idea behind these efforts is that because the nonhuman great apes have characteristics thought to be uniquely human, such as self-awareness, abstract thought, emotions, and the ability to communicate in a symbolic language, they are entitled to certain fundamental rights.

I certainly agree that it is wrong to use nonhuman great apes in research or in circuses, or to confine them in zoos, or to use them for any other purpose. But I reject what I call the “similar minds” position that links the moral status of nonhumans to their possession of humanlike cognitive characteristics. The exploitation of the nonhuman great apes is immoral for the same reason that is immoral to exploit the hundreds of millions of mice and rats who are routinely exploited in laboratories or the billions of nonhumans who we kill and eat: the nonhuman great apes and all of these other nonhumans are, like us, sentient. They are conscious; they are subjectively aware; they have interests; they can suffer. No characteristic other than sentience is required for personhood.

I was a contributor to GAP and an original signatory to the Declaration on Great Apes. Nevertheless, in my 1993 essay in the GAP book, and at greater length in my subsequent writing, I have expressed the view that only sentience is necessary for personhood. But I now see that the entire GAP project was ill-conceived and I regret my participation.

Efforts like GAP, Project R&R, and similar efforts are problematic because they suggest that a certain species of nonhuman is “special” based on similarity to humans. That does not challenge the speciesist hierarchy—it reinforces it—in at least two ways.

First, it suggests as an empirical matter that only nonhumans who have humanlike cognition have certain other characteristics when, in fact, these are shared by other species. For example, the Project R&R fundraiser tells us that chimpanzees have similar emotional reactions to humans and have complex social arrangements that they cannot pursue in a laboratory setting. I am certain that this is true, but I am also certain that rats are intelligent, emotional, and have complex social relationships that are very much frustrated when they are packed in plastic laboratory cages that are the size of shoe boxes.

Project R&R suggests that chimpanzees suffer more than do other laboratory animals. Maybe they do and maybe they do not. I do not know and neither does NEAVS or anyone else. Although chimpanzees are more like humans, perhaps, like humans, they have certain psychological mechanisms that allow them to “shut down” in the face of stress that rats, mice, and other sentient nonhumans do not have. In any event, it is very dangerous to play the “X suffers more than Y” game. This is precisely the mischief that has led us to think that the use of chimpanzees in research is justified in the first place—we supposedly suffer more than they do because we have even more of the “special” mental characteristics so it is acceptable to use them so that we can suffer less.

Second, GAP, Project R&R, and similar efforts suggest that cognitive characteristics beyond sentience have some moral value. That notion is very problematic. Let us assume that chimpanzees think “rationally” in the way that humans do. So what? Why is humanlike rationality any better than being able to fly with your wings—something that neither human nor nonhuman great apes can do? The answer, of course, is that we humans say it is. But this is not an argument. It is a classic example of begging the question.

We see this clearly where humans are involved. Assume we have a human who is very mentally disabled and does not have the cognitive capacities of a normal chimpanzee. So what? Does that mean that the disabled human matters less in a moral sense than the chimpanzee when it comes to the fundamental right not to be treated as a thing? Of course not (unless you accept Peter Singer’s views about disabled humans, which I and most of the rest of the world reject.). For purposes of whether we use the chimpanzee or the disabled human in a painful biomedical experiment or otherwise exclusively as a resource, the chimpanzee and the disabled human are equal—they are both individuals with an interest in not being used as a resource.

There are differences between chimpanzees and rats just as there are differences between humans. Such differences may be relevant for some purposes, but they are irrelevant as to whether we treat a sentient being exclusively as the resource of other, supposedly “superior” humans.

Those who consider themselves to be abolitionists and not welfarists should be very clear: We ought to stop exploiting all sentient nonhumans. We may want to start with great apes but we should make explicitly clear that this has nothing to do with their being “like us” except in so far as they, like us, are sentient and we have no moral justification for treating any sentient nonhuman exclusively as a human resource. The risk of GAP, Project R&R, and other similar campaigns, which are based on the notion that the moral and legal status of nonhuman great apes depends on their being cognitively “like us,” is that we will further entrench a speciesist paradigm and ensure that 99.9999% of the nonhumans who we routinely exploit remain on the “thing” side of the person/thing division.

We do not need to fund educational programs about the similarity between human and nonhuman great apes. Those similarities are clear and they have been for years and we still continue to exploit the nonhuman great apes in laboratories, zoos, and circuses. Those obvious similarities have not even moved Jane Goodall to call for the abolition of the use of nonhuman great apes in vivisection. What is needed is to shift the paradigm altogether and not merely to reinforce the same hierarchical thinking that has gotten us to where we are today.

Some animal advocates argue that a campaign that links moral significance with human characteristics is acceptable because the recognition of the personhood of great apes may well lead to recognizing the personhood of other nonhumans. But focusing on the humanlike cognitive characteristics of some nonhumans who are declared to be “special” is like having a human rights campaign that focuses on giving rights to the “smarter” humans first in the hope that we will extend rights to less intelligent ones later on, or treating those with only one black parent as better because they are more like whites. We would certainly reject that elitism where humans are concerned. We should similarly reject it where nonhumans are concerned.

Gary L. Francione
© 2006 Gary L. Francione