Human Genes and Animal Rights

Leeds Salon welcomes science broadcaster and writer Jeremy Taylor discuss his new book NOT A CHIMP: The Hunt for the Genes that Make Us Human, and debate whether the concept of ‘rights’ should be extended to chimpanzees and other primates.

Humans are primates. Our closest relatives are the great apes, chimpanzees closest of all. The mapping of the human and chimpanzee genomes has revealed that we differ by a mere 1.6% of our genetic code. In addition, it is argued that chimpanzees demonstrate remarkable human-like capacities for tool-making and use, language, mathematics, and even emotional intelligence and moral behaviour.

As a consequence of our genetic and apparent similarities, should the concept of ‘rights’ be extended to include chimpanzees and other primates? Recently, allied activist groups in Austria, New Zealand and Spain have campaigned for rights for chimpanzees and for them to be acknowledged as “nearly human”. While bioethicist Peter Singer has long called for the extension of “basic rights”, first to the Great Apes, and eventually to all sentient beings which, he believes, should possess the right to life, liberty, and not to endure cruelty and torture.

However, what can such ‘rights’ mean? For Jeremy Taylor humans are unique. And the extension of rights to other species makes no sense, as to possess rights one has to be able to understand and exercise them. For some, this argument amounts to ‘speciesism’, evoking comparisons with concepts such as ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’. But for Taylor the claims of human-chimp equivalence, both in behaviour and genes, are exaggerated. The genetic difference between us and chimps is much greater than the 1.6% figure implies, as those genes are responsible for important genetic regulations on which our uniqueness is based. Those relatively small differences in genetic code make profound differences in cognition and bahaviour. As such, Taylor argues, we should put aside such distractions as “ape rights” in search of other forms of adequate protection for the host of plant and animal species now at risk.

But do you agree? Are humans simply remodelled apes? Chimps with a tweak? Is the difference between our genomes so miniscule it justifies the argument that our cognition and behaviour must also differ from chimps by barely a whisker? Or if “chimps are us” should we grant them human rights? Or is this one of the biggest fallacies in the study of evolution? NOT A CHIMP argues that these similarities have been grossly over-exaggerated – we should keep chimps at arms’ length.




Thursday 28 January 2010


7pm to 8:30pm


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