As a population of West African chimpanzees dwindles to critically endangered levels, scientists are calling for a definition of personhood that includes our close evolutionary cousins.
Just two decades ago, the Ivory Coast boasted a 10,000-strong chimpanzee population, accounting for half of the world’s population. According to a new survey, that number has fallen to just a few thousand.
News of such a decline, published today in Current Biology, would be saddening in any species. But should we feel more concern for the chimpanzees than for another animal — as much concern, perhaps, as we might feel for other people?
“They are a people. Non-human, but definitely persons,” said Deborah Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. “They haven’t built a rocket ship to the moon. But we’re not that different.”
Fouts is one of a growing number of scientists and ethicists who believe that chimpanzees — as well as orangutans, bonobos and gorillas, a group colloquially known as great apes — ought to be considered people.
It’s a controversial position. If being a person requires being human, then chimpanzees, our closest primate relative, are still only 98 percent complete. But if personhood is defined more broadly, chimpanzees may well qualify. They have self-awareness, feelings and high-level cognitive powers. Hardly a month seems to pass without researchers finding evidence of behavior thought to belong solely to humans.
Some even suggest that chimpanzees and other great apes should be granted human rights. So argued advocates for Hiasl, a chimpanzee caught in an Austrian custody battle, and the framers of an ape rights resolution passed by the Spanish parliament. The question of rights is practically thorny — how could a chimp be held responsible for, say, attacking another chimp? — but the fundamental question isn’t practical, but rather scientific and ethical.
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