Who Is Human?

21 May 2003

Who Is Human?

By Gwynne Dyer

Once upon a time it was acceptable to eat people who didn’t belong to the tribe. Human beings have come a long way since then, and we may yet go further. We might even make killing some non-humans a crime.

The idea that the great apes, at least, ought to have the protection of the same laws that forbid the murder and torture of human beings has been part of the public debate for a quarter-century, since philosopher Peter Singer wrote his ground-breaking book ‘Animal Liberation’ in 1975. “We now have sufficient information about the capacities of the great apes to make it clear that the moral boundary we draw between us and them is indefensible,” he said when he co-founded the Great Ape Project in 1993, and a growing number of people would agree. But opinions would shift even faster if biologists were to re-classify chimpanzees as humans.

That, essentially, is what Professor Morris Goodman is up to. In a paper published this week in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, Goodman, a geneticist at the Wayne State University school of medicine in Detroit, proposes that chimpanzees and their close relatives bonobos (‘dwarf chimps’) be redefined as members of the genus Homo. They are now treated as a separate genus — Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus — while human beings are seen as the sole surviving species of the genus Homo. Under Goodman’s classification, we would all be members of the same genus: Homo sapiens, Homo troglodytes, and Homo paniscus.

It has long been known that human beings and chimps have about 98 percent common genes, but Goodman’s team concentrated on the crucial ‘coding’ regions of 97 genes that are shared by humans, chimps, gorillas, orangutans, old-world monkeys and mice. All the great apes came out even closer to human beings than previously thought: for humans and chimps, the match was 99.4 percent. So Goodman argues that all the great apes including humans should be seen as members of the same family, Hominidae — and people and chimps as members of the same genus, Homo.

Goodman’s team got different results because they ignored the non-coding DNA that predominates in the genome of every species, but does not actually influence development. Since ‘junk DNA’ has no consequences in the real world, any random change in it is preserved and mutations accumulate fast. ‘Coding’ DNA controls real biological processes, and since most random mutations have negative consequences for the individual involved they are quickly eliminated by natural selection: he dies, probably leaving no offspring. Coding’ DNA changes slowly — and that is where Goodman found the even closer match between humans and chimps.

Why would this matter to anyone but biologists? Because bringing people and the great apes closer together by calling us all Hominidae, and putting people and chimps in the same tight little family Homo, is also a way of emphasising how much humans and chimps have in common emotionally, socially and intellectually. What Goodman is really after is a change in the legal status of chimps: “The finding would support those who want to extend legal controls to stop the abuse of chimps.” Abuse is a pretty mild word, in the circumstances.

The great apes now face what would, if they were truly seen as human, be called a genocide. Wars, forest clearance for logging and farming, and hunting of ‘bushmeat’ for food are decimating the chimpanzees and gorillas of Central Africa, their main habitat. There are probably only about 250,000 great apes of all species left in the wild, and chimps and gorillas are nearing extinction in the Congo and Gabon: a recent search for a long-studied gorilla band of 140 named individuals found only seven left alive.

So a change in their legal status would certainly help, and bit by bit it is coming. Britain was the first to ban the use of chimps in research, and New Zealand and Sweden have followed (though some 1,700 chimps are still held in captivity for research purposes in the United States). More controversially, the Great Ape Project gave birth a couple of years ago to the Great Ape Legal Project, which campaigns for laws that would recognise the ‘humanhood’ of the great apes based not just on their close genetic relationship with us, but also on their intelligence, strong emotions, self-awareness, and limited language ability.

If you deny the great apes ‘human rights’, the radicals argue, then logically you should also deny them to human beings with severe mental handicaps. Morris Goodman is no campaigning radical, but his motive for reclassifying the great apes as human is not only scientific. He clearly feels that it would help to bridge the psychological gulf that must be crossed before we grant them human legal status — a gulf at least as wide as the ones we crossed when we decided that slavery was wrong, or that even females should be allowed to vote.

Granting ‘human rights’ to the great apes would be part of the same process by which we have steadily widened the scope of our moral imagination from the tight circle of the hunter-gatherer band until it (sometimes) embraces the whole of the human race. “Extending the circle of compassion, first of all to our closest living relatives,” as anthropologist Jane Goodall puts it, is the natural next step, and it will probably come to pass eventually. Though perhaps not in time to do the apes much good.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Goodman’s…chimps”;and “If…vote”)