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Leading Scientist Says Chimpanzees Should Have Moral Standing

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center Field Station are housed in multi-generational social groups.

If you want to understand human nature, learn from other animals – especially chimpanzees.

That’s the word from one of the world’s experts on chimpanzee behavior, Frans de Waal. He’s been studying chimpanzees for nearly 40 years, mostly at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center Field Station, and he likes to remind us that our behavior, our relationships, the way we love, the way we fight, our political systems and intrigues, the way we do business, and so much more, are all rooted deeply in our history as apes.

(And it’s not simply that we descended from apes; it’s that we ARE apes, closely related in every way to the other great apes who are our cousins.)

None of this is changed by the fact that we humans like to tell ourselves that we are different – in how we talk of “human exceptionalism” and say that our intelligence, emotions and other skills are unique to humankind. De Waal’s work shows how flawed that whole idea is. One of his books, Chimpanzee Politics – Power and Sex among Apes, follows the rivalries and coalitions of members of the group over several years, showing that their actions are governed by intelligence rather than instinct, and that they find endless parallels in our own behavior as humans.

In a new article in the scientific journal PLoS Biology, de Waal looks at the recent report that was commissioned by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to evaluate the scientific need for using chimpanzees in biomedical research. Given what we know about the cognitive, social, emotional, and cultural attributes of chimpanzees, de Waal argues, the question is fundamentally an ethical one. His answer is straightforward: If, and only if, it’s ethical to do it to human volunteers, is it OK to do on chimpanzees.

We would go a step further and note that the chimpanzees aren’t volunteers. But de Waal’s argument still takes just about all chimpanzee research off the table. And while his own work does involve keeping several groups in captivity, he is not involved in invasive research – nor does he support it. Overall, in recent years, he has become increasingly outspoken about the ethics of conducting medical research on chimpanzees.

Accompanying de Waal’s article in PLoS Biology is an interview with the journal’s senior science writer Liza Gross, who asks: Should chimpanzees have moral standing?

De Waal says they should. He notes first that there’s nothing fundamentally different between human brains and chimpanzee brains:

“The human brain is much bigger than, let’s say, the chimpanzee brain. It’s three times bigger. But there’s nothing in there as far as we can tell that is not in a chimpanzee brain. At the microscopic level there are a few differences and they’re probably interesting, but you would think if humans are so dramatically different, as different as the philosophers have often assumed, that you would find something in the human brain that is absolutely unique and that you would say, ‘Well, there’s a part there that no one else has,’ but we have never found it.”

While the NIH report says that one area of experimentation on chimpanzees could still be acceptable – testing vaccines for hepatitis C – de Waal says that as a scientist, he disagrees even with that single case.

“That kind of testing would require large numbers because you want statistical power. Now, the NIH owns less than 1,000 chimps, which can certainly not all be used for that kind of testing, so we’re talking about a small sample of a couple of hundred that could potentially be used, which is not sufficient to do anything dramatic. So I don’t see it as a viable option.

“Even if we had the numbers I would have questions like, Is this the best use for an animal that we consider ethically problematic to be used, because you’re going to be virally infecting them, which is something that I would want to avoid at this point.”

Why is he against experimentation on great apes?

“I don’t want to do that kind of thing on the chimpanzee because they are so mentally and psychologically close to us. Most people of my generation and younger who work with this species share this feeling. It’s almost like you’re working with humans, you know, they are very closely related to us.”

What should happen to the chimpanzees current in research facilities?

“We should retire them in large social groups and hopefully still in environments in which some limited, non-invasive studies, like behavioral studies, can still be done.”

De Waal says that while it used to be common for scientists to say that nonhuman animals don’t have the same kinds of emotions as humans, that belief has been seriously undermined.

“The taboo on animal emotions is crumbling very rapidly and I think the behavioral scientists who are still reluctant, they need to catch up with what is happening. My feeling has always been that it’s very hard to find an emotion that humans have that a chimpanzee cannot have.

“I sometimes think of guilt and shame as the only ones that are maybe left. But even for those I could make the argument that they are not as uniquely human as we often think.

“But all the rest, definitely, like jealousy and affection and anger, all these kind of emotions, the physiological and behavioral signs are there and increasingly also the neurological signs, so I see no reason to keep that completely separate between human and animal.”

You can read the full interview here.