Let Great Apes be Apes

Advocating simian rights an attack on human principles Original Article

“I am an ape,” Pedro Pozas, secretary-general of the Spanish Great Ape Project, declared recently.

No, Pozas wasn’t commenting on his appearance. Rather, he was boosting Spanish legislation that would grant human-type rights to apes.

Animals can’t comprehend the concept of rights, so why grant them such entitlements? Supporters of the legislation point to our close genetic relationship with chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans as justification. And it is true: The DNA sequence in our respective genomes varies only a little. But this small variance is responsible for vast differences. Indeed, there are tens of millions of measurable biological distinctions between humans and our distant primate cousins, which is why we have far higher brain capacities, walk on two legs and exhibit the many unique attributes that separate us from all other life on the planet.

But these facts won’t matter to most supporters of the Spanish legislation, whose ultimate goal is the implementation of a broad animal liberation agenda that would eventually elevate all mammals to moral equality with humans.

Still, you have to start somewhere, and that’s where the Great Ape Project — the inspiration for the Spanish legislation — comes in. Co-founded by Peter Singer, the godfather of the animal liberation movement, the project advocates that apes be granted full membership with humans in the “community of equals,” thereby granting them the “right to life,” the “protection of individual liberty” and the “prohibition of torture.”

All animal abuse is clearly wrong and should be prevented through rigorous enforcement of strict welfare laws. This is a special concern when chimpanzees and orangutans are mistreated, given the poignant empathy we feel toward these magnificent animals. But by seeking to grant apes rights, rather than generally promoting their improved care, proponents of the project risk causing great human harm.

Take, as just one example, the purported right against torture. This seems reasonable until one reads the project’s definition of torture as “the deliberate infliction of severe pain on a member of the community of equals, either wantonly or for an alleged benefit to others.” Clearly, the primary aim here isn’t to stop beatings or punish neglect, but when combined with the putative right to personal liberty, is clearly intended to prevent apes from being used in medical research.

A 2005 commentary written by primate researchers John VendeBerg and Stuart Zola in the science journal Nature demonstrates how foolish such a universal prohibition would be. Chimpanzees’ genomic similarity to humans’ — the purported rationale — is precisely the attribute that makes these animals “invaluable” for use in medical experiments.

One exciting example involves the development of revolutionary bioengineered substances known as monoclonal antibodies that offer tremendous potential to treat a wide range of human maladies, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and “virtually any disease caused by a viral infection.”

Chimpanzees are essential to this research because unlike other animals, their immune systems do not attack these genetically engineered antibodies. Consequently, the experimental substance remains in the chimps’ blood for extended periods, permitting researchers to fully evaluate its safety and efficacy before commencing human trials. Chimpanzees are also necessary in some areas of drug testing.

But perhaps most compellingly, they are the only other animal capable of being infected with the human HIV-1 virus, which for reasons not fully understood, does not usually make them ill. Thus, VendeBerg and Zola write, chimpanzees are “important for testing vaccines aimed at preventing HIV-1 infection or reducing the virus load in infected individuals.”

The loss of chimps as crucial medical research aids would be sufficient cause to reject the project. But there is an even more important, if esoteric, reason for refusing to grant rights to apes. The fundamental purpose of the project is to undermine our belief in human exceptionalism — the principle that human life has unique moral value simply because it is human. Animal liberationists abhor human exceptionalism as bigotry against animals. Thus, by persuading us to include apes in the so-called community of equals, supporters hope to slowly erode society’s belief in the unique importance of human life.

These misguided efforts overlook a crucial point: The way we act is based substantially on the nature of beings we perceive ourselves to be. In this regard, our self-concept as the world’s most important species is extremely beneficial, because it is both the stimulus for promoting universal human rights as well as the grounding for our distinctly human duty to treat animals humanely.

Spain’s Pozas may think of himself as being merely an ape, but the rest of us should reject his absurd moral reductionism. If we truly want to make this a better world, the answer is not to give apes unwarranted rights, but rather, to embrace the unique importance and solemn responsibilities that are essential aspects of living fully human lives.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is researching a book on the animal rights movement. Contact us at

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.