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If apes are people, we aren’t (but that’s the point, right?)

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If apes were really like people/Hannes Richter, Unsplash

Many people don’t take the time to think out the implications of the “apes are people” movement:

We live in profoundly anti-human times. Progressive cultural movements across a broad array of issues, from bioethics to environmentalism, seek to push us off the pedestal of unique value in both culture and public policy.

Many academics, biological scientists, and evolutionary philosophers have joined the anti-human crusade. Most recently, a “manifesto” published in the science journal Human Evolution declares that chimpanzees and bonobos (together, the two species constitute the genus Pan) should be considered legal “persons,” “emancipated” from human control, and granted fundamental, legally enforceable “rights.”

“Apes Are People Too”

How do the scientist and philosopher authors justify their “apes are people too” conclusion? By blatantly anthropomorphizing the animals’ natural behavior — an approach pioneered by the primatologist Jane Goodall, who attributed thoughts and motivations to the animals she wrote about in the science papers she published. (Unsurprisingly, the preparation of the manifesto was supported, in part, by the Jane Goodall Institute.) The manifesto authors assert, for example, that chimpanzees and bonobos have “culture” and “language” and that therefore they should be viewed as morally equivalent to primitive human hunter-gatherers.

There is no question that chimpanzees are remarkable animals, and we certainly should treat them humanely. For example, they are highly social, and so it is cruel to isolate them in cages.

Wesley J. Smith, “Chimpanzee Liberation? Why Animal Rights and Human Rights Cannot Coexist” at Evolution News and Science Today:

In the war on human exceptionalism, you and I are in the sights. Diminishing human exceptionalism, and thus human rights is a problem for some but a solution for others. It is a very promising market for oppressive bureaucracy.

One factor that helps diminish awareness of the fact of human exceptionality is the promotion of “buzz” concepts around animal intelligence that are not supported by the histories of disciplines and fall apart under scrutiny. But any time one fails (apes can be taught to talk!), another rises, seamlessly, in its place (elephants can be taught to communicate via high tech!). No one ever calls any of these people to account.

No, it is not a conspiracy. It’s just a genuine belief among people who take their unrealistic beliefs seriously:

A look at some of the “buzz” concepts that keep impossible ideas alive: Researchers: Apes are just like us. And we’re not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way… In 2011, we were told in Smithsonian Magazine, “‘Talking’ apes are not just the stuff of science fiction; scientists have taught many apes to use some semblance of language.” Have they? If so, why has it all subsided? What happened?


Elephants who fly—or become “persons”— are magic Okay, it’s impossible. But then why do thinkers who don’t believe the one believe the other? For decades, researchers were transfixed with the idea of humanizing great apes by raising them among humans and teaching them language. Emerging from the ruins and recriminations of the collapse, philosophy prof Don Ross has a new idea: Let’s start with elephants instead.

Also: Human-ape similarity shows humans are exceptional. If man is an animal biologically, but so unlike an animal cognitively, the obvious implication is that some aspect of the human mind is not biological. (Michael Egnor)

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