Gorillas have claws

Great apes - more human or more monkey?

Monkeys are like us in many ways. Should they therefore have the same rights as us? Ethicists warn against making the value of a life dependent on the abilities of the individual.

Locking Africans in cages and displaying them, having South American indigenous peoples perform dances, prescribing women’s partner and place of residence - that’s not possible. But what life has what value is not set in stone. Because what was taken for granted for Europeans a hundred years ago or more is now in Europe and large parts of the world completely contrary to human dignity. We find medical experiments on handicapped people or members of other peoples at least as repulsive. But chimpanzees or macaques, gorillas or cloaked monkeys are all expected to do this. Because they are animals.

Very close to people

But the closer the behavioral and neuroscientific research looks, the more similarities the experts find between humans and apes, especially the so-called great apes, i.e. chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos. Accordingly, animal experiments with monkeys move and provoke many people more violently than experiments with other animals - although dogs or cats are much more familiar to most. According to surveys, more than 75 percent of respondents in Switzerland generally reject experiments with monkeys. Whether based on gut instinct or balanced philosophical considerations, one always comes to the same conclusion as to why that is so - we perceive monkeys, especially the great apes, to be extremely similar.

"Monkeys understand what captivity means."

This can be seen every time you visit the zoo. The hand of a chimpanzee, the look of a gorilla, it looks familiar. We can understand their anger over the allegedly or truly unjust distribution of food, their curiosity about unknown toys, their attempts to loosen screws anchored in the ground. Modern genetics confirm the perceived enormous similarity. The genetic makeup of humans and chimpanzees or gorillas is more than 98 percent identical in each case. However, there are notable differences in gene regulation, so that humans and monkeys are close relatives but not biologically the same species.

But humans and great apes are not only similar in appearance or behavior. A wealth of observations and studies has shown that the latter also have an idea of ​​themselves, i.e. a kind of self-confidence. They can reflect feelings and communicate them, as one knows, among other things, by dealing with those chimpanzees who have been taught sign language.

"Great apes can empathize with other individuals and plan actions for the future," emphasizes primatologist Volker Sommer. Colleagues add that the great apes see themselves as subjects of inner experience. Thus, they also have a high and, above all, different ability to suffer than other vertebrates. So monkeys don't just hurt when they feel heat or have an injury. They understand what imprisonment and loneliness are and suffer psychologically from them. Some researchers believe that great apes develop some understanding of death and fear of it.

So are great apes special animals and should they get more rights? "Because of the vulnerability of their way of life, great apes are particularly worthy of protection," says the ethicist and theologian Christoph Ammann from the University of Zurich. But as he and his colleague Dieter Birnbacher from Düsseldorf emphasize, it is by no means only great apes that show self-confidence or heightened sensitivity. According to behavioral research, whales, elephants, domestic pigs and other animals also belong to this group. In addition, many vertebrates are capable of social bonds.

"In spite of everything, monkeys are animals and not humans."

Ammann and others therefore warn against making the number and characteristics of skills the sole basis for granting rights. Because, on the one hand, we humans can only judge skills from a human perspective. The more similar a living being appears to us, the better we believe we understand it, as the more worthy of protection we would classify it. “From the point of view of nature, every being is per se equally important for the ecosystem and therefore worth the same, and in its biological niche it has capabilities that are superior to all other living beings. Even if that is not intelligence in our human sense, ”emphasizes Alex Rübel, veterinarian and director of the Zurich Zoo.

Granting protection and rights based on abilities would be very dangerous if this rule were applied consistently. Because then small children or people with dementia would have to be denied some human rights. A toddler cannot plan for the future, and it is not known whether a terminal Alzheimer's patient is still self-confident.

In Germany, 2842 monkeys and monkeys were used for experiments in the same year. Chimpanzees were not among them, as such experiments have not been carried out there since 1991. They are forbidden and only allowed in special exceptional situations under strict conditions. According to a guideline published in 2010, most research on primates is to be banned in the EU. Basic research with non-human primates such as macaques or cloak monkeys should be allowed. But only if the studies cannot reasonably be carried out on other animals. However, not all member states have implemented the directive as planned by early 2013.

Even if macaques do not seem so much like chimpanzees to us, the pressure on researchers who want to work with these monkeys is very great in almost all European countries. As in Zurich, there has been a lot of excitement in Tübingen in recent months about planned or ongoing monkey experiments. Therefore, more and more researchers fear that such experiments will in future be carried out in countries outside Europe, which at best have very lax animal protection regulations and hardly enforce them. Researchers repeatedly mention China or the Caribbean. Eyewitnesses report catastrophic conditions in such facilities. But nobody wants to say exactly which tests have actually already been outsourced from Europe.

According to the philosopher and animal ethicist Peter Kunzmann from the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, all people, regardless of their abilities, must be granted human dignity and the rights and protection claims derived from them. “Being human alone establishes this moral status,” he says. Monkeys, including great apes, on the other hand, are animals. They are not people with small degrees. Apes are optimized for a different form of life than that of humans.

Ammann also rejects absolute equality between great apes and humans. However, this does not release people from exercising great care towards animals and monkeys in particular and carefully examining their instrumentalization for their own purposes, be it as food or test objects for new drugs. Despite all the protection worthiness, there can be situations in which the knowledge gained through animal experiments has to be rated higher than the suffering inflicted on the animal by the tests, emphasizes Birnbacher.

Fundamental rights demanded

Primatologist Sommer and many fellow campaigners in the “Great Ape Project” do not want great apes to be treated as humans because of their abilities and their closeness to humans. But they demand that primates have more rights than any other animal. In this way, they should receive the right to life and physical integrity. In addition, they should only be allowed to be detained for their own good or to protect others.

It remains to be seen whether this will prevail in the foreseeable future. As the examples mentioned above show, the attitude of a society towards human majorities and minorities, towards the weaker, is changeable. So it cannot be ruled out that humans will one day classify animals that are very similar to them as equivalent. However, it seems utopian that all people will refrain from using animals altogether.