Saturday, February 17, 2007

Tool use from Chimpan "A" to Chimpanzee

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that chimpanzees have been tool users for over four thousand years. The researchers found stone hammers used to break open nuts. The earliest European record of tool use by chimpanzees is from the diary of Duarte Pacheco Pereira, a Portuguese explorer in Africa in 1506. Besides tool use and their obvious intelligence, chimpanzees are very closely related to humans genetically. Technically, chimps, humans, orangutans and gorillas all fall into the classification of the great apes. The taxonomic diagram has humans and chimps quite close.

I remember reading in the science fiction novel "The Terminal Experiment" by Robert Sawyer that in the future described in the story, chimpanzees and other great apes had finally been reclassified from genus pan to genus homo due to the mounting DNA evidence of their close relationship to humans. This reclassification had given them rights closer to humans than to animals. From the novel:
"It took thirteen years but eventually their declaration came to be argued at the UN. An unprecedented resolution was adopted formally reclassifying chimpanzees as 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 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."
Thus in the book you couldn't kill chimps for scientific experimentation or imprison a chimp in a lab. The protagonist wanted to test his Soulwave detector on a chimpanzee, he waits for one to die of natural causes for the test, the cows in the book weren't so lucky. Good thing that it turns out that cows don't have souls, at least according to the book. Robert Sawyer even has a little vignette on his website about a future lawsuit to guarantee these rights to chimpanzees. This is not just fiction, there is a real life group trying to get such a declaration passed.

The topic of breeding more chimps for research is in the Jan 26th issue of Science. The NCCR, the National Institute of Heath's National Center for Research Resources is deciding whether to continue breeding more chimps for research or to abandon the program. At current rates assuming no further breeding, there will be no chimpanzees in the US for research by 2035. Some studies that need younger chimpanzees are already suffering because the population of chimps available is aging. The scientific community is very divided on the ethics of invasive testing on chimpanzees but even non-invasive studies will need a population of chimps in the future.

These musing on the treatment of our close species relations also have implications for other smart animals, like dolphins, and whales, and maybe even parrots. Should there be rights for animals based on their intelligence? Is rights the correct word? Perhaps there should be a gradation of freedoms based on intelligence as suggested above. Intelligent animals get a right to life and liberty, only humans get to own property and vote. How to protect the rights of these animals when even humans don't treat their own kind that way is left for another discussion.

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