Leeds Salon: Human Genes and animal rights

Jeremy Taylor spoke at this event last night, largely to promote his new book, Not a Chimp. His premise was that ‘rights’ should not be extended to chimps because they are not like us.

So, for forty minutes, Mr Taylor went on in excruciating detail about the differences between chimps and humans, citing cognitive, genetic and physical differences. After ten minutes I kept being distracted by that other great intellectual problem of how many angels might be able to dance simultaneously on the head of a pin.

Of course chimps are different from us. So what?

Then after forty minutes he made his point in a sentence which took about thirty seconds to deliver; he didn’t like the way some scientists were anthropomorphising the chimps. He particularly didn’t like the work of Jane Goodall and Richard Dawkins in this context.

The ‘debate’ that followed (it was billed as a debate but in reality it was a presentation with a limited Q & A at the end) merely allowed Mr Taylor to expand on what  he had already pointed out.

My question to him was, ‘So what was at stake? What difference did it make to anything if chimps were, or were not, granted rights?’

Mr Taylor seemed to regard this question as one of complete ignorance as if I had wilfully neglected to follow the intricate story twists of the greatest scientific issue since Shroedinger nearly couldn’t make up his mind when he went to the pet shop.

As the questions continued about legislation and morality it seemed to me that the point was being entirely missed. Whether a species shares 98.4% of our genes, or invents tools or not, is irrelevant.

Here is my premise;

  • The concept of ‘rights’ is a purely human invention, as is time, property, law and land ownership and as such, is easily ignored when resources are being fought over.
  • We are the only species interested in concepts and ideas (as far as we know). In all the experiments with chimps and corvids, the reward was always food. As soon as a species creates or responds to art, then we can start applying a ‘theory of mind’ to that species and involving them in a discussion about their ‘rights’ if we want to take it that far.
  • We are human, therefore, we are only interested in what affects us. The extinction of a species only becomes of interest to the majority of us when we can’t eat it anymore, turn it into fancy clothes or view it in a zoo. Anthropomorphism is a natural thing to do. That’s why we like cute and cuddly panda’s and mosquitoes can go to hell.

From that premise I cannot see the problem with extending human rights to chimps (or any other species we care to adopt) should we wish to do so. The concept of rights is a social device and an attempt to raise human consciousness. It has nothing to do with genetic similarity but is a further application of the ‘golden rule’ of philosophy; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Chimps look like us, they have highly individual faces – like us. It is easy to identify with them. Therefore in an attempt to raise our consciousness even further why not look to the species that most closely resembles our own and afford them our moral respect. Don’t forget, it was only a short while ago that the vast majority of people saw nothing wrong with the concept of slavery. Even today, you can find societies where one sector of the population actually believes that another is sub human and therefore fit for exploitation or extermination. To get people to recognise that we are brothers and sisters requires a change in perception, a new approach. I have no doubt that the abolitionists would have welcomed any idea, no matter how absurd, if it did the practical trick of enlightening people about the immorality of their position and released the slaves from their suffering.

As humans we have a disproportionate impact on the planet. Our consciousness is both a curse and a gift. If we evolve benignly then we will come to respect all life on the planet, realise the connectedness of all things and slowly gravitate towards vegetarianism and veganism. If we evolve malignantly (no more bets please) then we accept that there are no absolute truths, which means that we can dispense with morality and if we decide that the farming of children as a sustainable food source is acceptable -  then so be it.

That is our choice. It is the practical application of philosophy that matters now. If the anthropomorphism of chimps by a bunch of scientists leads to a higher state of consciousness for the rest of humanity then I say issue each chimp with a National Insurance number now because inevitably, other species will ultimately follow them and the intelligence of humanity will have paid off in an evolutionary sense.

One Response to “Leeds Salon: Human Genes and animal rights”

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