But while the campaign has many supporters, the possibility that great apes may soon have legal standing in New Zealand is making some biomedical researchers nervous. They fear that the crusade is really aimed at stamping out research on all animals. They also say that the human-like qualities of the great apes have been exaggerated for political reasons.
The Great Ape Project has used the same arguments to call for a United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Great Apes. That declaration would guarantee chimps and their close relatives all the rights contained in the New Zealand proposals, plus the right to freedom from imprisonment "without due legal process".
But, says primatologist Frans de Waal of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, "if you argue for rights on the basis of continuity between us and the great apes, then you have to argue continuity between apes and monkeys". And so on, until eventually even the humble lab rat wins "human" rights. After all, dogs can form deep emotional attachments, and cats seem to have distinct personalities.
Legal rights for rats is an unlikely outcome, says philosopher Peter Singer of Monash University in Melbourne, who helped set up the Great Ape Project. But he predicts there will be a gradual broadening of the "sphere of moral concern" to include first all the great apes, and then perhaps other species. After all, in the past certain humans-women, gays and the physically and mentally-handicapped-have been denied the full rights enjoyed by others.
Based on what we know about the nonhuman great apes, there is no logical
reason for the broadening of moral concern to cease with humans, says Singer.
"The case is clear for these beings. Like humans, they are entitled to certain
rights." Indeed Singer, who famously argued
Contact: Claire Bowles