Sunday, December 22, 2013

Apes and the Top of the Food Chain

Ever wonder why apes flick poop at zoo-goers?

A couple weeks ago one of my Facebook Friends posted an outrageous news story, one that boggled my mind. At first. Then it got me thinking and made me go, “Hmmm.”

The article he posted referred to a New York court case involving four chimpanzees. An advocacy group (Nonhuman Rights Project) filed a lawsuit to get the quartet of caged primates recognized as legal persons, with rights to certain liberties. Chief among them, their freedom. The case was dismissed; most say rightly so. The advocacy group is appealing the verdict.

What makes this case so interesting to me is how it brushes up against an intriguing, complex and often confusing question. It’s one that has affected modern Americans for quite a while now: just what is a ‘person’?

Thanks to our judicial system, a business corporation, a non-biological thing, is designated a person. As such, corporations enjoy many (but not all) of the same legal rights as humans. So is it really that much of a stretch for some to want living, breathing and, to an unknown extent, thinking chimps to be legally considered a person in order to gain its release?

They’re just animals, some argue. We are too, says science, and a corporation isn’t even that. So the question remains: why aren’t certain apes afforded personhood status? It’s a fact chimpanzees share most of the genes we have, along with many of our physical and mental qualities. For the record, apes (chimps, gorillas, bonobos, etc.) are different from monkeys and other lower primates.
Corporation: not quite human but still a person

Also for the record, I am not comparing apes to humans. While science tells us chimps and humans share about 99 percent of the same DNA (an essential molecule that's sort of the instruction manual for building all living things), that’s not the whole story. That last one percent accounts for about 35 million differences, some of which are huge; others are less so.

Apples and oranges aside, this column is about assumptions; being so certain we’re right about something that we ignore other possibilities. Remember, we once knew the Earth was flat; it is round. We once knew dinosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles; they were warm-blooded. On a personal level, I once knew my alma mater Michigan State didn’t have a chance at the Rose Bowl this season; guess where the Spartans are January 1?

All this back and forth ignores another, equally important element that’s driving this maddening dynamic: power. Human beings have it, chimpanzees don't. It’s a somewhat similar situation among and between people.

Some will counter that it’s the nature of things that some folks have power while most others don't. To my mind, even though a select few possess positional, institutional or political power, that doesn't mean we should simply roll over when that power is used in harmful or offensive ways. That includes when it’s used against chimpanzees, other animals and the environment.

I was just following orders from the Emperor
What I'm getting at is the often tyrannical arrogance and/or insensitivity that come when people of a certain ilk or even largely benevolent persons and institutional systems project their power. Typically, it’s used to benefit themselves rather than for the good of all. They become so certain of a thing that they lose their empathy and with it, their humanity.

But ordinary people also have power. It goes largely unused but it’s there and can be quite formidable. Case in point: the cluster of folks who banded together recently to prevent the 3-day eviction of the homeless colony taking up residence beneath the I-194 bridge at the edge of downtown. The assumption by those in power: nobody will care. Boy, were they ever wrong.

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