Of Primates and Personhood

Frontier / by Ed Yong /

Will according rights and "dignity" to nonhuman organisms halt research?

Guhonda, a Silverback gorilla from the Sabyinyo tribe of gorillas who occupy the Virunga valley on the border of Rwanda and Uganda. Photograph courtesy of youngrobv.

Two major legal developments in the past few months are deepening a schism between leading primatologists, biologists, and ethicists around the world. A pending Spanish law that would grant unprecedented protections to great apes, and a recent extension to a Swiss law that protects the “dignity” of organisms, are the latest fronts in a battle to redefine the meaning of human rights, and indeed whether such rights are the exclusive domain of humans.

At the forefront of the battle is the Great Ape Project (GAP). Established in 1993, it demands a basic set of moral and legal rights for chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans. This June, GAP persuaded the Spanish Parliament’s environmental committee to approve a resolution supporting those goals.

Other countries, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand, have taken steps to protect great apes from experimentation, but this is the first time that actual rights would be extended to apes. The resolution establishes a set of laws based on GAP’s principles, which Spain promises to implement by the end of the year. Those laws would ban the use of apes in experiments or entertainment or commercial ventures, and they would set higher standards for their conditions in captivity. The message is clear: These animals are not property. “It’s a historic breakthrough in reducing the barrier between humans and nonhuman animals,” says Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher and the head of GAP.

Not everyone is comfortable with GAP’s rights-based approach, however. Primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University says, “I do think we have special obligations to the great apes as our closest relatives, but if we give rights to apes, what would be the compelling reason not to give rights to monkeys, dogs, rats, and so on?”

GAP’s goals are, for now, focused on apes, but Singer agrees that there is no clear place to draw the line. “Speaking personally, I feel we should extend rights to a wide range of nonhuman animals,” he says. “All creatures that can feel pain should have a basic moral status.”

That list would include other mammals, including the bulls regularly killed in Spanish stadiums. This iconic sport, along with Spain’s lack of any ape research of its own, makes it an odd location from which to launch an opening salvo. Nevertheless, it’s where GAP’s efforts first gained traction, and it will be the origin of future efforts.

Such moves are already under way. “The Green Party in Germany is preparing two bills supporting the Great Ape Project,” says GAP’s Pedro Pozas. In Austria this August, GAP member David Diaz visited Hiasl, a former research chimpanzee who has become an ape-rights icon as his sanctuary faces bankruptcy and he faces homelessness. Hiasl’s fate hangs on being legally declared a person, an effort in line with GAP’s greater mission. The matter is now being debated in the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights.
In the US, there is greater resistance to the idea of ape rights, though Congress has begun to make inroads. In April, three representatives, including former animal researcher Roscoe Bartlett, introduced a bill called the Great Ape Protection Act. It calls for scientists to cease invasive research on great apes and “rigorously apply existing alternatives” but stops short of extending rights to the animals themselves. Weaker than its Spanish counterpart, the bill would nevertheless have an impact in a country that performs more ape research than any other.

In the EU, renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall has called for a gradual end to all biomedical animal experimentation. However, the paragon of the animal rights movement is the unaligned nation in the EU’s midst. Switzerland’s strict constitutional laws on animal experiments are based on a slippery concept; since 1992, they have demanded that researchers respect the “dignity of creation.” They protect animals from “unjustified interventions on their appearance, from humiliation and being disproportionately instrumentalized.” As of September 1, these laws even require that animal owners keep social species, such as dogs, goldfish, and guinea pigs, in groups of two or more.

At its most extreme, the Swiss concept of dignity could soon be applied to plants. A discussion paper by the Federal Ethics Committee on Non- Human Biotechnology defines the “decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason” as “morally impermissible.” While this clause is generally viewed as being rhetorical, more worrisome is the Committee’s preliminary stance on the genetic engineering of plants: only permissible if their “reproductive ability and adaptive ability are ensured.”

Kevan Martin, of Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology, is one researcher whose work has already been affected by this dignity-based approach. He uses live macaques to understand how the brain changes during learning, and his experiments have been approved by ethical reviews many times over. But in 2006 the Swiss Health Department refused to renew Martin’s licence after a local advisory committee protested that his work had no immediate clinical relevance. “The result is that basic science on primates is effectively not possible,” says Martin. “This research is not a luxury. The failure of gene therapy and AIDS vaccines is due to pressure to produce ‘cures’ before understanding the underlying biological mechanisms, which cannot be accessed by experiments with humans.”

In the US, Edwin McConkey, a biologist on the team that initially proposed the Chimpanzee Genome Project, agrees that apes should be treated with more respect. He acknowledges, however, that there is at least one area in which applying human standards to apes would hinder important experimentation. “To understand the genetic basis for human uniqueness, it is necessary to compare both gene structure and gene expression in humans and apes,” says McConkey. “This means obtaining early embryos from apes by surgical termination of pregnancy.”

One kind of primate experiment seems to be safe in this debate. “I would strongly argue for continued noninvasive studies,” says de Waal, “ones we wouldn’t mind applying to human volunteers.” Far from harming apes, such research could even enrich their lives — the chimpanzees that de Waal works with are so enamored of computers that they will actually line up for cognitive tests. Once their work is done, many can now be relocated to places like ChimpHaven, an outdoor facility that acts as a retirement home.

De Waal sits on that facility’s board of directors. The care it extends to chimps is typical of the approach he favors. “What if we drop all this talk of rights and instead advocate a sense of obligation?” he asks. “In the same way that we teach children to respect a tree by mentioning its age, we should use the new insights into animals’ mental life to foster in humans an ethic of caring in which our interests are not the only ones in the balance.”

Originally published December 12, 2008

Tags decision making ethics law leadership policy research

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