Do chimpanzees have legal rights? This is an issue that keeps popping up fairly regularly, as you can see if you google it. It can be considered a spin-off of the larger issue of animal rights in general, which has been debated ad infinitum for a long time. Chimps (and their cousins the bonobos) are right up front in the larger debate because they are closely related to humans and display many human qualities. There have been lots of arguments pro and con, both legal and philosophical. Let’s ignore these arguments for now and see whether we can adduce some guidance from explicitly humanist principles.
We know that like other species, our ancestors became different from their ancestors through a gradual, step by step process; we parted from our erectus cousins relatively recently, in terms of the evolutionary time scale.
Why don’t we see that transition as just another small evolutionary change? Well, when we became human we switched gears. Until then there had been only biological evolution and the process that drove it was natural selection. We humans introduced culture as a way of defining group identity, and the groups began competing with each other. Cultural evolution was superimposed on biological evolution and led us up a new evolutionary ladder to what we call civilization. Cultural evolution is what makes us diferent from every other living creature on earth, including, of course, chimpanzees.
Among the cocktail of ways in which human groups within our species differentiate themselves, race has always been there, a fundamental factor. It was the mother of all the ways in which we distinguish “us” from “them”. You can always tell a stranger if he looks different, and that has always been so. Race is still a form of group differentiation that continues to bedevil our species long after its evolutionary utility has been overtaken. It is still the demon we cannot yet exorcise, not completely anyway, though many of us have been trying to.
We can consider ourselves lucky that our closest cousins on the evolutionary ladder, the ones we call homo erectus or ‘primitive man’ are not still hanging around. We polished the Neanderthals and the others off long ago, when we were just getting started on the track of cultural evolution. Similar species competing for the same space and resources tend to do that.
From a humanist perspective, it’s just as well for us it happened that way. If we still had a few full-blooded Neanderthals kicking around, what fun the lawyers would have arguing for and against their entitlement to the rights and privileges of humans! The problem would be, where do you draw what kinds of lines between homo sapiens and various homo erecti? Humanists these days have no trouble deciding who belongs to the category of human being. We generally agree to draw the line where the biologists tell us to, at the species level, and that definition is quite specific enough for our purposes.
The old-fashioned racists also believe in people, but only some people; they draw lines arguing that some races are less human than others. Humanists vigorously oppose such distinctions and rightly so. We are all humans, we may have different talents but we’re all born the same way with the same equipment and at birth at least, all babies are equal. This premise lies at the heart of the humanist ethos, it is a foundational belief, an article of faith for us. Without it we collapse into vegetarians or communists or Rastrafarians or perhaps, at best, feminists, but whatever our choice, we aren’t humanists at heart.
So what about chimpanzees? They are, after all, a lot closer to us on the evolutionary ladder than other animals. Shouldn’t the line by which we define humanity be fuzzy enough so that we can accord them at least some of the inalienable rights every person has, or should have, by virtue of being born human?
I worry about fuzzing up that line in the present day and age, because racism is still such a profound problem. Fuzz that line down the evolutionary ladder and you’ll only encourage someone else to fuzz it up in the other direction. One thing leads to another: do we really want to move toward the same camp as the Nazis with their Aryan pretensions? As long as racism remains as a kind of canker in modern society, we should hold the line that a human is a human and that’s it. We’re all born equal, biologically speaking. No one else need apply, there is no class B status as a borderline human.
In the distant future, for better or worse, there will have been enough interbreeding so that races will disappear and racism will be history. When we reach that point we may want to raise the question of whether chimps have certain inalienable rights because they are smart, or for whatever reason. If there are still any around.
Sufficient for the day thereof.