Of Apes and Men

A mere 1% difference in DNA separates humans from our closest living relatives - the chimpanzees. The “Great Ape Project” argues that because the differences between humans and other great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans) are so slight the Great Apes should share basic human rights. The Project aims to have the UN adopt a declaration on the rights of nonhuman apes that would make research on them impossible. Supporters of the Great Ape Project point to the psychological similarity between nonhuman apes and ourselves: nonhuman apes, they argue, are self-aware. As a consequence of self-awareness great apes must suffer in captivity in ways similar to what we would experience. This is no abstract debate. There are about 1,600 chimpanzees held for biomedical research in the US alone and are central to the study of several maladies. Perhaps the most important example is liver disease. Research on chimpanzees led to the vaccine against hepatitis B. Nearly half the global population is at high risk of contracting this virus. Chimpanzees have also been crucial for the study of hepatitis C. But hepatitis only heads the list. AIDS is another example, because chimpanzees are the only nonhuman species that can be infected with HIV. Chimpanzees are also helping scientists battle other health problems, including spongiform encephalitis (“mad-cow disease”), malaria, cystic fibrosis and emphysema. Because they are close to us, nonhuman great apes are suitable for research on several diseases that cause human suffering. Yet, does this similarity make biomedical experimentation difficult to justify ethically? One reason to think so is the idea that the minds of nonhuman great apes are similar to ours because some of animals have been taught sign language. But thirty years of research on the abilities of chimpanzees and bonobos to communicate using signs has demonstrated few compelling examples of anything close to human language. In all these studies, the animal’s vocabulary developed slowly, and never exceeded a couple of hundred signs (about two weeks’ work for a healthy two-year-old child). Chimpanzee utterances rarely extend beyond one or two signs – making discussion of grammar or syntax forced. More recent reports suggesting ape grammar are those of a bonobo named Kanzi, whose linguistic abilities are alleged to exceed those seen in earlier sign-language studies with chimpanzees. A critical test for Kanzi’s comprehension of sentence structure involved asking him to respond to an instruction such as “would you please carry the straw?” Sure enough, Kanzi picks up the straw. But although grammar may have conveyed the correct meaning of the test sentence, the circumstances could also have made the requested action obvious (given that Kanzi knows what the words
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.