Agustín Fuentes – Apeism and Racism
As a Frenchman teaching at the University of Pittsburgh, the philosopher and historian Edouard Machery was “astonished” to discover that it was still legal to use apes for research in the United States, he writes in his essay, “Apeism and Racism.” The title coined, by analogy, a term for an attitude of “callous indifference” to the well-being of apes. His point was actually a hopeful one: that just as Americans have largely overcome the institutionalized, legal, overt racism since that prevailed up through the 1950s, civilized people can put “apeism” behind them.
To do this requires a novel mental adjustment: to stop thinking of chimpanzees and gorillas collectively, as “endangered species,” and to consider them instead as individuals, with distinctive personalities and histories – the way we relate to other human beings, of course, but also our cats and dogs. “Our intuitive moral sense seems to be geared toward making judgments about individuals rather than groups,” Machery writes. “We spontaneously think of individuals as having rights and duties.” He recommends naming apes, to make it easier to think about them personally. Research just in the last year or two supports the idea that chimpanzees are individuals with distinctive personalities that can be plotted along five dimensions [link] of reactivity/undependability, dominance, openness, extraversion and agreeableness. And as the word itself suggests, the possessor of a “personality” is…a person.
But not in the eyes of the law, as Steven Wise notes in his essay, “The Capacity of Non-Human Animals for Legal Personhood and Legal Rights.” “Humans are ‘legal persons,’ Wise, a law professor and director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, observes; “non-human animals, ‘legal things.’ … ‘Legal things’ lack the capacity to possess legal rights; they are invisible to civil law and exist solely for legal persons.” As he points out, that was also the status of black African slaves until Emancipation.
Wise believes the crucial test for legal personhood is what he calls “practical autonomy.” The crucial elements of this include the ability to make a choice or formulate a preference, to act to satisfy it, and to understand, however dimly, there is a “self” acting in that capacity. In the first week of December, Wise’s group filed habeas corpus motions on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York State – Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo – asking a judge to grant “the right to bodily liberty and to order that they be moved to a sanctuary that’s part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), where they can live out their days with others of their kind in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America.” [link] Wise’s petitions were quickly denied by judges at the trial level, which he expected; lower-court judges are unlikely to make such a radical decision on their own. [link] In fact, that was part of his strategy, to get the question before the state’s Court of Appeals, which has the authority and autonomy to issue such a ground-breaking ruling.
Wise’s suit gives a hint of what’s meant by the “rights” of non-human animals – which of course are not all the same as the civil rights of United States citizens (lest anyone wonder if there’s a secret agenda afoot to give gorillas the right to vote, or bear arms). Equally obvious, non-human animals cannot speak for themselves, and so their interests and preferences must be imputed to them, and defended by (human) representatives. This is how the judicial system treats children or handicapped adults already. The logical presumption is that non-human animals would prefer to live as freely as possible in an environment that resembles,as much as possible the one in which and for which they evolved.
Unfortunately, as Agustín Fuentes writes in his provocative essay “Social Minds and Social Selves: Redefining the Human-Alloprimate Interface,” the unimpacted tropical forest is a vanishing habitat: “We reside in the Anthropocene [a geologic era shaped by human technology] and anthropogenic influences on the structure and function of the planet are ubiquitous; the planet is changing faster than we can study it.” A few species adapt reasonably well to human contact, even in urban environments; macaque monkeys thrive in Bali and other parts of Southeast Asia where “every time you look in the rear-view mirror a monkey is likely to show up.” By contrast, the great apes are more sensitive to disturbance, and have specific food and habitat needs that can only be met in their respective environments, and are unlikely ever to live happily among humans – or humans with them.
So preserving the apes as anything other than zoo specimens will require a large investment in keeping intact an entire ecosystem – several of them, in fact. As Erin Riley writes in an essay based on her research on how humans and monkeys interact in the Sulawesi Highlands of Indonesia, “respect for nature is linked to place, and generated from direct, long-term interactions with it. Encounters with wildlife, such as macaques, results in an appreciation of the uncanny similarities between ourselves and the rest of the simian world.” But making that effort requires overcoming the innate human drive to exploit and subjugate other species. We are, after all, animals, and driven by animal desires. The lion does not forbear to eat the antelope out of pity, or concern for the ecosystem. But we are not just any animal: the same intelligence that has enabled us to dominate the biosphere can be harnessed to preserve it. If there is hope, Fuentes locates it in the uniquely human ability to cast a “physiological, social and symbolic bonding ‘net’ beyond biological kin, beyond reciprocal exchange arrangements, beyond mating investment and in particular beyond even our species….In short, we have an evolutionary basis for incorporating other species into our network of caring and sharing, our ‘kin’ writ large.” Let’s hope he’s right, and work to make it so.