And to answer those critics (see Dembski) who feel that giving rights to apes will somehow diminish the special status of humans:
Strip away the goofier rhetoric of the ape-rights activists, and their claim is straightforward. Great apes are biologically very close to humans; chimps and humans share about 98 percent of their DNA. Apes have complex communication skills and close emotional bonds. They experience loneliness and sorrow. They deserve some respect.
It sounds odd to say that apes have rights — or to call a chimpanzee a “person.” As a legal matter, though, it is not such a stretch. People in irreversible comas have rights. Even corporations are recognized as “persons,” with free speech and equal protection rights, and the ability to sue and be sued.
Critics object that recognizing rights for apes would diminish human beings. But it seems more likely that showing respect for apes would elevate humans at the same time.Read the full editorial here. Yesterday, there was another article that addressed this issue:
American law is becoming increasingly cruel. The Supreme Court recently ruled that states are not obliged to administer lethal injections in ways that avoid unnecessary risk that inmates will suffer great pain. If apes are given the right to humane treatment, it just might become harder to deny that same right to their human cousins.
What’s intriguing about the committee’s action is that it juxtaposes two sliding scales that are normally not allowed to slide against each other: how much kinship humans feel for which animals, and just which “human rights” each human deserves.
We like to think of these as absolutes: that there are distinct lines between humans and animals, and that certain “human” rights are unalienable. But we’re kidding ourselves.
In an interview, Mr. Singer described just such calculations behind the Great Ape Project: he left out lesser apes like gibbons because scientific evidence of human qualities is weaker, and he demanded only rights that he felt all humans were usually offered, such as freedom from torture — rather than, say, rights to education or medical care.
Meanwhile, even in democracies, the law accords diminished rights to many humans: children, prisoners, the insane, the senile. Teenagers may not vote, philosophers who slip into dementia may be lashed to their beds, courts can order surgery or force-feeding.
Spain does not envision endowing apes with all rights: to drive, to bear arms and so on. Rather, their status would be akin to that of children.
Ingrid Newkirk, a founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, considers Spain’s vote “a great start at breaking down the species barriers, under which humans are regarded as godlike and the rest of the animal kingdom, whether chimpanzees or clams, are treated like dirt.”