Evolutionary cousins in an unethical relationship

April 25, 1993|By Meredith F. Small | Meredith F. Small,Newsday


Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall.

Houghton Mifflin.

# 367 pages. $22.95. About 8 million years ago, humans shared a common ancestor with the chimpanzee. This forebear wasn't really human; neither was it exactly like the modern chimp. It was a common species from which we and the apes diverged.

The kinship between humans and chimpanzees is evident today in the many things we share: more than 98 percent of our genes, similarities in behavior and, most important, common emotional responses. The connection with chimpanzees -- the way we treat our evolutionary cousins -- is the focus of Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall's "Visions of Caliban."

This isn't a volume on the natural history of chimps or Jane Goodall's 30 years of research on wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. It is a painful exploration of the dark side of our relationship with chimpanzees. Humans have a long record of using apes for entertainment, as pets and, most recently, as laboratory subjects for biomedical research. The authors maintain that such exploitation is horrifying, given that chimpanzees are sentient, thinking creatures.

The authors make their case by documenting chimpanzee intelligence, complexity and awareness.

They begin by describing chimps in the wild -- fashioning and using tools, having intricate social relationships and solving ecological puzzles. These apes clearly feel emotions such as anger, fear, irritation and attachment or love.

Laboratory research by psychologists has also demonstrated that chimpanzees are self-aware. And if you need further convincing that chimpanzees are just a whisper away from humans, the authors tell us that they make jokes, lie and laugh spontaneously.

Why do humans separate themselves from this relationship?

"The fact is," writes Mr. Peterson, the author of "The Deluge and the Ark: A Journey into Primate Worlds," "that monkeys and apes make us nervous, and they sometimes make us laugh, because in looking at them we see ourselves. They share, to one degree or another, a shape we regard as the honored shape. Their faces and bodies mirror our faces and bodies. But what we fail to see -- or what we see only imperfectly and with some anxiety -- is that their minds mirror our minds as well."

By assuming that chimps are different mentally from humans, the authors maintain, we can exploit these animals without a guilty conscience. This tactic is also used when one human group decides it wants to wipe out another. Once classified as less than human, individuals can be readily victimized.

Mr. Peterson, who wrote about 80 percent of the book (each author's writing is set in a different typeface)details the use of chimpanzees and other apes in the entertainment world. He writes about mouths wired shut and behind-the-scenes beatings. Even chimps with loving caretakers are controlled with electric shock on occasion.

The most painful section of the book focuses on chimpanzees as laboratory animals. We have become convinced that chimps are necessary for research into human diseases such as AIDS. The trail of the chimps as they move between labs and experiments, however, suggests that the need for multitudes of research animals has been exaggerated.

The good news is that, for several reasons, fewer animals are being taken from the wild these days. In addition, many laboratories have begun to provide enrichment and distraction for these intelligent social creatures forced to serve our needs. But few can read Jane Goodall's description of her visit to the caged chimpanzees in the bowels of a research lab without being as moved as she is.

After reading this book, even a person who laughs at chimpanzees in costume, or believes they should be used to test vaccines for AIDS, must acknowledge that there is something wrong here.

A chimpanzee is akin to a human being. Is it ethical, ask the authors, to capture, buy, sell, train, dress up, infect and imprison our closest evolutionary relatives? You don't have to be Jane Goodall to know the answer.

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