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Respecting Differences

September 6, 2011, 5:19 pm

Today’s guest blogger is my Zenith colleague, feminist philosopher, animal studies scholar and fellow tenured radical Lori Gruen.  I asked her to comment on the renewed interest, both virtual and real, in the relationship between humans and chimpanzees.

Two summer movies featuring “chimpanzees” (no actual chimpanzees were used in the production of either film) have really got folks talking about our primate cousins.  People seem to be both fascinated and frightened by the idea that scientists might create intelligence in other apes.  What’s interesting is that other apes are already intelligent without our manipulations — we just don’t know how to appreciate it because we’re too focused on our own cleverness.  Project Nim, a documentary by James Marsh, director of the acclaimed Man on a Wire, reveals the quirks inherent in cognition research with chimpanzees as well as some of the quirkiness of the people who do that research.[1] Rise of Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, is a science fiction precursor to the original Planet of the Apes, forty years later, and indirectly addresses more invasive forms of research with great apes. [2]

In both of these movies scientists are trying to make chimpanzees more like humans.  The lead chimpanzees in the films, Nim and Caesar, are raised by humans, dressed in human clothes, and taught to use a type of human language.  In the case of Nim Chimpsky, researchers tried to teach Nim to communicate using a type of human sign language.  The project tragically failed. Herb Terrace’s ill-conceived research project did not allow Nim to acquire the skills associated with human language and ultimately traumatized Nim.  In his early years he was passed from person to person, then later sent from laboratory to laboratory, and finally he spent many years in social isolation, before dying of a heart attack when he was just 26 (many chimpanzees in captivity live into their 50s).  In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, apes do pick up sign language and are able to communicate particularly well among themselves after genetic manipulation and in the fictitious case, their communication leads them to organize against the extraordinarily hubristic apes — us.

Humans have been interested in making chimpanzees more like us for over a hundred years.  The project really got off the ground in the US when Robert M. Yerkes (while working at Oligarch University) started his Anthropoid Experimental Station in Orange Park, Florida in 1930.  There he planned to “shape chimpanzees to specification instead of maintaining them (a vain effort) as in Nature.  Thus, by bold venture in the control of our materials of research, we may succeed in creating a subject incomparably more serviceable for research than any available natural type…The ideal experimental chimpanzee should then be small, … behaviorally highly adaptive, active, original, non-destructive, cooperative; naturally tame and readily gentled, non-pugnacious, affectively stable and with high emotional threshold, unselfish or altruistic, frank, dependable, easy to handle, good-natured, even-tempered..” [3] Yerkes, who was also interested in eugenics and participated in the establishment of standardized intelligence testing, was not successful in creating the ideal, humanized chimpanzee for research.  Nonetheless, the quest to do so continues.

Nim was one of dozens of chimpanzees that were part of “cross-fostering” experiments in which chimpanzees were raised in human homes and treated like children in the hopes of humanizing their cognitive capacities.    Nim’s daughter, Sheba, who just celebrated her 30th birthday, was also “enculturated” and worked in cognition research where she learned how to count.[4]

Sheba’s life has fortunately gone better than Nim’s, but it has not been free of suffering or trauma.  She was ripped away from her mother Lilly at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma, where Nim was also taken from his mother Carolyn less than a decade earlier.  Sheba was then shipped away from her human caregivers who she had grown attached to at the Ohio State University.  She has also experienced the death of a number of her chimpanzee friends, some of whom she seemed particularly fond of.  She now lives in a stimulating, enriched sanctuary environment at Chimp Haven (where the chimpanzee voices for Rise of Planet of the Apes were recorded) and I think her life is going well.[5] Though she is forever a captive, the expert care-takers at Chimp Haven work to promote her and all the chimpanzees’ “wild dignity.” Yet when I look into Sheba’s eyes, I can’t help but wonder, “why did we do this to you?  Why can’t we humans accept you for the marvelous, smart, interesting being that you are?  Why do we need to think you are more like us in order to care about you?”

The answers, of course, are complicated.  Journalist Jon Cohen speculates that “We’re fascinated by the notion that we can communicate with species on other planets, that the universe isn’t as lonely as it appears to be [and] If we could somehow have a chimp that was more like us, it would satisfy this deep science-fiction desire for communication with others, and make us feel less lonely. But it’s a fantasy.”[6] Communication across difference is hard, to be sure, but it is not in the realm of fantasy.  It is imperative in our dealings with humans who are categorized as “others” that we figure out ways to respect differences.  While it is a constant struggle for the subaltern to speak, it is a matter of justice that those in power figure out how to listen.  This is true in the case of humans as well as in the case of non-human others.

Fortunately, systematic attempts to think harder about what we have done to Sheba, Nim, and the other chimpanzees we have subjugated have begun.  The Institute of Medicine has convened a committee to determine whether the use of chimpanzee is or will be necessary in biomedical and behavioral research.[7] Their findings will be out at the end of the year.  The National Fish and Wildlife Service has just begun a review to determine whether captive chimpanzees should be reclassified as endangered.[8] Wild chimpanzees have been classified as endangered since 1990, but by special rule, at the time captive chimpanzees were given a lesser listing as threatened, so their use could continue.  That classification is being revisited and public comments are welcome.[9] And there is a bipartisan bill working its way through Congress that will protect great apes from use in invasive research.[10] The United States and Gabon are the only countries in the world that still use other great apes in such research. It may be that we, the talking apes, can talk ourselves into a new history and retire the nearly 1000 chimpanzees that are currently captives in laboratories.  I can only hope that I will be able to look into Sheba’s eyes when that day comes.

Lori Gruen is the author of Ethics and Animals:  An Introduction.  She is the chair of the Philosophy Department at Zenith where she also co-coordinates Wesleyan Animal Studies.  She is currently working on a book on the ethical and epistemological issues raised by our relationship to captive chimpanzees.


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