Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Apes as nonhuman persons

by Rob - December 23rd, 2014.
Filed under: Terminal.

Apropos of the news story about a court in Argentina deciding that an orangutan being kept in a zoo is entitled to the rights of a “nonhuman person,” I’ve been writing about this issue going back 20 years now; it’s discussed at length in my Nebula-Award-winning novel The Terminal Experiment, which was first published in serialized form starting with the mid-December 1994 edition of Analog magazine.

The Terminal Experiment, which also won Canada’s Aurora Award and was a Hugo Award finalist, tells the story of a biomedical engineer who discovers scientific proof for the existence of the human soul.

(The term “bonobo” for Pan paniscus hadn’t come into wide usage yet; that happened three years later with the 1997 publication of Frans de Waal’s Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape.)

From The Terminal Experiment:

When Peter Hobson had taken a university elective in taxonomy, the two species of chimpanzees had been Pan troglodytes (common chimps) and Pan paniscus (pygmy chimps).

But the split between chimps and humans had occurred just 500,000 generations ago, and they still have 98.4% of their DNA in common. In 1993, a group including evolutionist Richard Dawkins and bestselling science-fiction writer Douglas Adams published the Declaration on Great Apes, which urged the adoption of a bill of rights for our simian cousins.

In took thirteen years, but eventually their declaration came to be argued at the UN. An unprecedented resolution was adopted formally reclassifying chimpanzees as members of genus Homo, meaning there were now three extant species of humanity: Homo sapiens, Homo troglodytes, and Homo paniscus. Human rights were divided into two broad categories: those, such as the entitlement to life, liberty, and freedom from torture, that applied to all members of genus Homo, and other rights, such as pursuit of happiness, religious freedom, and ownership of land, that were reserved exclusively to H. sapiens.

Of course, under Homo rights, no one could ever kill a chimp again for experimental purposes — indeed, no one could imprison a chimp in a lab. And many nations had modified their legal definitions of homicide to include the killing of chimps.

Adriaan Kortlandt, the first animal behaviorist to observe wild chimpanzees, once referred to them as “eerie souls in animals’ furs.” But now Peter Hobson was in a position to see how literally Kortlandt’s observation should be taken. The soulwave existed in Homo sapiens. It did not exist in Bos taurus, the common cow. Peter supported the simian-rights movement, but all the good that had been done in the last few years might be undone if it were shown that humans had souls but chimps did not. Still, Peter knew that if he himself did not do the test, someone else eventually would.

Even though chimps were no longer captured for labs, zoos, or circuses, some were still living in human-operated facilities. The United Kingdom, Canada, the U.S., Tanzania, and Burundi jointly funded a chimpanzee retirement home in Glasgow — of all places — for chimps that couldn’t be returned to the wild. Peter phoned the sanctuary, to find out if any of the chimps there were near death. According to the director, Brenda MacTavish, several were in their fifties, which was old age for a chimp, but none were terminal. Still, Peter arranged to have some scanning equipment shipped to her.

Later in the novel

The screen image changed to show a middle-aged red-haired woman: Brenda MacTavish, from the Glasgow Chimpanzee Retirement Home. “Ah, Peter,” she said, “I called your office and they said you’d be here.”

“Hi, Brenda,” Peter said. He peered at the screen. Had she been crying?

“Forgive the state I’m in,” she said. “We just lost Cornelius, one of our oldest residents. He had a heart attack; chimps normally don’t get those, but he’d been used for years in smoking research.” She shook her head in wonder at the cruelty. “When we first spoke, of course, I dinna know what you were up to. Now I’ve seen you all over the telly, and read all about it in The Economist. Anyway, we got the recordings you wanted. I’m sending the data over the net tonight.”

“Did you look at it?” said Peter.

“Aye,” she said. “Chimps have souls.” Her voice was bitter, as she thought about her lost friend. “As if anyone could have ever doubted that.”

Robert J. Sawyer online:

1 Response to Apes as nonhuman persons

  1. If there’s a way to find out…and our respective species last long enough…we’ll find out for real about that last point.

    Meanwhile, as you’ve just noted…sometimes the law figures it out ahead of other sciences.

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