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26 February 2004 Edition

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Why our primate siblings should have human rights

In his latest examination of humankind's ever advancing technological progress and scientific discoveries, MICK DERRIG argues that primates should be afforded the same rights enjoyed by humans.

The discovery of DNA by Crick and Brown in the 1950s and the ability to isolate and mark DNA in the 1980s has had profound effects on how we consider our species in relation to others.

If you were raised in a Eurocentric Christian household, then you will have been informed that "dumb animals" were created by God, but not in God's own image. That special place was set aside for us homo sapiens.

There is, of course, no objective evidence that God made man in his/her/its own image. There is a hillside of evidence from every human culture on the planet — contemporary and historical — that humans have made and remade their deities to suit their own material experience at that time.

As human experience changed, so did our view of the deities that comforted us. Gods and Goddesses soothed our nasty, brutal short lives with the certainty that there was "something else". To contemplate the reality that this is all there is still too much for most of the planet, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is no deity.

Think about our ancestors, huddled round fires without a scintilla of scientific knowledge to explain the terrible plagues and natural disasters that cut short their awful lives. Developing a belief in God made good survival sense. Any survival school worth its salt hammers home to would be castaways the importance of a positive mental attitude. That is any God's utility function.

There isn't, of course, "anything else".

The question "is there life before death?" is, here, very appropriate.

The Religious Right has been an enemy of science since Galileo's time. As the USA became the dominant force in the world, it was to be expected that the dominant religion of that society would become the main enemy of the scientific project.

The Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 in Tennessee was a show trial that made manifest the ideas of that particular ruling class. Protestant fundamentalism ruled in the Southern States and science was seen as un-Biblical, which it is.

It is, of course, no coincidence that this haven of free thinking provided Big Ian Paisley with his doctorate.

The most pilloried and misunderstood parish in the social sciences at the moment is Evolutionary Psychology. It doesn't look at what people say they do, or aspire to, but actually what they really do — especially when they think no one is looking.

Having got such reliable data, these scientists then look for comparable patterns in the animal kingdom — especially among our primate relatives. It has continued to uncover that we are much more like animals and animals much more like us than previous generations had been led to believe.

It is not now incontestable that religion was a product of evolution — it has a survival benefit. People who believe in a deity have longer, happier lives than atheists like Derrig. So the practice of religion itself establishes that humans — and the cultures we create — are proof positive of the existence of evolution and our place in it.

What science now knows is that we share 98% — yes 98% — common DNA with the Bonobo, also known as the Pygmy chimp. Scientists who work with these wee people consistently relate that on a one-to-one basis, they are eerily human.

They are highly organised socially, absolutely sex mad they have a wide repertoire of sexual positions. Unlike other primates, they mate face to face — just like we do. They have the "copulatory gaze", that is they look into each other's eyes before they go at it.

It is now, because of IVF and what we know of the genome of both species, scientifically feasible to have a crossbreed 'Humanzee' (please, no DUP jokes) just as horses and donkeys are crossbred to produce mules.

In cognitive tests, chimpanzees outstrip human infants for a considerable length of time.

The 'Chimpanzees' tea party so loved by the British of yesteryear was actually a piece of ironic theatre. The chimps had to be taught to make a mess at the table. They were well able to figure out how to use cups, plates, etc in an appropriate manner. Chimps who are introduced to human domestic arrangements have no problems in adapting to the foibles of their nearest relatives.

In the 1960s, a female chimp, Washoe, was raised in the USA as a deaf child and was signed to in America Sign Language. The humans around her never used spoken language.

When she communicated with her 'parents', Washoe produced sentences akin to that of a two-and-a-half-year-old human child. Primatologists looking anew at our cousins in the wild discerned that a basic sign language was at work.

They also have discovered that chimps express moral outrage if a member of the clan goes back on an agreement. Therefore, they have an understanding of values and ethics and that a deal is a deal.

Science has also proven beyond anyone's reasonable doubt that the higher primates are self-conscious. They know they are unique. They recognise themselves in mirrors -- unlike cats and dogs, who just see a rival and unknowingly square up to their own image. Chimps see themselves.

We are blessed with extra frontal lobes in our brains, a stronger lower back, opposable thumbs and better vocal chords. That is the extra advantage that evolution has given us.

If we are so close to the other primates, what then makes us — in the religious worldview — so different from these other apes? We are surely apes — a product of the same evolution that produced Bonobos, lemurs, tree frogs, cheetahs and antelopes.

So where does the "immortal soul" come in?

As man made God in his own image, so he changed the rules about the place of animals in the scheme of things once he started to domesticate them. It is no coincidence that hunter-gatherer societies, who live in symbiosis with the beasts of the forest, have a very different worldview of animals than agricultural societies.

Where the lord of the hunt becomes the lord is my shepherd, don't expect much respect for the dominated domesticates in the field.

There is no objective reason, other than the prejudice laid down by the religious right, that says we are special because God created us.

If there is such a thing as human rights, then there is no reason why those special rights should not be afforded to chimpanzees. That would have serious implications for zoos and the scientific community, whose treatment of our primate siblings, as with other inmates of their labs, is nothing short of scandalous.

The Renaissance in Europe represented the break out of the human mind, the first defeat in Western Europe for religious superstition and the power of the Church over learning.

Once science established a foothold in the affairs of men (at that stage in human history women didn't even merit a mention — once all men were included in the discourse then it became possible for women to start marching) then there was no rolling it back.

We live in a Western Europe that is increasingly secular. God has little place in our discourses. The recent debate about the place of God in the new EU constitution would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. The new Europe's civic discourse will be closer to Camus than Dana.

Cultures evolve. The religious are tolerated by a secular majority. The next stage in that journey must be to deconstruct any notion that we are anything but a product of evolution. To grant our nearest relatives the same rights that we agree every human on the planet should have just because we are of this species would be of huge symbolic importance.

It would signal the final defeat — in Europe at any rate — for the creation myth as peddled by Christians for millennia. No creation myth means no Creator. No Creator means the dawning of a future that is truly humanist.

If we accept our familial responsibilities to the remaining 30,000 higher primates in the will — and those we keep captive for our entertainment and experimentation — then we can build a worldview that might start us behaving in a way that gives this planet and the rest of its tenants a fighting chance for survival.

Monkey Trial Background

When the anti-evolution Butler Act was passed in Tennessee in March 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a campaign seeking someone to challenge this law that forbade the teaching of evolution in Tennessee's public schools. George W Rappleyea of Dayton read an ACLU advert and decided that the potential publicity generated by such a challenge would be a good way to attract businesses and industries to his town.

Although John Scopes was never actually sure he taught evolution (he was a high-school coach who had substituted for the biology teacher during the last few weeks of the school year), he volunteered to challenge the law which made it "unlawful for any teacher" in any of the public schools of the state "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals". Scopes went to trial.

William Jennings Bryan was called in to assist the prosecution, while famed defence lawyer, Clarence Darrow, led the defence. A carnival atmosphere pervaded Dayton as the opening of the trial approached in July of 1925. Banners decorated the streets. Lemonade stands were set up. Chimpanzees, said to have been brought to town to testify for the prosecution, performed in a side show on Main Street. The trial began on 10 July 1925 and lasted several days. A team of scientists and even theologians travelled to Dayton to help the Scopes' defence (although their testimony was not part of the trial, it is recorded in the transcripts) and to proclaim that evolution was true and that the law should therefore be struck down. The statements of the experts were widely reported by the press, helping Darrow succeed in his efforts to turn the trial into a national biology lesson.

After Darrow questioned Bryan on the witness stand, and before Bryan could do the same to his counterpart, Darrow decided to have Scopes plead guilty in order to avoid being examined by Bryan on the stand. The confrontation between Bryan and Darrow was reported by the press as a defeat for Bryan.

Scopes was fined $100. This conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

The Scopes trial by no means ended the debate over the teaching of evolution, but it did represent a significant setback for the anti-evolution forces. Of the 15 states with anti-evolution legislation pending in 1925, only two states (Arkansas and Mississippi) enacted laws restricting teaching of Darwin's theory.

A Summary of Project Washoe

In 1966, under the direction of Drs Beatrice and Allen Gardner, Project Washoe became the first attempt to teach sign language to a chimpanzee. The goal of this fascinating programme was to discover whether and to what degree a chimpanzee could learn American Sign Language.

The project began when Washoe was approximately ten months old. She had been wild-caught in Africa the previous year by the Air Force, but was acquired by the Gardners to participate in their study. Knowing that human children learn language best in the best possible environment, Washoe was raised as though she were a deaf human child in an enriching, stimulating, naturalistic home setting. She was raised by human caregivers, who initially only used American Sign Language to communicate with her and between themselves. Daily routines included meals, naps, play and schooling.

Previous attempts had been made to teach chimpanzees vocal speech, but these attempts failed. Although chimpanzees are quite capable of understanding vocal speech, their vocal apparatus cannot produce the human variety of speech sounds. This, coupled with chimpanzees' natural habits of using gestures extensively to communicate in the wild, contributed to the Gardners' decision to teach chimpanzees a natural gestural language, rather than a spoken one.

Chimpanzees are very social animals, reflecting the enormous complexity of social behaviours found in humans. Chimpanzee infant development closely resembles that of human infants, including nurturing relationships with their mothers, siblings, peers, and other relatives. Thus, Project Washoe incorporated chimpanzees' natural gestural abilities, replicated a natural home environment of a deaf human child, and provided the rich social setting necessary for a healthy chimpanzee.

Within four years, Washoe acquired 132 signs of ASL. Washoe interacted with friends and strangers as she asked for goods and services, answered questions with verbal descriptions, and commented about the world around her. Washoe also signed to herself while she was alone, indicating that her signs were not mere imitations of her caregivers' signs. As soon as Washoe learned about eight signs, she used them in meaningful combinations, engaging her human friends in conversations and interactions, such as YOU ME HIDE and YOU ME GO OUT THERE HURRY.

The methods used to teach Washoe her first signs included shaping, moulding and modelling. Later, as in human language development, imitation became important as she was continually exposed to a full range of adult communication. Washoe's signs were confirmed by thousands of fluent ASL observers, in person and by video. Observers reliably identified Washoe's signs under double-blind conditions, whereby at least two observers independently observed Washoe's signs without seeing the stimulus themselves.

For the entirety of Project Washoe, detailed records were kept of her vocabulary, development and daily behaviours. Washoe's confirmed signs became part of her reliable vocabulary only after meeting strict requirements. Once a sign had been reported on three independent occasions by three different observers, the sign had to occur spontaneously and appropriately at least once on each of 15 consecutive days to become reliable. This tough criteria actually underestimated Washoe's vocabulary.

Project Washoe (in its original form) ended when she was about five years old. At that time, her sign language progress was rapidly accelerating, and there seemed no sign that her intellectual development was levelling off. In fact, the acceleration of her linguistic abilities was so great that new developments could not be recorded using the stringent daily re-assessment procedures used early in her development. In the wild, chimpanzees reach adulthood between 12 and 16 years, and there was every reason to suspect that if Project Washoe could have continued in its original form through this critical developmental period, her language would have continued to mature.

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