Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Great Ape Project: Projecting Culture onto Nature

Although this article from BBC News doesn't exactly mesh with our most recent lecture topics about the Hudson River School art movement or the Ecological Indian, I believe this subject is relevant to the overarching theme of this class.

The article presents two sides of a debate: should Great Apes have human rights?  Some argue yes, based on genetic closeness (we share roughly 99% of our genes with chimps) and the belief that great apes are sentient and intelligent we should extend our human rights onto our dearest cousins.  Others argue that genetic closeness is no argument at all, and "human rights are a construct that can't be imposed on animals."

So how does this relate to our class?  Well, besides the fact that the terms "nature" and "culture" can be found in the article, I thought it posed an interesting question, and one that we have been wrestling with in class.  What distinguishes culture from nature and vice versa?  This article begs us to look at the relationship between culture and nature through a new lens and investigate the overlap.   Given our close "relationship" with the great apes where do we draw the line?  If chimps are 99% human is it that 1% that determines all our human lovin?  Are species farther away on the tree of life relegated to the chaos of nature, and not worthy of our protection?

The Great Ape Project is asking us to wield our culture (our greatest tool and weapon) in a more ethical way.  Whether you agree with their goals or not the subject is a great thought experiment for this class.  After reading this, where do you draw the line between nature and culture?  Can they overlap or are they mutually exclusive?

Should apes have human rights?


Sarah Poisner said...

Interestingly enough, I found an article that brings to light the abilities of the great apes. This article demonstrates how it is entirely possible for bonobos to possess human qualities. It further supports those in favor of granting rights to these primates, as it ultimately reveals that these creatures possess the capabilities of higher mark of culture (fire), than ever previously believed.

Ihna Mangundayao said...

This is definitely one of the most difficult topics to discuss...well, ever. Just to add to the list of articles, there are many others that concern granting animals' human rights and one of the most popular debates is regarding dolphins.

Thank you for such a thought-provoking post, Brooke. While reading this, I can't help but think back to the seal videos we watched today. One of the main reasons such videos are so appealing is because of the "cuteness" factor. The videos showed baby seals, which, I feel, activates some sort of "parental" instinct in the viewer - the Bambi syndrome. In the Great Apes BBC article, I see hints of the Bambi syndrome. The first argument is that apes are 99% related to us, therefore they should share the same rights that we have. I hate to be the cynic, but it seems to me that that 1% makes a whole lot of difference. Based on my background knowledge of animal behavior, apes and humans do share many characteristics and behaviors, but we also have so many differences. For instance - and perhaps one of the most notable differences - human relationships are so much more complex than that the great apes. Some apes only have male-male bonds, or female-female bonds. The bonobos, which if I recall correctly have the most complex web of connections in the apes, still cannot match the humans'. I am especially interested in this detail because I commonly link emotions to relationships - emotions such as love, hate, compassion, emotions that are so deeply attributed to humans. To me, there is a direct correlation between human-human relationship and emotions. If the great apes do not have as intricate relationships as we do, then do they have emotions as complicated as ours? Do they have emotions at all?

I am also skeptical about the idea of giving the apes (or dolphins) human rights because of their intelligence level or ability to identify's one self or perform logical thinking. Intelligence is dependent on the development of the brain, and, from my studies I have learned that the development of the brain differs from species to species, or even animal to animal, depending on the environment (although there are genetic restrictions). Take for example ravens. Ravens have been proven to be capable of using logic to solve problems, of distinguishing individuals (other ravens AND humans) and attributing knowledge to them (they know that humans/ravens are also smart). Ravens are far from humans in the evolution tree, yet they possess qualities that are very human-like. Should we grant ravens human rights, as they can think like us?

I actually just realized something:
It seems so wrong of me to isolate each trait and attack it. The great apes and the dolphins are not like humans because of individual traits, but because of the combination of all these qualities. I really am not sure what to think anymore. I started writing this comment being an opponent of the suggested human rights idea, but now, I'm not really sure. I'm stuck in the middle.

Someone care to add on? Perhaps start a heated, inspiring debate?