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Monkey Business

Original Article

“I am an ape,” declared Pedro Pozas, a Spanish animal rights activist, in 2006. The Spanish parliament, which apparently has come to see things Pozas’s way, is now poised to endorse the Great Ape Project, granting chimps, bonobos, apes, and orangutans some of the same rights that Jefferson once rooted in the human condition.

The Great Ape Project was launched just 15 years ago by Princeton utilitarian bioethicist Peter Singer and Italian animal rights philosopher Paola Cavalieri with the stated goal of obtaining a United Nations declaration welcoming apes into a “community of equals” with humans. In a kind of parody of the Declaration of Independence, the project’s “Declaration on Great Apes” asserts that “all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans” have basic rights including “the right to life,” the “protection of individual liberty,” and the “prohibition of torture,” construed to include “deliberate infliction of severe pain . . . for an alleged benefit to others,” clearly aimed at the use of apes in medical research.

But why grant apes rights? After all, if the Spanish parliament deems these animals insufficiently protected, it can enact more stringent protections, as other countries have. But improving the treatment of apes—of which there are few in Spain—is not really the game that is afoot. Rather, as Pozas chortled after the environment committee of the Spanish parliament passed the resolutions committing Spain to the Great Ape Project, this precedent will be the “spear point” that breaks the “species barrier.”

And why break the species barrier? Why, to destroy the unique status of man and thus initiate a wholesale transformation of Western civilization.

Specifically, by including animals in the “community of equals” and in effect declaring apes to be persons, the Great Ape Project would break the spine of Judeo-Christian moral philosophy, which holds that humans enjoy equal and incalculable moral worth, regardless of our respective capacities, age, and state of health. Once man is demoted to merely another animal in the forest, universal human rights will have to be tossed out and new criteria devised to determine which human/animal lives matter and which individuals can be treated like, well, animals.

Singer and Cavalieri put it this way in the introduction to The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, the collection of essays they edited in 1993, with contributions by noted opponents of a human-centric ethics such as primatologist Jane Goodall and Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals:

Our request comes at a special moment in history. Never before has our dominion over other animals been so pervasive and systematic. Yet this is also the moment when, within that very Western civilization that has so inexorably extended this dominion, a rational ethic has emerged challenging the moral significance of membership of our own species. This challenge seeks equal consideration for the interests of all animals, human and nonhuman.

Should that come to pass, the ancien régime (as they view it) based on the sanctity and equality of human life would crumble. In its place would emerge a society sufficiently hedonistic to eschew moralizing about personal behavior (Singer has defended bestiality), but also humbled to the point where people would willingly sacrifice our own flourishing “for the animals” or to “save the planet” and utilitarian enough to countenance ridding ourselves of unwanted human ballast (Singer is the world’s foremost proponent of infanticide). Thus, in the world that would rise from the ashes of human exceptionalism, moral value would be subjective and rights temporary, depending on the extent of each animal’s individual capacities at the time of measuring.

Most important in the minds of many proponents of the Great Ape Project, religion—above all, orthodox theistic religions that view humankind as at the center of Creation—would be sapped of its remaining vitality. Pozas’s spear point is aimed right between the ribs of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all three of which are loathed by the materialists who have brought the Great Ape Project to the brink of its first triumph.

Thus, no one should be surprised that Richard Dawkins, bitter proselytizer for atheism, has been a strong supporter of the Great Ape Project from its inception. Indeed, in The Great Ape Project, Dawkins went so far as to yearn for the discovery or genetic creation of an intermediate species between humans and apes that could interbreed with both. He wrote:

I can assert without fear of contradiction, that if somebody succeeded in breeding a chimpanzee/human hybrid the news would be earth-shattering. Bishops would bleat, lawyers would gloat in anticipation, conservative politicians would thunder, socialists wouldn’t know where to put the barricades. The scientist that achieved the feat would be drummed out of politically correct common-rooms; denounced in pulpit and gutter press; condemned, perhaps, by an Ayatollah’s fatwah.

Finding such a missing link, however, may prove unnecessary to achieving Dawkins’s end. Judges, too many of whom are eager to further the cultural goals of leftist intellectual elites, are already beginning to issue decrees consistent with the thrust of the Great Ape Project. In 2005 a Brazilian trial judge awarded a chimpanzee a writ of habeas corpus. When animal rights activists recently sought a court ruling in Austria granting legal personhood to a chimpanzee, the nation’s Supreme Court refused. Not to worry. A few months ago, the European Court of Human Rights—please note, Human Rights—agreed to take the case, an ominous sign.

These and other concerted efforts to knock ourselves off the pedestal of exceptionalism are terribly misguided. The way we act is based substantially on what kind of being we perceive ourselves to be. Thus, if we truly want to make this a better and more humane world, the answer is not to think of ourselves as inhabiting the same moral plane as animals—none of which can even begin to comprehend rights. Rather, it is to embrace the unique importance of being human.

After all, if not our humanity, what gives rise to our duty to treat animals properly and to act toward each other in accordance with what is—the Great Ape Project notwithstanding—our exclusive membership in a community of equals?

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.