Should apes have rights? Absolutely not. Rights are a human concept, premised on the idea of autonomous individuals, who should be treated equally before the law.
Animals are not autonomous. They cannot take responsibility for their own actions, and they cannot – like us humans – subordinate their individual natural drives to the interest of society as a whole. In fact, they do not have society. It is therefore nonsensical to grant animals rights.
But what about the question of whether animals should have any special protection, such as protection from deliberate harm? My argument is that we should always consider the interest of humans over and above those of animals, which is why animal research – which can further medical advance and human knowledge – is a morally good thing to do.
This is not to say I’d advocate wanton cruelty to animals. Destructiveness for the sake of being destructive – such as taking pleasure from hammering nails into the eyes of cats – is degrading to humans. It is inhumane and uncivilized. But it is only so because of what it tells us about the person who is carrying out the act and the effect it has on other humans. That’s because animals only have value in relations to humans. They have no value in and of themselves.
Likewise, if a species goes extinct, it is not a loss in and of itself – other than that it may be a loss to human beings – because no other species would be aware of what has been lost.
Since life began several billion years ago, 99.999 per cent of all species that have ever existed on Earth have become extinct. Species come and species go. Nature is amazing: it has created all kinds of weird and wonderful species. But it is also brutal: ‘red in tooth and claw’, as the English poet Alfred Tennyson aptly described it. In the largest mass extinction on Earth 250million years ago – the Permian-Triassic extinction – an estimated 90 per cent of all species disappeared.
If humans were to be wiped out, however, we would lose something quite exceptional: that is, culture – and with that civilisation. We are the product of evolution like all other animals, but something amazing emerged – possibly around 60,000 years ago – that transformed us. That is, a capacity for cultural transmission.
Some chance mutation or chance mutations must have allowed us, at some point in our past, to start learning from each other in a qualitatively new way and, as a result, to build upon the achievements of our fellows and previous generations.
For most of the six million years since our lineage diverged from that of our common ape ancestors, we remained little more than glorified chimpanzees in how we lived and the tools we used. But around 60,000 years ago human history took off. That’s when we see far more sophisticated tool-making emerging, more developed hunting techniques, even travel across oceans, cave drawings and more.
Being able to learn from and build upon the clever inventions of our fellows meant that we were able to start exerting some control over nature. We have been able to make life-changing inventions. We’ve built cities, nation states, governments. We have invented the alphabet and other forms of written symbols, and we have produced art and literature. We can now diagnose illnesses and cure them. We have a sense of right and wrong, and we can debate and discuss where we want to take society.
Animals live in the here and now: hand to mouth. They may be social, in terms of operating in packs, but they do not connect with each other in the way human beings do. They cannot truly imitate – not even great apes. In other words, apes cannot ape.
Our uniqueness rests on our ability to connect with each other in a uniquely powerful way. Human beings can imitate with a high degree of flexibility from their second year of life. Infants can look at what somebody else is doing and make inferences about their goals and intentions. They can observe the various steps someone takes to achieve an outcome, or to produce an end product.
Apes seem to be able only to look at the outcome of what some other being has done, and then they have to invent their own way of achieving that outcome through trial and error. In the end, they might achieve the same result, or get the same result in a different way.
This is why, I would argue, in the right conditions, a clever ape could invent all the ape behaviour that we see today. But it’s absolutely not the case that any human being, however clever they are, could invent from scratch anything from bicycles and combustion engines to X-rays and the harnessing of electricity. This is because our learning is cumulative. We build on the achievements of previous generations.
Human beings are unique in that we have created culture – and with that civilisation – and in the process we have made ourselves. If we lose sight of our unique capacities we will lose the power to improve our condition and further develop humanity. The main challenge we face today is therefore to uphold a human-centred morality – one that puts human beings first – restoring confidence in the capacity of humans to change society for the better.
This article is an edited version of a speech at the Battle of Ideas Festival 2010.
First published on spiked, 3 November 2010.