On July 13th, the New York Times ran an article exploring Spain’s push for the rights of primates. Under the purported new law, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans will be protected from murder, torture, medical experimentation and “arbitrary imprisonment, including for circuses or films.” Though this bill seems novel on the surface, there have been close analogues in the past. And, at the heart of Spain’s decision lies an introspective inquiry into the fundamentals of human nature.
In historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Humankind: A Brief History, a number of examples of nonhuman animals being afforded the responsibilities and rights of humans are explored. Medieval and early modern Europe saw homicidal animals tried before execution (and sometime acquitted). During the same period, trials of rats, mice, and locusts were common in China. According to the historian, these acts were commonplace until about 300 years ago.
The difference between these trials of the past and the current work of the Great Ape Project, is that of detail, implementation and underlying rationale. Unlike the retaliatory rationale of the past, the reasoning behind the inclusion of inalienable rights for Great Apes is that with between 95 and 98.7 percent similar DNA, they are our closes ancestors. With that rationale, lesser apes such as gibbons and other hylobatidaes are excluded. In regards to implementation and detail, specific sets of rights have been given (the right from murder, capture and confinement) while others have been excluded (to vote, bear arms, drive a vehicle) and these rights are to be actively enforced. A big difference when compared to the capricious whims of an upset citizenry over a flock of birds excreting on a shrine. But, what does this Spanish development have to do with the core issues of humanity?
Firstly, the definition of humankind has been steadily increasing throughout the ages. From the pygmies to the “hottentots” (The San), to the aborigines, like a net, the term “human” has recently been cast over each. In the past, each of these groups were relegated to the class “subhuman” and endured everything from revulsion to systematic killing. And, as Donald McNiel Jr. reminded us in the NY Times article, let us not forget the forced “status” of blacks in society just a blink of an eye ago chronologically. Blacks were said to have no soul, were treated as property and under the U.S. constitution were regarded as 3/5 of a person. The widening of the term “human” has had several affects. On one level it has augmented what it means to be human. It has also afforded more rights to countless individuals, but as a word of caution, the battles of these groups is far from over.
This brings us to our next point – how far should these battles for human rights go, and should certain newcomers (like the Great Apes) have augmented human rights?
To answer this question we as a species must seriously asses who we are and what we want. Should the lesser apes be granted a handicapped version of the rights of the Great Apes; perhaps it should be determined by the percentage of similarity their DNA is to ours? Should this sliding-scale DNA rule be applied to the rest of the animal kingdom?
Turning our attention to future changes within the human gene pool, as genetic engineering of the human genome has a high degree of probability in the near future, what rights should be afforded to humans with augmented DNA?
Though some may dismiss these inquiries as theoretical, they are central not only to our existence, but to the existence of the world we interact with – biological and non-biological. The manner in which we traverse physical reality is dependent upon the way we see ourselves – what our place is in existence, where we wish to go and what we hope to achieve.